Presentation Summary: Tristram Shandy → A Book About Nothing (Except one man’s feelings of inadequacy. Possibly)

At one point or another, most of us have likely asked the question “why am I here” or “what am I doing”? As I read the first four volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, rather than asking myself this question (as I surely knew that I had to read this novel in order to pass the class, and even someone as absent-minded as myself would not forget that I was reading a novel), I found myself continuously asking it of the narrator, the titular Tristram Shandy himself. Four volumes in, and the man has continuously sidetracked the reader So, I argue that Tristram Shandy (the character and the book) is an Ur example of a “postmodern” hero in a “postmodern” (some two hundred years or so before the rise of the movement) work. He is a man lacking focus, and intentionally avoiding completing the very task he set out to do, defying the reader’s expectations and leaving the readers continually guessing. To that end, my presentation will be a traditional style, with no visual aids.

The two main passages I am focusing on are Tristram’s rendering of Slawkenbergius’s Tale, and Chapter XIII in book 4. Other passages may be brought up, but these two will be the most important. Slawkenbergius’s Tale might appear to have little to do with much at first (or no more than any of Tristram’s other tangents), but closer observation, particularly in light of what we learn about Tristram’s birth and comments about his father raise a variety of questions (and the actual meaning of what a “nose” really means in this tale) both about Tristram’s feelings on his father, and his own possible feelings of inadequacy. The other passage sheds light on Tristram’s reasons for taking so long to tell his story, noting how long he has taken

To aid me in my presentation, I will be making use of a couple additional resources. The first resource is the abstract for an article entitled “Postmodernism in the Eighteenth Century? Enlightenment Intellectual Contexts and the Roots of Twentieth-Century Concerns in Tristram Shandy”. The abstract, which outlines a historical context for a postmodernist reading of Tristram Shandy, can be found online via the university library. The other text that I will use is Stephen Bonnycastle’s In Searth of Authority: An Introductory Guide to Literary Theory, particularly the chapter on Postmodernism. This book is not available in the library, though relevant quotes will be provided to the class in the presentation.

I also have come up with the following questions to discuss:

  • How does Slawkenbergius’s Tale relate to possible feelings of inadequacy on Tristram’s behalf, particularly in regards to his father’s feelings on noses?
  • According to Stephen Bonnycastle, “[p]ostmodern literature… often offers possibility of new and unusual combinations, and a dissolution of the rules that concern many styles or genres of writing”  (258). Given that this work was written in the 18th century, when many genres as we know them did not exist, is it possible to retroactively “subvert” an entire genre?
  • Has Tristram been meaning to sidetrack the reader and prevent us from getting to his life story? How does this subvert our notions about what a traditional “story” or “autobiography” should be? Is Tristram even the main character in his own life?
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One Response to Presentation Summary: Tristram Shandy → A Book About Nothing (Except one man’s feelings of inadequacy. Possibly)

  1. MariaJ says:

    Hi Zoya,
    Thanks for your post! Your argument that Tristram Shandy can be read as a postmodernist work is definitely thought-provoking. I personally find Slawkenbergius’s tale key in understanding Tristram’s feelings of misfortune and inadequacy ,which he makes evident to us early in his narrative:

    “you have all, I dare say, heard of animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.— and a great deal to that purpose:— Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and their activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into;” (5).

    This foreshadows Tristram’s unhappy inheritance from Walter: a fixation with noses. Tristram’s own nose, having been crushed by Dr. Slop’s forceps, serves as a physical reminder of his own insecurities and symbolizes his fundamental disagreements with his father. Slawkenbergius’s Tale may at first seem to represent Walter’s ideal: the courteous stranger with the unusually long nose has made “a very good venture of it” (221). But we must remember that Slawkenbergius tale is being related to “madam” by Tristram himself, not his father. The stranger’s nose, from Tristram’s point of view, first separates the stranger from society. The people of Strasburg are mesmerized by his long nose and, whilst arguing whether it is real or not, digress into a wealth of complicated debates which Sterne refers to as “the gulph of school-divinity” (238).
    A postmodernist reading of Slawkenbergius’s Tale, I may argue, can reveal that Sterne’s novel belongs to the realm of the absurd, which “[subverts] the foundations of out accepted modes of thought and experience so as to reveal the meaninglessness of existence and the underlying ‘abyss'” (Abrams, Harpham 203). Though Walter may be certain that a long nose determines a man’s good fortune and excellency of character, Tristram’s retelling of Slawkenbergius’s Tale demonstrates that the stranger’s nose is a short-lived distraction from life’s often meaningless digressions, which drives the Strasburgers (and humanity itself?) apart. So in response to your question of whether Tristram is the protagonist of his own life, I would argue that he is not because he does not consider himself to be the protagonist, and though the events of the novel up to volume IV serve to create a picture of the circumstances of Tristram’s birth, they have little to do with his own life.
    I would have to agree that even if chronologically Tristram Shandy is not a postmodern text, Sterne definitely challenges our assumed notion of the novel, a direction typical of postmodernist literature and criticism.

    “postmodernism,” in A Glossary of Literary Terms by M.H. Abrams and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, 9th ed. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

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