Sunday, November 13, 2011

Nathan Griffin: The Hobbyhorsical World (Secondary blog post)

For my secondary literature article, I read “The Hobbyhorsical World of Tristram Shandy”, by Joan Joffe Hall. In her article, she focused on how the irrelevant and the relevant seem to bare equal weight for our narrator, Tristram Shandy. This is why, as Hall argues, the characters in the novel are defined by their “hobbyhorse”, or favorite hobby. For instance, Uncle Toby’s hobby is his obsession with rebuilding fortifications. He thinks in terms of war and forts, and so there is a miscommunication when trim says that the doctor is repairing the bridge. Toby thinks that this bridge is a part of a fort, because one of his bridges had broken, when, in actuality, the doctor broke the bridge of Tristram’s nose, and had to repair it.

Hall argues that “Walter Shandy’s hobbyhorse is his love for hypotheses” (132). You’ll recall that Walter has many theories regarding raising a child, including conception of a child. A man must have complete focus when making love in order to direct the spirit animals. However, it is important to note with all of the family’s hobbyhorses that they never mean anything or allow any sort of closure for the family. Toby’s hobbyhorse creates miscommunication with people, and it also results in Tristram being accidentally circumsized because he took away the metal weights in the windows. Therefore, Toby has no control over his hobbyhorse. The birth of Tristram proves many of Walter’s hypotheses wrong, due to the fact that he could not direct the animal spirits and that Tristram seems fine even though his nose is damaged, which Walter believes is the most important part of the body. Therefore, “Walter’s hypotheses neither predict nor control real events… both men are impotent when they must confront the real world”.

Tristram’s hobbyhorse, according to Hall, is his story telling. His style of writing is what Hall refers to as “train of ideas” (139). This train of ideas, or natural progression of thought processes, is Tristram’s hobbyhorse. Tristram is obsessed with not leaving out any details, and his problem is that he cannot read through what is relevant to plot and what is irrelevant, which results in long tangents and digressions.

Sterne uses this device, the train of ideas, to point out the reader’s hobbyhorse. According to Hall, “that the reader should participate in solving novelistic problems is absurd, because it is the novelist who brings in the reader as a character, who supervises the work of the reader, and who dismisses the reader” (143). So, the reader’s hobbyhorse is trying to decipher the novel. Readers look for a climax, so they try to sort through what is relevant and what is irrelevant to try to find the meaning. Well, Hall argues, Sterne’s point is that being obsessed with this hobbyhorse is never going to lead to a completion, just like all of the shandy’s hobbyhorses never did either. It is the author’s job to lead the reader, and if there is no climax, the author did not want you to find one.

I find Hall’s argument quite compelling. If readers look at novels as a puzzle, looking for that climax, they might miss the point. How is a reader to say what’s relevant and irrelevant? Maybe at the end, everything needs to be looked at equally. This article definitely helped me appreciate Tristram Shandy a lot more.

So what do you think? Is it the author’s job to lead the reader?

Do you agree with Hall, that it is difficult to draw a line between the relevant and irrelevant in Tristram Shandy?

Do you think you’ve been looking too deeply into the novel for that “deeper” meaning?

Hall, Joan Joffe. "The Hobbyhorsical World of Tristram Shandy." Modern Language Quarterly. 24.2 (1963): 131-43. Print.


  1. I think the best part about this book is that it disrupts everything I thought I knew about how a novel should be. Plot and time was, in my mind, supposed to be guided and shaped by the author. But, Sterne, I think, really wanted to force the reader to lead themselves and appreciate all parts of the novel. I love how ridiculous this novel is to me. Every seemingly irrelevant part of the novel just adds to Sterne's intention to destroy what readers knew about the novel. I find it incredibly hard to pick out exactly what Sterne finds to be the most "relevant" and as Hall suggests this is intentional.

    In some ways, I find this novel more reflective of "real" life. My thoughts and memories are definitely not in chronological order and some things I find relevant other people would not. This novel, while completely confusing and frustrating, is growing on me. This kind of stream of consciousness thing seems more psychologically real in that peoples lives and thoughts are rarely as ordered or structured as we have read in the other novels of this course.

  2. I agree with Cara and Nathan. I think that like Hall, that the reader should participate in trying to solve out and piece together the readings rather than have the author guide the reader into believing something in the way they want it to be perceived. Especially with a novel like Tristram Shandy, specific interpretations should be left for the reader to puzzle through on their own.

    This novel is simply ridiculous in the meanings it is trying to convey. Aside from getting me very confused, in general I have had a hard time figuring out the overall picture of what is being said.

  3. I agree with Cara, Krupa, and Nathan. This novel needs to be dissected and needs careful close reading for it to make sense. I spent so much time going over the "notes" in the back too because without it, I'm so lost. I'm lost even with the "notes." It's a new way of reading which I'm not used to. His "train of thought" is his train... and it's hard to be a passenger in it because there are so many stops and twists. But it does make me wonder if I read it from the start to finish, if I can make out some of what Sterne is trying to say.

  4. This is by far the most fun work we've read in this class. It is difficult, but eventually you learn to read it loosely and put it together later, and to just take from it what you can.

    Without being redundant, I want to remember that we discussed this novel as exhibiting elements of post-modern literary approaches. There is an understood formula of how a narrative leads readers in a certain direction. There is nothing wrong with the fact that this exists, and there is nothing wrong with the fact that most literature does not look like real life. If books were just like real life we wouldn't need them...we have an abundance of real life all around us. Art is supposed to be a selective recreation of reality.

    That said, it is awesome that Sterne was able to comment on the world of the novel and novel-reading WITH a novel. That's why I believe, though I haven't read the whole thing, that there is something special going on in "Tristram Shandy," that makes it important in literature.

  5. @Christina and Krupa: Trust me, reading the novel from start to finish would NOT make it easier to understand! Especially if we were trying to cram the entire novel into the usual 2 weeks/novel. In fact, reading it from beginning to end is in some ways MORE frustrating because there's a built-in expectation that it will have logical, linear coherence--and it just doesn't. At least reading it piecemeal as we have, you go into it expecting to be confused.

    They say of James Joyce's Ulysses, that you can only reread it. The same is true of Tristram Shandy. Given the other material we have to cover, my goal is not to deliver that "rereading" experience, but to get you interested enough that you will want to go back to it.

    Then, as the narrator himself says to the reader early on in the novel: “courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside;--and as we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do any thing, only keep your temper” (