Tristram Shandy and Narrative Limitations

“O ye powers! (for powers ye are, and great ones, too)—which enable mortal man to tell a story worth the hearing—that kindly shew him, where he is to begin it—and where he is to end it—what he is to put into it—and what he is to leave out—how much of it he is to cast into a shade—and whereabouts he is to throw his light!-—-Ye, who preside over this vast empire of biographical freebooters, and see how many scrapes and plunges your subjects hourly fall into;—will you do one thing?

“I beg and beseech you (in case you will do nothing better for us) that wherever in any part of your dominoes it so falls out, that three several roads meet in one point, as they have done just here—that at least you set up a guide-post in the centre of them, in ere charity, to direct an uncertain devil which of the three he is to take.”

There is a trend in academia to take perfectly good nouns and adjectives, add on –ize, and make them horrible verbs. Take one women’s studies class, and you’ll talk of fetishizing and corporealizing, phallicizing and derealizing, racializing and effeminizing.

There is one term that emerges from this type of bastardized vocabulary that we hear more than anything else: to narrativize.

To narrativize is, as you may suspect, to make something a narrative. Implicit in this definition is the idea that anything can be melded into a narrative, and we as humans tend to narrativize quite a bit. We apply narratives to our own lives (I do this because that happened to me in the past), to history (the first lines of Barack Obama’s keynote address in 2004 established his own personal narrative, and he explicitly said that his “story is part of the larger American story”), to news (while appearing on The O’Reilly Factor, Jon Stewart constantly referred to Fox News’ “narrative”), and to all the aspects of our culture (whether it’s as simple as expecting a certain “arc” out of television shows or an “evolution” from bands). A lot of religion can be explained by the human compulsion to narrativize.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with narratives, with stories that fit and perhaps elucidate events. After all, stories with clear cause-and-effect relationships (the grasshopper was starving because he didn’t work hard) teach us the clearest lessons and are the easiest to remember.

The problem arises when narrating becomes narrativizing, when the events can’t easily be coalesced into a cogent and comprehensive narrative—when Fox News cuts away from an Obama speech because, as Stewart says, “This is against the narrative we present” or when the title character pursues someone else besides Sarah on Chuck. The narrative doesn’t necessarily count if it isn’t the one we want.

But creating a narrative with an opening premise, some rising action, a climax, a resolution, and most of all, an overarching point, is exceedingly difficult. And this is the overarching point of Tristram Shandy.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman focuses a lot more on his opinions than his life and in doing so illustrates the impossibility and indeed the pointlessness of trying to narrativize life. You probably know the whole deal about Tristram Shandy, how it’s unlike any novel written within a roughly 200-year radius of its 1759 publication, and how it’s more or less a postmodern novel written a century and a half before the modern age. But even knowing all that going in doesn’t fully prepare you for the extent of narrative interruption and self-reference. Tristram frequently rambles off into whimsical digressions, occasional doodles, a black page to memorialize a death, and elaborate responses to hypothetical “hypercritical” readers. All the while, Tristram doesn’t occasionally remind the reader that he realizes he’s writing a book for public consumption; he does it practically every page. You can open the book at random and have a good chance of finding a self-conscious quote on digressions and/or storytelling (provided it isn’t the black page). There is a chapter or two within each of the novel’s nine books that explains why Tristram has put things in a certain order or that confronts possible qualms the reader will have with said order (a particularly memorable one in Chapter 8 of Book Two deals with the clash of real time [i.e. the time it takes the reader to read parts of the book] and diegetic/story time [the time it takes the characters to perform an action]). As a writer in the 18th century, Tristram understands the narrative expectations of a reader and thus tries every so often to pre-empt them.

Although Tristram is trying to tell the story of his own life, he becomes more and more entrenched in that of his father, Walter, and his uncle Toby. It’s Toby who provides so much of the novel’s comedy with his military “hobbyhorse” of constructing unreasonably expensive and realistic models of battles, his whistling of the same tune, “Lillabullero,” whenever he’s uncomfortable (one chapter, while he is preparing to knock on the door of the widow Wadman, is simply the musical notation of the song), and that pursuit of the widow. Tristram, for his sake, isn’t even born until Book Three (and he had started narrating the events of his birth on p. 7 in my copy), and that birth is one of only a handful of plot events that actually involve the novel’s title character (his painful and accidental circumcision is another one that springs to mind, mainly because of its painful and accidental nature).

Within the nine books and 500+ pages of Tristram Shandy, there isn’t really a single narrative arc. I suppose it could be boiled down to why Tristram’s life hasn’t gone according to plan:

“I wish I had been born in the Moon, or in any of the planets (except Jupiter or Saturn, because I never could bear cold weather), for it could not well have fared worse with me in any of them (though I will not answer for Venus) than it has in this vile, dirty planet of ours….”

Tristram blames certain events right around his birth—the crushing of his nose by the doctor’s forceps, the maid’s forgetting Walter’s desired name, Trismegistus—which then require a theoretical explanation, usually from Walter’s life. For instance, Walter’s idea that a strong nose portends a strong man—and thus why the disfigurement of Tristram’s nose at birth is such a tragedy to the Shandy men—is elucidated by Slawkenbergius’ tale: 25 pages devoted to the significance of the nose and a deeply influential text for Walter.*

*It’s in moments like this that the novel can get very tiresome. Slawkenbergius’ tale feels a bit like overkill when a simple “Pa thought noses were important” would have sufficed (although Tristram’s calling his father “Pa” would have been grossly out of step with the terminology of the 18th-century British novel).

The novel repeatedly uses this formula where Tristram posits an event or a point and then has to go back in time to then explain why and how it’s important. To understand Toby’s pursuit of the widow Wadman, we have to understand his stance on women. To understand his stance on women, we have to understand the circumstance of his war wound at Namur.* Therefore, there’s no real chronological order to the novel: Its last line is uttered by a character who died 520 pages earlier.

*Unless you’re Jake Barnes.

The message Sterne attempts to transmit in this manner is that the narrative of Tristram’s life necessarily has to include all this background information, and thus that the story of one character’s life can’t simply begin, as this one tries to do, at conception.* There’s really no clear beginning to any story; Sterne might ask how the dichotomous work ethics of Aesop’s grasshopper and ant came to be. There’s really no logical end either; as mentioned a paragraph ago, the achronicity of the story means death doesn’t really mean a whole lot. Rather, the end is just the point where you decide to stop telling this “cock and bull” story.

*Sterne said it, not me.

As a result, the novel is bloated at times, and, as with Slawkenbergius’ tale, you’d rather Sterne and his narrator take a more straightforward and concise approach. Although Tristram may think all this background information is necessary to an understanding of his circumstances, it’s not a given that the reader will. Amid all the semi-colons and long dashes that populate the novel’s pages, it’s easy to lose track of what’s really going on and what Tristram is just rambling about. But when Tristram Shandy clicks—which is often—it offers a kind of heartwarming humor—in Walter’s devotion to his son as seen through the Tristopedia, in Toby’s pursuit of the widow Wadman, and in the odd and awkward friendship between Walter and his brother-in-law. It’s the frequency of these scenes, combined with the overall message, that make Tristram Shandy worth the considerable effort to read it.

And although Sterne makes painfully clear the limitations of storytelling throughout his novel, that doesn’t mean he’s against it. In the end, his goal is the same as Tristram’s: “All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, ‘to let people tell their stories their own way.’”

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] on non-Tiger topics. This post, about the Seattle Mariners and the power of narrative (psh…we’ve covered that before), makes an interesting point. To quote liberally: “Narratives have all kinds of power. The […]


  2. I liked your posting. Enough to inspired by it and now to ask you to take a quick look at my attempt at a post-modern kind of TS-like tall tale shortish story. You can get to TGNOS Spacializing Time and (Re)Cognition: How ‘Don Yalie’ Got Paid Lot$ To Be Crazy via . Hope you enjoy it and that not too much offends you too much.

    Hoping to hear back from you per your critique of a less than stellar piece of writing, but perhaps an enjoyable one.

    Regards, Yale


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