Tristram Shandy: A Tale of Knots

by Jaimie Crawford

[Storytellers] had joined hands to make people believe
that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant
details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed,
and a beginning, a middle, and an end."
There is no order in the world around us....
Let others bring order to chaos.
I will bring chaos to order"

-Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Kurt Vonnegut will perhaps be kind enough to exonerate Laurence Sterne's work from his literary chastisement. For although Tristram Shandy was published almost two hundred years before Vonnegut picked up a pen, Sterne's novel is one of the first in the brotherhood of "(k)nots." In the Menippean style of Rabelais, Sterne and his followers-- Heller, Amis, and Nabokov among others--desire not to fulfill the reader's expectation of beginning, middle, and end; not to be paralleled by other novelists; and, above all, not to be categorized by the order-obsessive critics Vonnegut castigates. In essence, Sterne quite unobtrusively seduces his audience and suggests that readers give up the reigns and surrender.

Sterne in no way, however, promises a reliable narrator. His details seem to be in a running competition for eccentricity. Does another novel exist in which the hero's birth, so delicate a subject, warrant three full chapters of introductory discussion? Tristram's presumptions as narrator continue as readers are expected to sit through a chapter on the Roman Catholic ideals of "squirt" baptism "par le moyen d'une petite Canulle," a circumlocutory marriage settlement between Mr. and Mrs. Shandy, a twelve-page unpublished sermon on the conscience, and a twenty-page tale exploiting Latin verse for cheap phallic jokes. And just when we have swallowed whole one of Tristram's assumptions (okay, potentially interruption during copulation may result in a digressive personality), he slyly brings another to the table. What makes Tristram as narrator so positive that he will be male? A homunculus may generate a female as well--but readers who catch this assumption are so biased from two hundred pages of Tristram's hobby horse of authority and so accustomed to seeing his world through his eyes that they are forced to ask: a female? how? Is its homunculun unit snipped, broken, or unanealed?

Tristram Shandy incorporates paradox within paradox. While described as a forerunner to modern novels, it is labeled an anti-novel. While providing a satire of religion, literature, and life, it upholds sanctity, the creative process, and vitality. It objectifies the subjective (Van Ghent 86), describes the indescribable, and quantifies the incalculable: "at this rate I should live 364 times faster than I should write."

Tristram's rhetorical digressions juxtapose the novel's action scenes to create yet another paradox. Sterne's skill at duplicity emerges as he captures our attention with slow-motion accounts of "hero-in-action" scenes (Walter's trip upstairs to see Dr.Slop, Widow Wadman's seduction of Walter in the sentry-box) so wildly farcical that they seem to deliberately mock narrative action. In the most exaggerated of these passages Tristram digresses to the point of inertia, incapable of getting a character down a step, and loses sight of his "plot" begging his readers to please help him. Sterne, in these distractions, parodies "Shandyism" (Bakhtin 164), and more generally, the satiric narrator (Tristram is the baffled Gulliver who cannot discover a way out of Lilliput, a hopelessly idealistic Quixote who takes the wrong turn on his way home, Candide without an itinerary.)

Sterne intentionally eludes his readers by inserting chapters on knots, buttonholes, names, whiskers, noses, and, of course, a chapter on chapters. And although he establishes the universal themes of death, sex, and potency at the heart of his text, Tristram, in his constant striving to be unique, decides that sleep (the Renaissance subject of choice) is beyond his tolerance:

I wish I could write a chapter upon sleep...(dramatically)

when all the curtains of the family are drawn--the candles put

out-- and no creature's eyes are open... And yet as fine as it

is, I would undertake to write a dozen chapters upon button-

holes, both quicker and with more fame than a single chapter

upon this.

Emphasizing his role of unreliable narrator, Tristram interweaves these digressions with "sportive patterns of alternation" (Dilworth), tender moments broken by a chuckle:

Lefevre looked up wishfully in my uncle Toby's face,

--then cast a look upon his boy,--and that ligament, fine as it

was,---was never broken ...the pulse fluttered--stopp'd--went

on--throb'd--went on... Shall I go on?---No.

This second style of prose provides the most undiluted joy for Sterne's readers, but this joy marks a climax wholly dependent on earlier description.

As Sterne brings "chaos to order" our time as a reader seems miraculously unwasted. Our guide, little Tristram's homunculus has a great deal to explain and will not let us ("gentlewomen", "worships", "sirs", "critics") forget his urgency. Our rewards come in moments that are simultaneously touching and hilarious (Tristram's birth, Toby's love affair with the Widow Wadman, Lefevre's death). While Sterne's satirical humor, leaving no stone unturned, no subject sacred, is certainly not unique; his dose of playful and unscathing characterization makes his commentary and even his lengthy asides not only tolerable but necessary to our reading: "read, read, read... you unlearned readers, read!" His message, Locke's originally, advocates the importance of associations. As proof he urges readers to reread previous sections of text. After later events in the novel (Toby's amour or Tristram's accidental circumcision) these twice-cherished discussions will be (like Maria's song after a young fellow's explanation), Tristram assures us, "ten times sweeter".

Toby and Walter and even the Widow, although flawed, are adored by Tristram and therefore by his reader. The constant flux between Sterne's characters' attempts at control through intellectual reasoning (Walter especially excels at this type of control) and the frustrations inevitably hurled at them by providence provides much of the humor in the novel. More importantly, this frustration gently warns critics not to get caught in the same snare. With head hung, Tristram admits "From the first moment I sat down to write my life for the amusement of the world, and my opinions for its instruction, has a cloud insensibly been gathering over my father." Even Walter is cognizant of "a long chapter of chances that the events of this world lay open to [him and the other characters of the narrative]."

Sterne's assumption of control over his world (the novel), directly contradicts his above-mentioned parody of time and order. Yet believing that this paradox is unknown to Sterne equates falling into one of his traps, for he admits in Chapter XXIII his own limitations due to the physical properties of a book:

Should not everything appear at once and in fusion, inasmuch

as this is the way the author's conscience grabs it in its fullest truth?

But the novel itself is an artifact subjected to time law

This admission too, though, seems a ruse. For in a novel so heavily laden with citations and allusions, references to Locke seems to dominate the text. Sterne may not be as concerned with the crisis of stability, too much too fast, as with the crisis of association: "a dissolution of society as intertwined with the increasing categorization of knowledge"(Keep).

Whichever the argument, Sterne will not follow in Alexander's footsteps; he refuses to "cut the knot instead of untying it" and uses almost five hundred pages to unravel his ball of string, entangling himself and the reader in the process. Is the author the master of the masterpiece, or does the novel gain a life and power of its own? In Tristram Shandy, as Sterne meditates on this literary conundrum, the reader watches a cat and yarn tug-of-war which ends in an enjoyable but knotted tangle.

Work Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogue Imagination. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Dilworth, Ernest Nevin. The Unsentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne. New

York: King's Crown Press, 1948.

Keep, Christopher. http:\\www. robin robin. escalation@ ACM.org, 1995.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. The English Novel: form and function. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1953.


Back to Criticism