Convention’s White Flage of Surrender

To paint with broad, generous strokes, it could be said that Sterne’s text is one which is pervaded with an unfulfilled desire: a great expectation that is met with an equally great disappointment. But allow me clarify before we jump to conclusions. It is not Tristram, himself, who is let down (or any other character in the narrative for that matter); it is the reader. As our siege in the name of Convention and Unity is continually rebuffed by Sterne’s method of writing, we begin to feel the effects of prolonged warfare: furrowed brow, dry lips and a black temper.

In Chapter IX of Volume VII, however, respite comes from a moment of clarity. In his discussion of travel writing and the description of monuments, Sterne writes that the reader would “chuse rather that I give you the length, breadth, and perpendicular height” of a particular building (441). In short, the reader is typically yearning for the familiarity of convention. The absurdity of this yearning lies in the fact that, like the dimensions of the monuments that Sterne mentions in the text, the contours of story-telling will always be “as the masons and carpenters left them” (441), and the re-tracing of a familiar shape becomes an exercise in futility.

Leaving the measurement of cold stone and mortar to those that wish to do so, Sterne gives us a lively contrast in the shape of Janatone, who “[carries] the principles of change within [her] frame” (441). The particular interest of Janatone resides in her mutability and transience, and Sterne argues that one should spend the effort to write about her, in lieu of the typical monuments, because she will never be the same as she is in her present state. In the future, she may lose her shape, beauty or her innocence (442).

It is something of a hackneyed notion, but this sentiment informs the entire structure of Sterne’s text. The reason why the text is so whimsical and fanciful is because whimsy and fancy are presented as the vital elements of life, and they may be lost for ever if they aren’t indulged in immediately. Digressions and idiosyncratic moments are wisps, and while the reader may be disappointed in the loss of a coherent and conventional narrative, Sterne is presenting him or her with a syncopated alternative that is much more ephemeral and, perhaps, much more important.

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