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.