I do not intend to analyze Laurence Sterne's novel.
Rather, I shall use it in order to illustrate the general laws governing
plot structure. Sterne was a radical revolutionary as far as form
is concerned. It was typical of him to lay bare the device. The aesthetic
form is presented without any motivation whatsoever, simply as is.
The difference between the conventional novel and that of Sterne is
analogous to the difference between a conventional poem with sonorous
instrumentation and a Futurist poem composed in transrational language
(zaumnyi yazyk). Nothing has as yet been written about Sterne, or
if so, then only a few trivial comments.
Upon first picking up Stern's Tristam Shandy, we are overwhelmed
by a sense of chaos.
The action constantly breaks off, the author constantly returns to
the beginning or leaps forward. The main plot, not immediately accessible,
is constantly interrupted by dozens of pages filled with whimsical
deliberations on the influence of a person's nose or name on his character
or else with discussions of fortifications.
The book opens, as it were, in the spirit of autobiography, but soon
it is deflected from its course by a description of the hero's birth.
Nevertheless, our hero, pushed aside by material interpolated into
the novel, cannot, it appears, get born. Tristram Shandy turns into
a description of one day. Let me quote Sterne himself:
I will not finish that sentence
till I have made an observation upon the strange state of affairs
between the reader and myself, just as things stand at present--an
observation never applicable before to any one biographical writer
since the creation of the world; but to myself--and I believe will
never hold good to any other, until its final destruction--and therefore,
for the very novelty of it alone, it must be worth your worships attending
I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month;
and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth
volume--and no farther than to my first dais life— 'tis demonstrative
that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just
now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a
common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it--on the
contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back--
But when you examine the structure of the book more
closely, you perceive first of all that this disorder is intentional.
There is method to Stern's madness. It is as regular as a painting
Everything in the novel has been displaced and rearranged. The dedication
to the book makes its appearance on page 25, even though it violates
the three basic demands of a dedication, as regards content, form,
and place [page references are to James A. Work's edition (Odyssey
The preface is no less unusual. It occupies nearly ten full printed
pages, but it is found not in the beginning of the book but in volume
3, chapter 20, pages 192-203. The appearance of this preface is motivated
by the fact that
All my heroes are off my hands;
--'tis the first time I have had a moment to spare,--and I'll make
use of it, and write my preface.
Sterne pulls out all the stops in his ingenius attempt
to confound the reader. As his crowning achievement, he transposes
a number of chapters in Tristram Shandy (i.e., chapters 18
and 19 of volume 9 come after chapter 25). This is motivated by the
fact that: "All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world,
'to let people tell their stories their own way.' However,
the rearrangement of the chapters merely lays bare another fundamental
device by Sterne which impedes the action.
At first Sterne introduces an anecdote concerning a woman who interrupts
the sexual act by asking a question.
This anecdote is worked into the narrative as follows: Tristram Shandy's
father is intimate with his wife only on the first Sunday of every
month, and we find him on that very evening winding the clock so as
to get his domestic duties "out of the way at one time, and be
no more plagued and pester'd with them the rest of the month."
Thanks to this circumstance, an irresistible association has arisen
in his wife's mind: as soon as she hears the winding of the clock,
she is immediately reminded of something different, and vice versa.
It is precisely with the question "Pray, my dear, ... have
you not forgot to wind up the clock?" that Tristram's mother
interrupts her husband's act.
This anecdote is preceded by a general discussion on the carelessness
of parents, which is followed in turn by the question posed by his
mother, which remains unrelated to anything at this point. We're at
first under the impression that she has interrupted her husband's
speech. Sterne plays with our error:
Good G--! Cried my father, making
an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same
time, -- Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt
a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father
saying? - -Nothing.
This is followed by a discussion of the homunculus
(fetus), spiced up with anecdotal allusions to its right of protection
under the law.
It is only on pages 8-9 that we receive an explanation of the strange
punctuality practiced by our hero's father in his domestic affairs.
So, from the very beginning of the novel, we see in Tristram Shandy
a displacement in time. Causes follow effects, the possibilities for
false resolutions are prepared by the author himself. This is a perennial
device in Sterne. The paronomastic motif of coitus, associated with
a particular day, pervades the entire novel. Appearing from time to
time, it serves to connect the various parts of this unusually complex
If we were to represent the matter schematically, it would take on
the following form: the event itself would be symbolized by a cone,
while the cause would be symbolized by its apex. In a conventional
novel, such a cone is attached to the main plot line of the novel
precisely by its apex. In Sterne, on the contrary, the cone is attached
to the main plot line by its base. We are thus immediately thrust
into a swarm of allusions and insinuations.
Sterne makes use of new devices or, when using old ones, he does not
conceal their conventionality. Rather, he plays with them by thrusting
them to the fore.
In the conventional novel an inset story is interrupted by the main
story. If the main story consists of two or more plots, then passages
from them follow alternately, as in Don Quixote, where scenes of the
hero's adventures at the duke's court alternate with scenes depicting
Sancho Panza's governorship.
Zelinsky points out something completely contrary in Homer. He never
depicts two simultaneous actions. Even if the course of events demands
simultaneity, still they are presented in a causal sequence. The only
simultaneity possible occurs when Homer shows us one protagonist in
action, while alluding to another protagonist in his inactive state.
Sterne allows for simultaneity of action, but he parodies the deployment
of the plot line and the intrusion of new material into it.
In the first part of the novel we are offered, as material for development,
a description of Tristam Shandy's birth. This description occupies
276 pages, hardly any of which deals with the description of the birth
itself. Instead what is developed for the most part is the conversation
between the father of our hero and Uncle Toby.
The concept of plot (syuzhet) is too often confused with
a description of the events in the novel, with what I'd tentatively
call the story line (fabula).
As a matter of fact, though, the story line is nothing more than material
for plot formation.
In this way, the plot of Eugene Onegin is not the love between
Eugene and Tatiana but the appropriation of that story line in the
form of digressions that interrupt the text. One sharp-witted artist,
Vladimir Milashevsky, has proposed to illustrate this novel in verse
by focusing chiefly on the digressions (the "little feet,"
for instance) and, from a purely compositional point of view, this
would be quite appropriate.
The forms of art are explained by the artistic laws that govern them
and not by comparisons with actual life. In order to impede the action
of the novel, the artist resorts not to witches and magic potions
but to a simple transposition of it parts. He thereby reveals to us
the aesthetic laws that underlie both of these compositional devices.
It is common practice to assert that Tristram Shandy is not
a novel. Those who speak in this way regard opera alone as true music,
while a symphony for them is mere chaos.
Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel in world literature.