Tristram Shandy as Wayfarer

I will be doing a “traditional” presentation, reading Tristram Shandy through the theoretical lens of Tim Ingold’s playful “comparative anthropology of the line” (1), as it is articulated in his book Lines: A Brief History. In his chapter on travel, Ingold draws a distinction between two ways of moving through space, which he associates with two varieties or styles of culture, and with two kinds of line: the distinction between wayfaring and transport, or the winding line, leading to no singular or final destination, and the straight line that connects fixed points (Ingold 76-77).

Transport is “destination-oriented” (Ingold 77). It is “a carrying across, from location to location,” with the journey seen as a kind of temporary exile from the important reality that is only played out in significant places (Ingold 77). The example of transport that he gives is the approach to navigation used by the British Navy in the era when it was in search of the Northwest Passage (Ingold 75). In contrast, wayfaring is a way of living on the move (Ingold 76). It sees life as occurring precisely in the “line of travel,” and is a way of moving that Ingold links with hunter gatherer civilizations (Ingold 75).

Reading Tristram Shandy in light of these concepts illuminates a commentary on the relationship between the polished account of a journey that one might publish in a work of travel writing, and the activity of really travelling. Volume VII gives an account of Tristram’s travels through France and Europe at two different times. The rapid progress he makes through various towns on his way to Paris, and the circuitous route he takes, undermines the expectations of a straight line narrative, as well as the accounts of people and places that would normally appear in a piece of travel writing (Sterne 452). He admits that he knows “no more of Calais […] than” he does “of Grand Cairo” because “it was dusky in the evening when” he “landed, and dark as pitch in the morning” when he moves on (Sterne 435). His inability to move in a straight line also runs up against the expectations of the French authorities (Sterne 474). When Tristram’s carriage falls apart, and he decides to travel the rest of the way to Paris by water, the authorities still expect him to pay the fees for using the roads the whole way, because “the revenues are not to fall short through your fickleness” (Sterne 476). Opposed to the straight lines of the authorities managing the roads, Tristram can be seen as a wayfarer, having more experiences on the road than in specific places.

Considering how Tristram Shandy is a book that is very much aware of itself as a book, this travel narrative can be read as a metaphor for the act of writing a book, and a metafictional commentary on the wandering style of Tristram Shandy itself. Especially significant are the few chapters detailing the loss and recovery of Tristram’s “remarks” (Sterne 476). When he finds them all twisted after being used as papers to curl a woman’s hair, he comments that “when they are published […] They will be worse twisted still” (Sterne 479).


Is Tristram really an uncomplicated wayfarer? Are there ways in which he could be read as embodying the principles of “transport”?

Are there other approaches to movement through space, or space generally, that you can see applying to Tristram Shandy?

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2 Responses to Tristram Shandy as Wayfarer

  1. Gazelle says:

    Hello Davis!
    I think you bring up some really interesting notions in relation to Shandy’s travels.
    I agree with you that the actual description of his voyage is destination oriented – throughout the volume he expresses sincere determination to get to Paris, regardless of the troubles that he faces along the way. He appears a good deal more rushed in his writing about trying to get to Paris, keeping most of his entries/chapters, more or less short and to the point (there are fewer digressions here than we have seen before.) This leads the reader to understand that Tristram is looking to the final goal of his voyage more than the route he takes to travel there. In fact, his destination orientation is doubly signified by his lack of actual writing about the locations that he is in. He mocks travel narratives openly (p 434-436) and does not often actually describe his surroundings.

    Comparatively, however, I feel that the book as a whole does not demonstrate those qualities of uncomplicated wayfaring. As we have discussed before, Sterne tends to ramble from one topic to another, writing in circles and complicating the story-line unnecessarily. Even within this volume he expresses more concern towards the voyage as a whole, with all of its stops and difficulties, rather than the linear story line. Midway through the volume, the reader realizes that there are three layers to it; first, the family voyage that he is on through Europe, second, the voyage that he is on by himself as an older man, and finally, he is the author, writing the story in the comfort of his own home from the future. As I said before, Sterne is concerned overall with the journey to the end rather than the final destination itself.

  2. Gazelle says:

    Sorry, found a typo.

    Paragraph 2:
    I feel that the book as a whole does not demonstrate those qualities of transport, taking on a more unorganized and ‘wayfaring’ quality**

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