Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page

Shockingly audacious even today, Tristram Shandy was printed in installments from 1759 to 1769, about two hundred and fifty years ago. Laurence Sterne misuses the stuff novels are made of — the ink, the symbols, the pages, the fly-leafs — to make readers aware of the materiality of the book. Flipping through the novel you will come across a totally black page, front and back. I say totally black, but only the part of the page where the text normally appears is blacked out. The block of ink is framed by normal margins and includes page numbers (33 and 34 in my edition). The motivation for this famous black page is the exclamation “Alas, poor YORICK!”, which appears twice on the previous page.

The first time the exclamation appears it is boxed, representing the inscription over the grave of the Yorick, the court jester whose skull the gravedigger uncovers in the last act of Hamlet, the skull Hamlet holds up in his archetypal moment and says, “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?” (David Foster Wallace got the title for his massive work of metafiction, “Infinite Jest,” from this speech. His title is a nod as well to Tristram Shandy, which deeply influenced his work.)

The unboxed exclamation represents how the inscription is read by each person who walks by, “with such a variety of plaintive tones as denote a general pity and esteem for him” (32). The reader is indirectly invited to read the inscription in his or her own way as well. Do it now (then close your eyes for a few moments to represent the black page), sighing: Alas, poor Y O R I C K!

(Blackness . . . Hey, no peeking!)

Yorick is also the name of the parson in Laurence Sterne’s novel, a descendant of Hamlet’s Yorick (treated as a historical figure), a character that partially represents the writer, Laurence Sterne, who in turn was a parson and a man of infinite jest. When an author represents himself as a character within a novel, as Cervantes does in Don Quixote, it is metafiction, since it plays with levels of reality and gives the author a chance to explore his relationship to the text from within.

As you continue flipping through the book, you will also find a marbled page, front and back, with margins and page numbers. We expect marbling just inside the front and back covers, not in the middle of a book. Its unusual placement makes readers aware of the assumptions we have about books, such as where marbled pages should go.

Marbled pages are not reproduced when a book is reprinted, especially since marbling fell out of fashion, but in the case of Laurence Sterne’s book, the marbled page is a part of the text. The marbled page, however, does not need to be reproduced exactly the same in each edition. In my book, it is in black and white and does not match the pattern above, so what matters is that a marbled page is part of the text, but not a particular marbled page.

Tristram, addressing the reader directly, says, “you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motley emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions, and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one” (182). There may be various meanings of the black page, but one meaning is easy enough: death. Also the marbled page has a simple reading, as a “motley emblem of my work,” it represents the chaotic structure of the novel.

The novel happens as an almost endless series of digressions. Tristram begins telling us in a wandering way — with lots of dashes representing graphically the constant self-interruption — about his botched conception and his birth. In fact there are so many digressions that Tristram can’t even manage to get himself born until volume three.

In the fortieth chapter of the sixth volume, Tristram proudly announces that he is “now beginning to get fairly into my work” and that he will now be able to get on with his uncle Toby’s story and his own “in a tolerable straight line, Now,”The first four lines represent the plot line of the first four volumes. Viktor Shklovsky, a Russian formalist, analyzed these diagrams and says they are accurate descriptions of plot development, “but they do not take into consideration the disruptive motifs” (Shklovsky 210), in other words imagine these lines not as smooth but rough and wavering and you will have a better picture. The narrator himself analyzes the plot line of the fifth volume quite convincingly, labeling the digressions by letter and explaining which part of the narrative each loop relates to. In the present volume, he says that it is not impossible, if he keeps moving forward as he is, that he will achieve the narrative ideal which would be a straight line of steady progression and development (as in academic writing like this):


Although a straight line may represent an ideal plot line, no story can proceed so directly, without pauses for explanations, digressions that explore meaning, flashbacks that give context, or simultaneous scenes which are told consecutively. In fact, Sterne was not breaking the conventions of a novel by telling his story through digressions, he was only carrying a novelistic convention to an absurd extreme. Think of all the stories that begin at the climax of the tale and then jump back to the beginning of the story, then proceed to the climax in a more or less circular pattern. By exaggerating this convention, Sterne was “laying bear the device” in Shlovosky’s terms, making this convention of the novel obvious, drawing attention to the fictionality of the book. Even academic writing, as logical as it pretends to be, moving forward step by step, drifts and wanders, loops in upon itself, as I am beginning to do more and more, which is the only transition I can think of for the next step in my essay. Think: looping . . .

On page 491, you will find a twisting line, like a loose tornado, Colonel Trim’s waves his stick in the air as a description of the ups and downs and the ins and outs of marriage, a wordless argument in favor of celibacy, since he lacks the language skills necessary to describe the vagaries of married life. In fact, the twisting line is much more eloquent and succinct that using words to explain (thereby saving the reader at least ten chapters of digressions on the subject of marriage.)

Earlier, Trim describes the accidental circumcision of Tristram, who was peeing out the window when the window fell, by laying his forefinger “flat upon the table and the edge of his hand striking across it at right angles,” a method of telling the story in such a way “that priests and virgins might have listened to it” (309), for not only does the description avoid bad words, it avoids words altogether. In fact there was nothing for a priest or virgin to listen to at all, so presumably they could not get offended to the reference to Tristram’s penis if words were not used.

Avoiding bad words by representing them in other ways is a central theme of the book. However, by avoiding them, the words are in fact shoved into the foreground. Asterisks represent inappropriate words, like “chamber pot,” which the maid had neglected to put under Tristram’s bed, the reason he was peeing out the window. (See how academic writing digresses and wanders.) The asterisks are decodable from the context, yet it makes the reader spend time counting out the number of asterisks and trying out words, so that ultimately the reader has spent much more time thinking about chamber pots than if the useful article had been mentioned directly. In fact, the asterisks represent the questionable article as directly and clearly as the letters themselves would have done. The replacement is just another symbolic representation for the same thing. (Yet as Ian points out in the comment below, it represents the concept in a different way and so it calls up certain prudish attitudes to chamber pots.)

My own family avoided bad words, by replacing “penis,” for example, with the word “lumbler” and “to pee” with “to lumble.” These euphemisms, like Tristram’s asterisks, only replace the missing words, but do not manage to hide the concept. In structuralist terms, this alters the signified, the word-symbol, but does not erase the signified, the idea behind the word. When I use the term “lumbler,” you can’t help thinking of a big, fat *****, now can you?

On other pages, there are columns of asterisks (right now we are pursuing the subject of asterisks, in case you have lost the thread of my argument) or rows of dashes representing other texts. Mostly when someone reads another book or a letter, the reader is not allowed to see the other text, not allowed, in other words, to read over the character’s shoulder as we do in other books. In spite of the delight the books takes in endless digressions, most outside material is invisible, again making us aware of the existence of all text as a set of symbols. A digression that carries the story outside the covers of the novel is usually opaque. Unlike the asterisks replacing bad words, it is impossible to recreate the text. The text is represented symbolically, but not with recognizable symbols that allow us to read the text, just symbols that tell us that a text exists at that point of the story, a text being read by a character.

This post, although it seems to have drifted about a bit, is completely unified around the theme of layout and typography, the use of various symbols to represent meaning, not only letters but black pages, marbled pages, line diagrams, asterisks and dashes. This integration of other symbols to convey meaning forces a reader to be aware of how letters function in a similar way and makes a reader aware that a book is more than just a set of words. (Full stop.)

(The structure of this essay was a big loop, then a smaller loop, a wiggle, a series of jags, a full stop, a flourish and a marbled page. In order to describe and explain the use of the black page, I had to launch into a discussion of Hamlet’s Yorick, connected by name and descent to the Parson in the book, who is in turn a metafictional inclusion of the author [the big loop], but these digressions were not the main point, so forget them and remember the black page. To explain the marbling and the plot diagrams, I had to launch into a description of the digressive method [the smaller loop], but I was still moving forward in my description of unusual typography, a digressive progression, for that led very neatly to Trim’s rhetorical flourish of his stick [the flourish in my own structure] and the chopping motion over his forefinger to avoid mention of the male article [the first of the jags].

The avoidance of a word like ***** led me to a discussion of asterisks replacing bad words [and a digression into my family’s euphemism], continuing more or less straight on, the subject of asterisks brought me to a discussion of how the asterisks and dashes represent other texts within the novel, all of which, I assure you again, is unified around the topic of layout and typography, although now that I think of it that was not really my main point. My main point was the genius of Sterne’s masterpiece to make us so conscious of the conventions of the novel and the materiality of a book, all of which brings me to the flourish and a marbled page:

{Reinsert marbled page here.}

If the analysis of my own use of form and structure in this post is still unclear, let me refer you back to the marbled page, which is the perfect description of the analytic method I have employed here, a motley emblem of my work.)

(Check out my posts: The Stuff That Dreams are Made of: Paper, Ink, Letter and WordThis is not the name of another post about Tristram ShandyHistory is an Angel Blown Backward Through Time.)

Works Cited

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1960.

Shklovsky, Victor. “The Parody Novel: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy“, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1:1, (1981:Spring), pg. 190 – 210.

3 thoughts on “Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page”

  1. This article (wait I have to go ******) and the digressions (exuse me while I stop to correct a child) are quite amusing! (Dang it he just won’t listen and I have sent him to his bed room). Reading the book is like this /—–_______/__M—*zzzzzz

  2. Hey Ron,
    I like your post. It is strikingly lucid and organized
    for a blog post, especially one on Tristram Shandy. I’m looking forward to reading over some of your other posts.
    I think it might be interesting to consider the playful typography of Tristram Shandy as an exercise in rhetoric. A series of asterisks and the word ‘penis’ might have the same referent, but they convey to the reader different senses of the signified, and lead the reader, as you point out, through an extra step of decoding. In a book that is so obsessed with the rhetorical functions of language, it is important to read the asterisks as making an argument. Another way to think of this is as an attack on de Saussure’s notion of the ‘arbitrariness’ of the sign. The words we use, Tristram Shandy suggests, shape our thoughts and rhetorically echo (or undermine) what we think we are saying.
    I’m going to try to bring a discussion of Tristram Shandy into a research paper I am writing on the metaphysics of voice, so maybe I will be able to post or discuss more about Shandy with you. Hope you’re enjoying your syllabus, and I’m planning to read Pale Fire soon.

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