The Birth—and Digressions—of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The following is my analysis of a passage located a third of the way down p. 64, beginning with “Digressions” and ending with “digression”.

If one were to remove all digressions from Tristram Shandy, one “might as well take the book along with them;—one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it” (64). The metaphor of the blank page illustrates my point: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen is so full of digressions that, without them, the book would be a ‘cold eternal winter’ of non-digressive blankness—for the story is no more than a digression from its title. Volumes I and II circumvent both the life and opinions of T.S.—a narrative arc that looks something like this.

But I digress. The point is that—although these insertions are somewhat confusing—digressions offer voracious readers a feast of footnotes; they are the warm “sun-shine” that melts the weary winter of the non-digressive page; they are “the life, the soul of reading” (64). Sterne organizes digressions through “good cookery” and “dexterity”: a calculated arrangement of anecdotes and chapters that he hopes will “terminate in friendship” (64; 11). As in other 18th c. works, digression and plot are inextricable: if the narrator “begins his digression . . . his whole work stands stock-still—and if he goes on with his main work,—then there is an end of his digression” (64). Readers are left loitering in the margins

. . . fiddling with unfinished sentences;

wondering whether uncle Toby will ever ring the bell;

and still waiting—two volumes later—for the protagonist, Tristram Shandy, to be born.

Further, digressions alter readers’ sense of time, which is measured by dividing the number of pages by the number of miles between Shandy-Hall and the man-midwife’s house. The page is a stage with entrances and exits, and readers like the “fair Lady” waltz on and off the scene (51). As a text, Tristram Shandy is three-dimensional: readers are able to step in—or out—of the narrative by following Sterne’s digressions or laying “down the book” that he so deftly assembles and dismantles through digression (17).


About Sarah Hertz

Alone and young and wilful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.
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