In James Cruise’s critical book Governing Consumption: Needs and Wants, Suspended Characters, and the ‘Origins’ of Eighteenth-Century English Novels, Cruise explores the characteristics of eighteenth-century novels, and the ways in which these novels sought to fulfill the needs of the eighteenth-century novel consumer. In his book, Cruise critiques the concept of “fiction” by drawing a comparison between the reader of the novel, and the characters themselves: “The same principles that apply to readers apply also to the representation of character” (178). Cruise explains one of the pivotal moments of “fictional” character identification as the moment of “the fly” in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen. He explains this unusual representation of character in relation to the reader; “We learn it through incidental acts or remarks- Toby’s unwillingness to kill a fly, for example, cues us into his moral character...Tristram is forever throwing obstacles in the way to block direct apprehension of character” (178). Cruise explains that Sterne’s original presentation of “morality” in the novel, undoes the already established universal moral outline that prior eighteenth-century novels created.
The way in which Tristram presents his story is the same window into which we see his characters, scattered non-sequentially in a way that makes the most sense to the author himself. Cruise explains that Sterne “rejects the evidentiary standards of morally typed character to propose instead that the true characters lie scattered in bits and fragments beneath what is immediately apparent” (179). In addition, Cruise attributes this fragmentation of narrative, missing fragments of words, and pages left blank for “doodling and sketching” to be elements of fictionality; a characteristic that Sterne knowingly portrayed to his readers.
We see Cruise represent Tristram in a way that eighteenth-century readers have never seen with a character before. According to Cruise, Tristram Shandy encouraged readers to seek character motivation through “outside experiences”. Through the way in which Sterne presents character, does the reader get a better sense of “moral realism” from this overly-fictional work, in comparison to its contemporaries? Cruises argument holds that structure, and presentation of character, have a profound impact on the lessons that readers take away from books.
I think that Sterne tries to get the reader to understand character from a completely original lens. The reader is forced to create their own assumptions about fictionality, morals, and character, since there is no boundary or lines for them to follow. I wonder, however, if this causes the reader to walk away with a individual and possibly “scewed” version of what universal morals are. I also wonder if Sterne’s novel distorts the idea of a uniform society, that follows the same moral instructions.
Do you think that Tristram intended to portray a sense of moral realism through his fictional work, or does his work serve as a parody to other novels of the time? Do you think that the way in which Tristram tells his story teaches character and moral lessons more effectively than a “less-fictional” work like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe? What aspects of the novel do you find to be most essential to serving the didactic/pedagogical thinking? Is there a certain structure that best serves this purpose?
Cruise, James. Governing Consumption: Needs and Wants, Suspended Characters, and the "Origins" of Eighteenth-century English Novels. Lewisburg [Pa.: Bucknell UP, 1999. Print.