Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is essentially a reflection on the nature of literature. As indicated by the title, the novel is autobiographical of the fictional character Tristram Shandy. However, the novel largely concerns itself with events occurring before the applied author’s birth, including his father Walter’s pre-occupation with the importance of a proper name to a man’s character, his Uncle Toby’s hobby of re-enacting famous battles, and the death of Yorick the Parson from the ill-effects of rumour.
Sterne’s narrative logic focuses on the possibilities of writing over the exigencies of plot. Each time we think that we may be given some insight to a previous storyline the text veers off on another digression, ‘Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading; – take them out of this book for instance; – you might as well take the book along with them… ‘ For this essay, I shall focus on the last few pages in chapter twelve of volume one, where Yorick the Parson meets his demise to the eulogy of a black page.
Tristram Shandy makes extensive use of special typographical features and specially-designed plates that are intended to fulfil a number of purposes. By their very oddity, these features tend to foreground the artificiality of literature. The use of these visual texts to communicate what cannot be expressed through conventional literary language is another way in which Sterne highlights the inadequacy of literature in representing real life. Yorick’s death scene here, fairly early in the novel, is important in the context of the narrative structure, and of the development of the form itself.
The scene establishes the death of one of the most visibly important characters of the first seventy pages or so. The irregular narrative of the novel, which skips backwards and forwards through time, allows for this loss of such a character. Much of the poignancy of Yorick’s death is the autobiographical link to Lawrence Sterne, himself. Obviously there is a clear narrative voice throughout the novel in which Sterne writes in the position of Tristram Shandy addressing an audience, however his story-telling regarding Yorick certainly takes a more personal tone than most of the other characters.
In real life, Sterne’s own sermons were published as The Sermons of Yorick. It also seems that Sterne created the character to mirror some of the conflicts and misfortunes that occurred in his own life. Apparently, as described of Yorick, Sterne’s progress in the church early in his career was also damaged by political conflict. The Yorick death scene, while the focalisation of the novel is exclusively internal to Tristram Shandy’s character, is so incredibly moving and heartfelt (the black page expressing mourning beyond the text) because it is, in a sense, Sterne imagining his own death.
Suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis, as Tristram does in the novel, Sterne was always aware that he would one day succumb to the disease and death must have been a concept that had a dominating presence throughout his later life. The death of Yorick is therefore very important to the structure of the narrative as it symbolises Sterne’s literary death, and the fact it occurs so early in the novel, while Tristram himself lives on, perhaps suggests something about the timelessness of great literature and the mortality of its authors.
Early death scenes in literature such as Yorick’s are often intended designed to evoke strong emotional reaction in the readers, and this kind of sentimental narrative serves in forming an empathetic bond between the audience and the character that raised these emotions. In this way, readers are able to sympathise more with the narrative voice applied to Tristram’s character, and a more trusting relationship is established between the audience and the story-teller, in which the audience is loyal to the character’s emotions.
This is a theme that Sterne implies throughout the novel, with his use of ‘Believe me good folks… and constant references to the readers as ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’, &c. The overall design of this is to make them, in the process, more compassionate and morally involved. Beginning with the line, ‘What inclined Eugenius to the same opinion, was as follows: … ‘ the passage describing Yorick’s end continues from a short paragraph detailing Yorick’s struggle against his own demise. The ‘opinion’ mentioned is that Yorick died ‘quite broken hearted. ‘ The readers are aware therefore, before reading, that the passage describing the final discussion between Yorick and Eugenius is what convinced him of Yorick’s ‘broken heart’.
In this way, the passage is almost read from Eugenius’ point of view, despite the fact that the narrative voice is that of Tristram Shandy, and that the focus is on Yorick. Readers are motivated, in this passage, to observe how Eugenius came to the conclusion that Tristram claims he made, as an introduction to the passage. Repetition of the use of italics to express a character’s name is particularly evident throughout the passage due to the excessive naming within it. Sterne points out the character’s names likes this throughout the scene to emphasise the love between the characters.
The dialogue in the passage is disjointed by hyphens and dashes, whereas throughout the majority of the novel, discussions recounted by Tristram are readably smooth as they are a continuous monologue in which he describes conversations. Here, we are drawn into the scene and Tristram the story-teller is quite distant. The text appears more like zero focalisation than internal focalisation, and this has a profound impact on the readers, in which this scene seems much deeper than the majority of the novel for emotional effect.
Sterne also repeats his use of stars to censor certain words, ‘… tis so bruised and misshapen’d with the blows which ***** and *****, and some others have so unhandsomely given me… ‘ Here, Sterne censors the names of the characters that attacked Yorick. The readers know who these people are from the previous text but their lack of identity adds a certain realism to the structure of the novel as a story being told by Tristram Shandy to an audience. The idea that Tristram is not at liberty to disclose information regarding the identity of certain characters to apparent strangers, gives the impression that he, himself, may be under threat if he does.
This makes the characters seem more real and threatening, and their anonymity gives them a more dark and mysterious air. This differs from Sterne’s alternate use of censorship in this way, such as when he censors curse words or words relating to sexual organs. In these examples, his censorship is more mocking of the reader, and of literature. Prohibiting the reader from certain words, which the surrounding text makes clarity of anyway, has a patronising effect and makes fun of the high culture associated with reading works of literature.
The passage that is introduced with the implication that Eugenius is about to be inclined to agree that Yorick died broken hearted ends with ‘Eugenius was convinced from this, that the heart of his friend was broke… ‘ Another example of censorship in the novel appears where the name of the parish in which Yorick was buried should be, ‘He lies buried in a corner of is church-yard, in the parish of ________,’ Not stars this time, but an unbroken line replaces the name of Yorick’s parish. Perhaps this is a point beyond the fiction of the novel, where Sterne is encouraged to name a real parish or to invent a name.
He chooses to do neither. It is not an important plot point, and the reader realises that the name of the parish is not important. Maybe this is another mock of literature by Sterne, in which the inadequacies of fiction break the spell of being drawn into a fictional story, due here to the fact that any place he named would have to be real. As far as the concept of time in the narrative is concerned, Tristram Shandy is opposed to stasis, and tends towards movement, amplification, and digression by controlling the sense of time much like a story-teller controls when he or she mentions certain events throughout a story.
Sterne violates the reader’s expectation of a smooth, continuous, and directed sense of time. The most prominent examples of Sterne’s non-linear effects also emphasise the materiality of the book. The black page that appears after the allusive epitaph, ‘Alas, poor yorick ‘ evokes the image of a shroud or coffin, and provides a visual means to mourn the death of Yorick. As far as time is concerned, it also freezes the temporal flow. The reader is free to consider the significance of this visual representation and is given a limited role in the creation of the text.
The black page expresses such emotion that it cannot be expressed in words. Sterne’s self-reflexive commentary is an important aspect of Tristram Shandy’s critique of ‘the book’ as a material object. Sterne employs a number of techniques to call attention to the materiality of the text and undermine the apparent naturalness of its conversational tone. The black page ‘mourns’ the death of Yorick, but a black page cannot be expressed in conversation. It reminds the reader that they are reading a book. This is something that conventional literature, for the most part, attempts to avoid.
Story-telling is about creating situations within readers’ minds and letting their imaginations fill in the images. This is a point that Sterne addresses later in the novel when he offers the readers a blank page for the purpose of constructing their own description of Widow Wadman’s beauty. His point is that no matter how detailed a description he gives of the widow, every single reader will interpret it differently and form a different image in their head. This is critical of the inability of words to form accurate depictions. Similarly, words are unable to represent the emotion that the black page represents.
Readers become engrossed in literature, as though entering another world. Sterne sets out to constantly undermine this and to break the illusion by reminding the reader that they are reading a book. The black page hits the reader hard, because the moving passage that precedes it, as I mentioned above, is pretty much at zero focalisation. For the first time in the novel, it doesn’t seem like Tristram Shandy talking conversationally, and it draws the reader into the illusion of the story-world just before the sudden black page appears and breaks it.