Dorothy Van Ghent and Tristram Shandy\'s Primary Purposes


The uniqueness of Tristram Shandy has pushed critics to see many different topics as the central concern of the work. It may even be an impossible task to pinpoint which of two seemingly contradictory themes Tristram is pursuing, because Tristram does not give us much of a beginning, middle, or end, preferring to stream along in digressive contentment. However, as Jean-Jacques Mayoux writes, it may be possible to “transcend subjectivity by seeking coherence.” In other words, by examining a theory under the lens of the relevant facts, we should able to see how much water it holds. It is with this in mind that we turn to “On Tristram Shandy”, a paper by Dorothy Van Ghent, which makes several claims about Tristram Shandy that cannot be substantiated as motifs in the forefront of Tristram’s consciousness in light of those suggested by Mayoux and Howard Anderson. To prove this, we will use Mayoux’s concept of cohesiveness, along with the standard scientific principle that the simplest answer is usually the correct one.

It may appear odd to contrast Mayoux with Van Ghent, especially because both begin with identical ideas: Mayoux argues that, in the book, “the human world is made up of microcosmic, enclosed units, of windowless monads” , while Van Ghent contends that the mind is a “monad…[an] elemental unit of energy that [has] ‘mirrors but no windows’”. However, from here, Mayoux and Van Ghent diverge. While Mayoux seeks to assert three propositions, “On Tristram Shandy” has no easily discernable central thesis or theses; rather, it contains an evolving theory. Van Ghent moves from Liebniz’s monads to ask, “What is the action of Tristram Shandy?” She answers, “Sterne’s project…was to analyze and represent in his novel the creative process.”

While it is obvious that Tristram lays bare his own creative process in the novel, it is a suspect claim that this is his primary objective. Indeed, it is argued that Henry Fielding does a similar examination of the novel in Tom Jones, but Fielding himself supports this claim throughout his book. And whereas Fielding’s ruminations on the novel are pointed at the edification of the reader, Tristram offers his more as intimate observations in the dialog he is having with the reader. Furthermore, a sense that the project of Tristram Shandy is a literary analysis implies that the connection between the reader and Tristram is nothing more than a device to achieve this end. Yet a far simpler explanation for the conversation the reader has with Tristram is that Tristram wants to educate his reader. Van Ghent might argue that this education revolves around the form of the novel; however, reason admits a much different answer. Despite her classification of Sterne as primarily a “novelist” , Sterne is much more of a priest, being only the author of at most one novel (“or whatever” ). Sterne was a man of the cloth for over thirty years, and thus one could reasonable assume that the primary message of his first long piece of fiction would focus on something centered a little closer to humanity.

Yet, before we disregard Van Ghent’s claim, we must give her the benefit of the doubt and allow her to present her most convincing example. She points to my Uncle Toby’s mistake about the bridge: “The author must elucidate Toby’s error, but when? Right now, at the moment Toby makes the remark? But the goings-on upstairs in Mrs. Shandy’s bedchamber are of the greatest consequence now. Later, then, among the anecdotes of Toby’s amours with Widow Wadman? Or in the middle of Toby’s campaigns on the bowling green? All of these circumstances press upon the author at once, and are, in the atemporal time of consciousness, contemporaneous. By what principle of selection is he to subject them to the time demands of the novel?

O ye powers! [Sterne cries]…I beg and beseech you…that wherever in any part of your dominions it so falls out, that three several roads meet in one point…to direct an uncertain devil which of the three he is to take.”

This selection seems to fit perfectly with Van Ghent’s proposition; Tristram does show us his perturbation at having to take one of the “three roads” meeting