English Essays - Tristram Shandy

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Does Tristram Shandy demonstrate that there can be postmodern texts before Postmodernism?

Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy dominated the London literary marketplace during its serial publication from 1759-1767.  Like his contemporary writers, Sterne engages in debates concerning what we would now regard as the disciplinary boundary between literature and philosophy which has established its canonical status as a work of postmodern fiction.  It is difficult to ascribe, as many scholars have, to Tristram Shandy the title of ‘postmodern’.  To characterize this novel through a future literary movement which defines itself through the rejection of the principles of the previous movement is incongruous.  How can a novel which precedes postmodernism by over a century and a half reflect the cultural and political formations which sparked the movement itself?  However, Tristram Shandy does contain fictional and narrative elements which clearly invite comparison with the fiction of the postmodern movement.

Born into the Augustan Age, Sterne’s discordant writing makes him seem out of place in his own era  Differing drastically from the contemporary imaginative literature of Defoe, Richardson and Fielding and the philosophical writing of Johnson, Tristram Shandy has been explained by critics as an example of ‘process writing’, a text presented in the very act of creation and change.  This analysis can be applied to Sterne himself; moving away from the Augustan poets and the sentimental writers, Sterne’s writing is termed postmodern because it is a rejection of realism, turning from the objectivity of external truth to examine inner states of consciousness.  Sterne’s novel clearly exhibits the postmodernist theory of metafiction, in which the writing self-consciously points to itself as an object in order to question the relationship between reality and fiction.  Sterne was certainly not alone in critiquing methods of narrative construction and exploring the fictionality of the external world, but what sets Tristram Shandy apart from its contemporary fiction is the use of language as an arbitrary system. 

The elements of Tristram Shandy which inspire comparisons with the postmodernist movement are clear: questioning the relationship between text and the self, and an argument for the constitutive power of language.  Postmodern scholars question the fundamental representation of identity and history itself, that is, history as what ‘really’ happened as opposed to history as an objective ‘narrative’ of what happened.  Sterne has a clear understanding of how some element of self-definition and identification is involved in the fictional writing process, and freely admits the element of autobiography in his writing.  ‘Tis … a picture of myself’ he tells David Garrick in regards to Tristram Shandy (Letters 87).  The autobiographical element in Sterne’s writing suggests multiple definitions of the same reality, which depend upon perspectives rather than objective truth.  This comes across as a convoluted and fragmented narrative that confuses fiction and reality, narrative and truth. Tristram himself says of his father’s masterpiece, the Trista-paedia, ‘My father spun his, every thread of it, out of his own brain, - or reeled and cross-twisted what all other spinners and spinster had spun before him’ (Sterne 93).  Sterne, like his character Tristram, spins his own narrative in an intricate and complex web, so convoluted and transparent that it is difficult to tell where it ends and he begins.

Tristram Shandy clearly embodies this ambiguity between reality and representation through language.  James Swearingen writes that in Tristram Shandy ‘language does not just facilitate communication: it establishes the phenomenal horizon in which speakers and things spoken about are constituted’(Swearingten 117).  Tristram constructs his biography through textual language, which reveals itself to be an ambiguous rather than a concrete medium.  He admits that he is better associated with the text itself than the subject to which it refers.  Tristram’s escape from his inevitable death is described as a journey in which ‘life follows the pen’ (Sterne 754).  Once again returning to the autobiographical element of Sterne’s writing, if Tristram’s journey follows the pen, then he, like Sterne, is creating and documenting his own existence, shaping his narrative according to his liking rather than according to objective truth.

At the same time that Sterne celebrates the constructive power of language, he reveals its ultimate failure.  Sterne was ‘concerned almost exclusively with the problem of communication among men’ wrote John Traugott, illuminating both the genius and failure of Sterne’s text.  When words fail, as they sooner or later do, communication becomes the business of sensibility.  ‘My uncle Toby looked brisk at the sound of the word siege, but could make neither head nor tail of it’ (Sterne 312).  Traugott concludes that Tristram Shandy seeks to re-establish a community where reason, in the form of language, threatens to destroy it (Traugott 15).  Rather than basing a notion of community upon concrete notions of order and hierarchy, the Shandy world is built on the unstable base of subjectivity.  ‘In Sterne’s world, each individual consciousness establishes itself at the centre of a universe of feeling and ignores any such thing as objective reality, until the subject of Tristram Shandy finally seems to be the nature of fiction itself’ (Byrd 59).  Virginia Woolf has noted Sterne’s unexpected prose as a means of exploring a materialist critique of the conventions of the novel itself. 

The jerky, disconnected sentences are as rapid and it would seem as little under control as the phases that fall from the lips of a brilliant talker … The order of the ideas, their suddenness and irrelevancy, is more true to life than to literature … Under the influence of this extraordinary style the book becomes semi-transparent.  The usual ceremonies and conventions which keep the reader and writer at arm’s length disappear (Woolf 79)

Stylistically, Sterne’s novel deconstructs the narrative and linguistic form of the novel in favour of multiplicity and ambiguity. Indeed, the author’s preface is found in volume three, chapters are disordered, and symbols and blank pages are found throughout the book.  Playing with novelistic conventions, Sterne draws attention to the instability of the written form itself, paralleling the ambiguity of the text with the ambiguity of the self.

Sterne uses reflection to expose the constructedness of his narrative, encouraging the reading to approach it not as subjective truth but as an aesthetic.  This is clearly apparent in the treatment of various forms of madness within the novel.  Madness figures prominently in Tristram Shandy.  The metaphor of madness appears in many critical discussion of the novel because helps to underscore the link between Sterne and his contemporary Augustan satirists, for whom the classical idea of madness as supernatural inspiration is missing.  Indeed, Sterne seems to anticipate the Romantic poets who, by contrast, represent madness as a sign of alienation, in which the faculty of imagination is the source of anxiety rather than creative freedom. In Tristram Shandy many kinds of madness are manifest.  Characters such as Toby and Walter serve simply as the necessary comic eccentricity, similar to the figure of Yorick to whom Tristram refers throughout his story.  Tristram, however, cites John Locke as an explanation of why ‘my poor mother could never hear the … clock wound up, - but the thoughts of some other things unavoidably popped into her head’ (Sterne 39).  The ‘sort of unreasonableness’ which Locke describes is, ironically, the driving force behind Tristram’s unorderly pattern of narration.  Tristram clearly expresses Sterne’s own narrative technique: ‘By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other.  In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, -and at the same time’ (Sterne 95).  Sterne questions what it means to live in a world in which the boundaries of the self and the body politic are redefined.  Challenging the conventions of body narrative form and philosophical notions of the self, Sterne questions, ‘is a man to follow rules -- or rules to follow him?’ (Sterne, 583)

One bibliographer described Tristram Shandy as ‘postmodernist in every sense except the moment in which it was written,’ and most critics have agreed.  However, despite the similarities between Sterne’s own engagement with philosophical and literary critique in his novel, it is impossible to call Tristram Shandy a postmodernist text, if purely for semantic reasons.  It is tempting to explain instances of extraordinary forms of artistic and critical reflection with the tools of the present, but this is a fallacy.  Sterne’s novel engages with the epistemological, philosophical and literary crises of his time, and cannot possibly be explained with a theory born out of the crises of the twentieth century.  As Tristram’s mother exclaimed, ‘L—d! … what is all this story about? –‘ It is, and will remain, ‘A COCK and a BULL, …-- And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard’ (Sterne 615).

Works Cited

Byrd, M. (1985) Tristram Shandy London: George Allen & Unwin.

Swearingen, J. (1977) Reflexivity in Tristram Shandy: An Essay in Phenomenological Criticism New Haven: Yale University Press.

Sterne, L. (1967) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, London: Penguin Classics.
----(1775) Letters to his Friends on Various Occasions, London.

Traugott, J. (1954) Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Woolf, V. (1932) The Common Reader: Second Series. London: Hogarth Press.

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