Name Dropping

In reading Tristram Shandy Volumes V and VI, I was able to pick out two distinct parts that reminded me of previous reading material – John Skelton’s Philip Sparrow [Part I] – and making this connection somewhat allowed me to better understand what I believe to be the narrator’s motives. Said motives as I see them are part of the sense of AUTHORity on behalf of Tristram Shandy discussed last week in class, an aspect of which I believe is the act of demonstrating one’s level of education.

In Vol. V, Chap. III. (page 317) Tristram tells of the act of “weeping for the loss of one’s child”, as his father has just received word of Bobby’s death. Tristram proceeds to drop the names of the ancients and the classics including Plato, Socrates, Plutarch, and Petrarch and he sites them as the authority figures on how exactly to express this feeling of loss. By referring to such greats it would appear as though Tristram is claiming his (and even his father’s) inadequacies in the matter while at the same time giving clear evidence of his high level of education in having read the works of said greats. This is also the case in Vol. V, Chap. XXVII (page 347) when he brings up his father’s talk of the victories of such empires as the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, and Arabians as Pythagorus reports them. He does this in a way that again expresses his own supposed short-comings as he says, “what is Tristram? – Who am I, that I should fret or fume one moment about the matter?”

These sections reminded me of Skelton’s Philip Sparrow I lines 605-824 http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174438. Here the narrator expresses her inadequacy to write an appropriate epitaph for the death of her pet bird. She does so by listing the works of the greats such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Virgil, and Petrarch and Plutarch like Tristram (to name a few). She also tells of the Latin she knows but insists she is unable to find words appropriate and cultured enough to express her woe. Like Tristram, she is telling the reader she is unworthy of the task at hand, while in reality she is more than capable since she has read works of literature indicative of a high level of education.

In both of these texts, it becomes apparent to me (and probably many others) that the narrators wish to hold authority and control over the reader, and that choosing to drop the names of those who’s timeless works they have read is a rather clever and useful tool in doing so.

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One Response to Name Dropping

  1. Dylan Vaughan says:

    I agree that referencing established authors and deferring to the knowledge of ancient authorities does raise the bar for the reader. But how does one reconcile this to the observation that the novel is often satiric? It seems like it would be difficult for Sterne to assert a sense of authority by displaying his knowledge while also poking fun at those who do the same. Do you think that Sterne is being hypocritical: one hand pounding on the pulpit while the other finds its way to the Devil’s workshop?

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