The Superiority of Visuals over Words in Tristram Shandy
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a novel in which Laurence Sterne depicts the limitations and confusions of language. With the use of a stream of consciousness narrative mode, Sterne is putting the imperfections of communication into the foreground of his novel. His fascination with language leads him to show not only how words are limited in their powers of expression, but is simultaneously attempting to stretch words: giving them new meanings and emphasizing their versatility in interpretation. Sterne’s interest, therefore, lies in showing the fragility of a language which can be both manipulated and easily misunderstood. Further, Sterne suggests that sometimes wordless expression conquers, and words only serve as an unnecessary hindrance leading to winded misinterpretations. This concept was deeply explored and admired by Sentimentalists, who believed it was possible, and beneficial, to interpret human behavior without words. They rather rely on “a language of feeling” (Mullan Sentiment and Sociability) which includes minute gesture, facial expressions and physical countenances (fainting, screaming, blushing). Now known as body language, in the mid-eighteenth century this was considered a superior tool of expression and interpretation, what Lord Kames (1762) called a “universal language” (Smitten A Sentimental Journey 85). In the novel, Laurence Sterne explores its superiority by representing body language through his images, typography or blank pages. Arguing against those authors who found pleasure in long, descriptive battles with language, Sterne finds power in allowing his words to be replaced by images, and his novel to express itself. Sterne, extremely ahead of his time for his experimentation with the written word, takes the novel form and manipulates it to prove that the actual words being used are insignificant compared to the capacity of physical expression, simulated by his images. As Inchbald will repeat later in her novel: “But how unimportant, how weak, how ineffectual are words — looks and manners alone express” (Inchbald A Simple Story 17).
Sterne shows the limitations of words foremost by portraying conflict and confusion which arises between his characters because of their failure to communicate effectively. Speaking through Tristram Shandy, Sterne seeks to prove that language confuses more than it clarifies because words have uncertain meanings. He identifies language as “the true cause of the confusion” of Uncle Toby, saying: “What it did arise from, I have hinted above, and a fertile source of obscurity it is,—and ever will be,—and that is the unsteady uses of words, which have perplexed the clearest and most exalted understandings” (Sterne Tristram Shandy 78). Sterne exposes language as the reason for befuddlement, and the root of Uncle Toby’s problems. Similarly, when Toby tells Mrs. Wadman to “lay [her] fingers upon the place”, Tristram Shandy quickly states “This requires a second translation:—it shews what little knowledge is got by mere words—we must go up to the first springs. Now in order to clear up the mist which hangs upon these three pages, I must endeavour to be as clear as possible myself” (Sterne 568). Here, Sterne is showing the embarrassingly humorous confusions created between Mrs. Wadman and Uncle Toby, but also the difficulties Tristram Shandy faces as narrator, to express himself effectively words. Ultimately, Tristram is describing the obscurity of words by using words himself, and by attempting to “be clear” is actually creating further misunderstandings throughout the rest of the novel. Sterne’s text is a game of clarification, skewing words and meaning to create humorous confusions, awkward conflicts and prove that words do not suffice as a tool for accurate expression.
Sterne further emphasizes the complications of communication by proving that words are malleable, since he is able to manipulate and expand language to portray multiple meanings at once. Both characters and readers of the story confront misunderstandings made by Sterne, who acknowledges the “unsteady uses of words” (Sterne 78) and uses them to emit a bawdy humor. He constantly repeats words which do not necessarily have to be dirty, but have taken on an indecent connotation through suggestion. For instance, he uses the word ‘hole’ upwards of two hundred times in the text. The word ‘mount’ is present some fifty times in odd and unnecessary scenarios: “In good truth, my uncle Toby mounted him with so much pleasure, and he carried my uncle Toby so well,—that he troubled his head very little with what the world either said or thought about it” (Sterne 68), or later: “But for my father’s ass—oh! mount him—mount him—mount him—(that’s three times, is it not?)” (Sterne 530). Evidently, there is a suggestive sexual tone here, and Sterne is playing with the word “mount” to prove that language is easily manipulated and misunderstood depending on your diction. Sterne is showing that one word can lead to multiple interpretations, making language very fragile. Therefore, he is challenging language, and as Bethel states: “For him, indeed, as Tristram solemnly tells Eugenius, “—to define— is to distrust”; and he spends much of his book undoing the definitions of words” (Bethel “The Bad Behaviour of Language”). Sterne, as author, holds the power to make words mean what he desires them to; further proving that language is not a reliable form of articulation.
Sterne’s narrative style also contributes to showing the difficulties of finding clarity in language, since it is written in a tone mixed between conversational and stream of consciousness. By writing it in this way, Sterne is showing how the way people think and speak every day is a part of a world of imperfect communication. Through the mobility, and translation, from thought to words, meaning is altered too much because one cannot always accurately say what they mean. It is also altered too little, because the way one thinks is a jumbling of thoughts and ideas and, like Tristram’s mangled narration, if one attempts to say just that, misunderstandings are bound to arise. Therefore, the human predicament, according to Sterne, is an inability to clarify, to really translate your thoughts into words that portray correctly and definitely what you mean. In his novel, Sterne is complicating the issue further, since the written word is supposed to be clearer than oral communication, but his writing style actually confuses more than it clarifies. His writing emits the stream of consciousness mode, where Tristram Shandy is constantly changing the subject and taking an extensively long time to get to any sort of point. Evidently, Sterne emphasizes the way people struggle to communicate their feelings through words, specifically without being able to show acts of gesture or mannerisms, a crucial contributor to language. It is no surprise then, that Sterne is known as one of the great Sentimental authors. He is evidently interested in how to express feeling with the novel, as well as “the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity” (“Sensibility” Oxford Dictionaries) of his characters.
By adopting and including components of sensibility in his novel, Laurence Sterne is demonstrating the way in which words cannot compensate for the importance of gesture in expressing oneself. Sensibility in the eighteenth century involves “an innate sensitiveness or susceptibility to emotion that revealed itself in crying, swooning, [fainting, falling, screaming], or kneeling” (Todd Sensibility: An Introduction 7), all of which are wordless expressions that rely on the physiology of signs. Using theatricality as an example, there was a newly founded interest in what one’s body could portray or communicate, and an attempt to interpret one another without having to use speech. In his novel Sterne explores this concept, because he abandons words at times where images would suffice. When Tristram Shandy struggles to depict something accurately he inserts blank pages, skips chapters, or replaces his wording with visual images. “Sterne … accepts … that though language may itself falsify felt experience, the writer has no option but to use it or remain silent” (Bethel). Sterne is acknowledging the limits and confusions based on a communication through verbal (or written) language, and therefore sought to use gesture instead. Sterne represents the “universal language” of physical expression in the text by inserting images. For example, in Volume VI Sterne inserts various images depicting the path of his story so far: “the four lines I moved in through my first, second, third and fourth volumes” (Sterne 425). These images represent a wordless gesture, which Sterne applies to the text and illustrates in image form. These images not only show the ability to illustrate something indescribable by words, but also how a gesture can be used to visually represent words on a page. They bring to the surface something which would not have been noticed, if limited by “mere words” (568). The images are proposing readers regard the text in an image-form, and instead of just analyzing the language itself, to see the text’s actual body language. Evidently, like the sentimentalists of his day, Sterne is interested in interpretation through gesture, which in this case is the gesture of his text represented through four images. Since words cannot fully express, the images have to try and compensate.
Sterne finds words restraining but images limitless because they are subjective, which he demonstrates through his preference of blank suggestive pages over using words for description. In Volume VI, when trying to describe widow Wadman, Tristram Shandy says, “never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman. To conceive this right, –call for pen and ink—here’s paper ready to your hand. —Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind” (Sterne 422). Evidently, in attempting to describe someone as indescribable as Wadman, Sterne chooses to lay down his pen and asks readers to call for theirs. Sterne is suggesting that, because words are an insufficient tool of communication, it is preferable to say nothing at all and instead to draw your own image. As Bethel describes, Sterne finds gesture more effective: “The panoply of black pages, blank pages, missing chapters, asterisks and dashes, as much as his own fondness for aposiopesis … suggests Sterne’s own belief that communication takes place more truly through gesture and sympathetic identification than through words” (Bethel). Sterne, although seemingly restricted by the novel form he has chosen to use, breaks free of realistic conventions and shows that an author does not need to rely on “mere words” (Sterne 568) to express. Accepting that gesture is an essential part of communication, Sterne represents it with pictures.
Sterne in Tristram Shandy chooses to insert images where words would not suffice, like when using a gesture to explain a deeper concept. In Volume IX, Sterne inserts an image depicting Colonel Trim’s waving his stick, and Tristram Shandy states, “A thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy” (Sterne 550). The gesture is supposed to depict the instability of marriage and serves as an argument for celibacy. Again, he is illustrating the superiority of gestures, when attempting to show the “flourish with his stick” (Sterne 549). Colonel Trim is choosing to make this argument without words, and therefore Tristram Shandy is left to reiterate it with an image, because words would not suffice. Sterne avoids, in this instance, using words which may result in an extensive, long, rambling attempt to describe something easily depicted by a simple picture. This image, with its simplicity and effectiveness, represents all that words cannot do. Language, to Sterne, cannot illustrate a gesture in the same way. “Sterne’s bold flourish of print stands for Trim’s feeling, his impression, his idea, far more accurately than mere words” (Donoghue Commentaries on English Language and Literature 102).
Sterne also explores the use of subtle typography, like asterisks, to denote things which otherwise would not have been brought to the reader’s attention. To avoid dirty or unsuitable words, Sterne replaces them with synonymous words or inserts asterisks. Like the use of the word “mount”, or even “chamber pot” Sterne is showing the malleability of language, and how he can turn a seemingly innocent word into a dirty one if he wants to. Then, by using asterisks in areas of profanity, he leaves the decoding in the hands of the reader, who can try and unravel what the asterisked word really is. To describe a scene in which Tristram had no chamber pot, “******* ***”, and so was forced to urinate out the window, Sterne inserts “cannot you manage, my dear, for a single time to **** *** ** *** ******?” (Sterne 339). Sterne is forcing the reader to spend a significant amount of time and attention on the asterisked words, more than would have otherwise been spent. His typography is creating emphasis where “mere words” (Sterne 568) could not as effectively have done. Therefore, display typography throughout the texts serves as a replacement of gesture, because when one speaks with body movement, it is easier to place emphasis on certain things being said, like with hand movements. However, Sterne acknowledges that words and the novel form do not easily do that, so he includes images (or stylized typography) to serve that role.
Laurence Sterne is evidently intrigued by language and challenging its limitations in effective communication. Sterne enhances his text by visual representations, whether it is actual images, blank pages or typography, in order to show the power of wordless expression. Sterne, aligning himself with Sensibility, suggests that gesture or other “signals from inside the body” (Barker-Benfield The Culture of Sensibility xvii) can be a superior method of interpretation. By doing so, Sterne details the ineffectiveness of words alone and shows not only their malleability but also how this fragility can lead to substantial misunderstandings. Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy demonstrates that physical expression, simulated by images in the text, is crucial to human comprehension far beyond that of “mere words”. Ultimately, Sterne’s novel epitomizes the inability to have an accurate form of communication, and it questions the validity of trusting language at all, whether with words or with bodily gesture. With images, Sterne is attempting to clarify what words seem to only confuse, but after volumes of Sterne distorting language and “undoing definitions”, he makes it intentionally difficult for readers to find clarity or trust in anything. As Inhbald will question in her 1791 novel A Simple Story, “Your words tell me one thing while your looks declare another – which am I to trust?” (51).
Barker-Benfield, G.J. The Culture of Sensibility. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1992.
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Donoghue, Denis. English, Their England. London: University of California Press, 1988.
Inchbald, Elizabeth. A Simple Story. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.
Smitten, Jeffrey R. “Gesture and Expression in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: A Sentimental Journey.” Modern Language Studies 9.3 (1979): 85-97.
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London: Penguin Books , 1967.
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