Saturday, November 26, 2011

The role of religion in Tristram Shandy

There are several interesting passages that allude to religion throughout Tristram Shandy. On page 490, Tristram makes several references to his role in portraying or "delivering" religion to the reader.

"I am confident my own way of doing it is the best--I'm sure it is the most religious--for I begin with writing the first sentence--and trusting to Almighty God for the second."

"I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man."

"Pope and his Portrait are fools to me---no martyr is ever so full of faith or fire--I wish I could say of good works too---but I have no."

From my own interpretation of these texts, Tristram seems pompous in his view of religion. In the first quote I presented, Tristram places himself on a pedestal, claiming that his "way of doing it" is the best way. He even puts himself before God, literally, by saying that the first sentence is his, and the second one Gods.  The quotes that follow also carry a tone of arrogance towards religion and religious figures. What do you make of these quotes? How do they relate to Sterne's overall presentation of religion? How do the religious ideas that Sterne presents differ or correlate to other eighteenth century novels we have read?


  1. Altogether, I have a different reading of these passages (and the overall tone of the book) than I believe you do. I think that overall Sterne is using his narrator ironically to comment on the sometimes-silly interactions between religion and everyday life. When he says, "I am confident my own way of doing it is the best--I'm sure it is the most religious…” he is talking about writing but placing those two clauses so close together and using the language that he does, it is hard not to see a parallel to religion in general and the idea that everyone who holds a religious belief believes it to be superior to other religious beliefs. I believe that if you consider the parallel statement, “I’m sure my religious viewpoint is the correct one;” and consider the oversimplification of such a complex subject, an ironic reading is almost automatic. In another sense I think that this passage, like the one which portrays personal thoughts as messages broadcast from heaven, is an example (probably deliberate on the part of the author) of how secular thoughts are expressed, sometimes automatically, in spiritual terminology.

    I realize that I need to be careful not to impose a 21st century secular reading onto a text from a different religious culture. Also, it is surprising to me, after working with this text, to learn that Sterne was in fact a clergyman. All that said, I think his approach to religion is about the same as his approach to romantic relationships: There are a lot of people out there with a lot of opinions and probably most of it is nonsense.

    I cannot comment on the last quote that you provide because, quite frankly—even with footnotes—it’s a little too cryptic for me.

  2. I would definitely agree with Jesse in the surprise of finding out Sterne was a clergyman. I also think that religion played a different role in society than it does today, in that most likely, back then, more people than not were "religious." There weren't secular circles in larger cities like you find today because I think religion played a more universal role. For Sterne to say that he is "sure it is the most religious," probably reflects more of the common opinion than his pompousness about religion. But, I can also see how it could be viewed pompously. As a clergyman, he may have thought that he had a better grasp on religion than a regular individual.

    I think a lot of the novels we have read carry this tone of arrogance. Robinson Crusoe in many parts of the novel, felt that he knew everything about religion, Pamela acted the way she did under the guise of religion, Unca in FA claims to know everything and saw herself as an authority enough to teach a colony of people about it, etc. But as I said in the previous paragraph, I can't really tell if it is actual arrogance about religion, or just "common knowledge," so to speak about religion at the time.

  3. I agree with Dayna's interpretation of these quotes because I believe they fit in with my view of Sterne's authorial voice. He liked to believe that he was smarter than most others, and attempted to prove so in his writing style. The sexual innuendos he put across TS were there to give himself the satisfaction of knowing that not everyone would know what he meant - so I find it hard to believe that one of his characters would not have a similar mindset of perceived superiority. However, some of these statements in my opinion are a little over the top. To believe that he could "intercept" a message from heaven is a little funny to me, primarily because of the sexual nature of the novel. Each of these characters falls prey to the traps of sexuality in some way, which is a big social no-no in religious context. For Tristram to believe that he could become God's "go-to" guy by his own power seems like an excessive amount of hubris.