On How to be a Gentleman: A Look at Things

As a narrator, Tristram Shandy has the unique ability to draw the ire of his readers through his continual tangents and broken promises. In doing so, however, Tristram does provide the reader with some important insights to his understanding (and opinions) on what it means to be a gentleman. This understanding is seemingly coloured by his focus on various objects, and the detail with which he describes them.

In Monday’s Pecha Kucha presentation, I will argue that the associations that these objects create, when deconstructed into their constituent parts, things and ideas, illuminate Tristram’s conceptions (opinions) of what it means to be a gentleman in the mid-18th Century. In order to effectively discuss Tristram’s conception of gentlemanliness, I will need to cover two important points: first, the definition of a “gentleman” in the first half of the 18th Century, and second, “Thing Theory” as a combination of the theory of Bill Brown and the methodology of Elaine Freedgood.

The definition of a gentleman was equally as elusive in the 18th Century as it is today: there are gentlemanly actions, and certain ideas associated with the concept of being a gentleman, but who is and is not a gentleman is not clearly outlined. In England, it was generally agreed, for a time, that a gentleman was “both discended from truly Noble Parentage, and withal following their steps, or adding to their Name, is the that may lawfully glorie in his Title” (John Selden, Titles of Honour, 1614). However, an additional definition also existed: “the Gentle-Man will treat every Man with due Respect, and will be friendly, yielding, condescending, obliging, and ready to do a Kindness” (Nathaniel Appleton, Faithful Ministers of Christ, 1743). It is therefore unclear who could be considered a gentleman, and by what method the distinction would be made.

In attempting to grapple with this question, Tristram seems to turn to the presence of objects in the lives of those whom he considers to be gentlemen (i.e. his father and Uncle Toby) and those whom are not considered gentlemen (i.e. Corporal Trim). To the modern reader, seemingly ordinary objects, such as hats, books and eyeglasses, have no specific meaning. However, to an 18th Century reader, certain objects invoke a sense of wealth and class, based on the historical context. These objects can, and must be deconstructed into their constituent parts to understand the meaning that Tristram intends for his readers to see.

Objects, which Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” argues are constituted by the combination of a thing and an idea, exist because of the value given to things through the ideas imposed upon them. For example, the pipe which Uncle Toby is continuously seen to be smoking (or at least holding) would seem, upon first glance, to be merely a pipe, a means by which to smoke tobacco. By using Elaine Freedgood’s methodology, in which objects are evaluated on the basis of historicity, it becomes evident that the pipe is recognized as a symbol of wealth and prestige. Tobacco, imported from the Thirteen Colonies, was an expensive commodity in England, reflected in its consumption: only the middle and upper classes of society could afford to smoke the plant. In this context, the pipe develops a much different meaning as a thing imbued with ideas of wealth and prestige, making it an object of the Gentleman Class. By association, therefore, Uncle Toby can be considered by the reader to belong to this class.

Although I will not use the example of the pipe in my presentation, I do hope to make a similar argument about various other objects, which Tristram discusses at length, in order to establish a relationship between these objects and Tristram’s opinions on what it means to be a gentleman. I will specifically look at Tristram’s conceptions of his father Walter, his Uncle Toby, and Corporal Trim in this regard, and discuss how Tristram sees himself in light of his revelations.

My post-presentation discussion will focus on the conception of an 18th Century gentleman, as well as the role that objects play in this conception, primarily within Volumes V and VI. Some food for thought:

  1. Does Tristram believe himself to be a gentleman? Does he compare himself to his father and/or his uncle? Do his conceptions of these two men as gentlemen affect the way he views himself?
  2. How do the objects with which Tristram associates each ‘gentleman’ affect the way we, as readers, view his characters? Do the objects invoke a sense of gentlemanliness or detract from Tristram’s point?

Have a great weekend, and I will see you all on Monday!



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