Friday, November 18, 2011

Matt G.: Tristram Shandy and Conversation (Secondary Lit. Blog Post)

For my secondary literature blog post I read, Pope to Burney, 1714-1779, by Moyra Haslett.  In her work Haslett argues that the “presiding motif for eighteenth-century literature [is] the idea of conversation…which links…different aspects of the eighteenth-century literature, it is not in any sense a single label.  It generates a range of associated ideas, rather than necessarily imposing a determinist narrative upon the period” (Haslett 1).  Her premise is that a defining feature of the eighteenth century novel is the conversational aspect that the books take with the reader.  This idea can be seen throughout the novels we have read in the course, from Robinson Crusoe to Evelina to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.  And it is upon the last that I will focus on here.  Do you see the motif of “conversation” as one present in many of the novels we have read in class?
            Haslett argues a number of eighteenth-century “literary texts articulate or imply a self-consciousness about their own status as texts.  Often this takes the from of direct addresses to the reader” (78-79).  This is certainly true of Shandy in many places throughout the novel.  For example, Shandy continual calls the reader “my dear friend and companion” and tells us “as you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship” (Sterne, 11).  Seen here is the conversational tone that Haslett argues, it is the creation of an intimate relationship with the reader.  “The relationship between writer and reader is explicitly modelled on one of friendship and sociability.  This friendship, and the reader’s increasing intimacy with Tristram himself, offers a way of overcoming the solipsism so obvious in all of the novel’s characters” (79).   Solipsim, for those who are unfamiliar, is the idea of the self as the only reality.  So what Haslett suggests is that this intimacy allows for one to read this, and other novels, in a way that makes them much more so real to us the reader.  Do you agree with this idea, does this intimacy offered by Tristram overcome the solipsism of the novel’s characters? 
            Another aspect of Shandy that Heslett sheds let upon is how “it draws its readers into happy complicity with its own playfulness and moral seriousness.  Readers are asked to meet the narrator halfway, by bringing their own understanding and imaginations into play” (80).  This very idea can be seen on page 423 of Tristram Shandy when he offers the reader a blank page to write in their own description of Mrs. Wadman.  He asks the reader to “paint her to your own mind” (422).  This again invokes the conversation motif offered, but she goes further here on Shandy to argue that “in giving the readers so much freedom to form their own opinions and judgments, Sterne wrote a book which would be radically individualistic” (80).  Is this true, or are we pigeonholed into reading it in a much particularized way by Sterne, despite the perceived individualizations?  Heslett ends by stating that eighteenth century texts “constantly interrogate the nature of the relationship between author and reader” (81).  Certainly this may be seen in Tristram Shandy in the way he speaks directly to the reader, as well as in Evelina and Pamela by their intimate epistolary form, but to what extent do you see it as a defining aspect of eighteenth century literature? 

Haslett, Moyra. Pope to Burney: 1714 - 1779 : Scriblerians to Bluestockings. Basingstoke.
Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.

Sterne, Laurence, and Graham Petrie. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1967. Print.


  1. For the most part, I tend to agree with Haslett's points that have been presented here. I do see many of our eighteenth century novels as conversational, although Tristram Shandy may be the first where the conversation primarily takes place between the author/narrator and reader. Sterne's style of writing, reminiscent of post-modern texts I've encountered, enables Tristram to engage with the reader in an interactive manner, (e.g., the blank page where you can draw your own Widow Wadman). The epistolary form of Evelina and Pamela also exists as a conversation, but the conversation is more confined to the internal world of the book's characters.

    I would have to disagree with Haslett's point about solipsism, however. While it is a compelling point to argue that the novel's conversational manner and intimacy between reader/author offers a way to overcome solipsism, I don't particularly find the characters solipsistic. In fact, I think they are exceptionally concerned with other characters' thoughts and attitudes (thereby refuting the solipsistic ideal that anything outside one's own mind is unsure to exist...I think??? I hope...) and acknowledge the possibility that other selves exist and have actual thoughts, feelings, etc. We see this through Toby's early anxieties about telling the Widow Wadman that he loves her because of the fact that she may not reciprocate the feelings anymore. Tristram also dedicates a chapter to similar sentiments, and William Shandy spends a great deal of time lecturing Toby on the appropriate way to court a woman. I see these examples (and many more) as evidence that the characters are motivated by more than just solipsism -- they can be selfish, sure, but they DO recognize the thoughts and feelings of others.

    Finally, to address one of your last questions, I do think there is the possibility of reading the text in Sterne's intended way, merely because of the extensive use of footnotes and references that readers would not understand. These force the reader, if they are invested enough, to do research and attempt to understand where Sterne is coming from, thereby connecting with him and reading the novel in a manner analogous to the way he wrote it. However, this all depends on the reader. If you attack this novel with less of an investment in understanding all the footnotes and obscure references, you could come away with a completely different view.

  2. I have to disagree with Hannah and agree with Heslett. I think I have enjoyed these 18th century characters because the letter format or direct address of the reader allows us to see the inner self and concern with the self that these authors have created. While, like Hannah said, these characters sometimes are concerned with the thoughts and actions of others, I think it all leads back to the individual self. We see this a lot with Evelina. She helps others and thinks about their thoughts only in concern with proving her own self worth and inner thoughts. Even Tristram Shandy relates the love story of Uncle Toby to show the ways he feels about love. I think the concern characters express eventually leads us back to forming a self of the main character which then feels more real to the reader. These characters feel so real because of the almost intimate relationship they have with the reader and their formation of a "real" self.