Wednesday, November 16, 2011

James Scholar Post 3: Sterne, Fictional Structure, and Character Identification

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. 


  1. “I also wonder if Sterne’s novel distorts the idea of a uniform society that follows the same moral instructions”- Sterne’s novel is unorthodox. Instead of a straightforward and didactic approach to morality as has been used in novels such as Pamela (in which we are reminded every two sentences of her virtue/virginity), the reader gains insight into what is right and wrong, moral and immoral through the experiences and exchanges between characters. In way, I do believe that this is far more realistic. People may go to church and listen to instructions of organized religions, reading the bible and obeying the commandments, but that is only part of the instruction, a part that does not make a whole. Perhaps the most influential way in which many people determine their personal convictions, what they will stand for, is through experience and observations in the real world as is presented through Tristram Shandy. Although this novel isn’t as sermonizing as previous novels, I do believe that Tristram’s thoughts do guide us into certain ways of thinking. He reveals to us, what he has come to view as truths through his experiences. The malleability of words is often demonstrated in Sterne’s work (EX: whiskers). In fact, Tristram even states, “it shews what little knowledge is got by mere words” (Sterne 568). How easy it is for ideas to be articulated inadequately! In fact, in our technology age, one might say that this idea is most applicable. How many times have you sent a text and the reader misinterpreted it? Anyway, I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent. I really wanted to comment on Dayna’s idea of the distortion of a uniform society that follows the same moral instruction. I think that Sterne actually shows a lot of faith in a similar moral compass that is inherent to each individual. I think that Sterne offers these experiences without as much direction as Defoe or Richardson because he has more faith in the reader, in the goodness of the individual to come to virtue, righteousness, morality through his own reflection. Sterne challenges his readers. He does not directly tell you what is “right” because as a human being, you have the ability to reason for yourself. You have to constantly be thinking and pondering the ideas presented, and through this reflection, he trusts that you will come to the “right” conclusion.

  2. I agree. I do think that parts of Tristram Shandy are meant as parody, but I also think that the satire doesn't necessarily take away from the novel's ability to represent moral realism. As Kirsten points out, there are characters making right and wrong choices, acting with and without morality. We don't really see characters being reprimanded for their immoral actions or praised for their moral ones; in this way, the book is definitely less didactic than, say, Evelina. There aren't straightforward moral instructions or rules of conduct. But I think this is the fact that lends itself most to the idea of moral realism. In the real world, we aren't going to be slapped on the wrist every time we do something wrong. In fact, most of the time, nothing happens. I think Sterne was aware of this fact and didn't want to fall under the same strictly pedagogical category as other eighteenth century writers. The purpose of Tristram Shandy probably wasn't to provide the readers with a set of moral instructions. So if readers happen to acquire some moral advice from TS, great, but it's not the end all be all of the novel. Regardless, I would still say the novel portrays a sense of moral realism. Actually, to go out on a limb, I think all novels do. Characters and form generally represent something real about life, and more often than not there is some truth in fiction, some representative quality about humanity. If moral realism (in a novel) is based upon the thoughts, feelings, and opinions of the characters, and how those shape the actions,I think there is a great sense of it in TS. There is certainly no lack of strong, pointed opinions by the characters. Where right & wrong, moral & immoral come in is left to the reader... or to Sterne's peers.

  3. I completely agree with both Kirsten and Hannah, that Tristram Shandy does portray morals and in a more realistic way than many of the other novel that we have read this semester. In those novels, it seemed as if the characters were either good or bad, no one really portraying both. Sterne, on the other hand, depicts the characters in Tristram Shandy as having both positive and negative aspects to their personalities. To me, this portrayal is much more realistic than novels like Evelina where Evelina and Lord Orville seem to be the ideal woman and man. I think that Sterne was trying to make the morals in the story rather ambiguous; to me making the moral somewhat more difficult to understand and open to different interpretations makes the reader reflect more on the morals of the story.