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Tristram Shandy : the triumph of imagination, wit, and feeling over rationalism

Long, Jesse Clinton (1973) Tristram Shandy : the triumph of imagination, wit, and feeling over rationalism. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94490) (KAR id:94490)


Laurence Sterne thought that Tristram Shandy was "more read than understood." Certainly any comprehensive understanding of Tristram Shandy has never come easily. Explications of Sterne's novel have all too often been distorted by commentators lacking a sense of the age in which Sterne wrote. Even the most perceptive critics have tended either to generalize about all nine books of Tristram Shandy or to write shorter articles on single facets of Sterne's many-sided novel. The interrelation of the varied eighteenth century themes, one with another and each one with Sterne's central structural device, has never been satisfactorily demonstrated. This in the largest measure is the purpose of my paper.

I have approached Tristram Shandy from the viewpoint only of a literary critic, but also of an analytic philosopher. This new approach is warranted because of Sterne's obvious amusement with philosophical topics and because previous commentary has suffered from a lack of philosophical rigour.

My overall thesis is this: through a superb union of form and content, Sterne satirizes all philosophical systems based purely upon reason, or claiming to be based upon reason. Tristram Shandy humorously dramatizes the insufficiency of human reason and proposes instead man's imaginative faculties (wit, sympathy, fellow-feeling, and creativity) as the communicative path to understanding.

Since Sterne's central structural device (Tristram-as-author) is absolutely essential to any understanding of Tristram Shandy, my study begins by considering (1.) Sterne's deployment of his author-persona, and (2.) the personal characteristics which Tristram reveals through 'his' self-dramatization. These characteristics - including his characteristic unreliability and his habit of engaging the reader in mock-dialogue - maneuver the reader into the very form of the novel by demanding unusual imaginative cooperation.

My second chapter concerns the content of Tristram Shandy. Through his author-persona, Sterne satirizes philosophical systems and philosophical problems, while extolling man's imaginative and sympathetic faculties. Repeatedly, Sterne questions man's ability to communicate with absolute certainty. Building humorous scenes from communication failures, Sterne points to the question: What can we know and what is impossible for us to know? This question, developed through the Shandean themes, accords perfectly with Sterne's structural device of the unreliable narrator. Hence, both the form and the content of Tristram Shandy aim to tie the reader in perplexing epistemological knots.

The Shandean spirit further involves the reader in the same problems of certitude and incertitude. Drawing on the tradition of Erasmus, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and especially Rabelais, Laurence Sterne created a narrator who demands imaginative, festive reciprocity from his reader. The spirit of festive merriment accords with Tristram's unreliability and with the Shandean satire of solemn rationalism.

In my fourth chapter I use the techniques of linguistic analysis to explore Tristram's unreliability. My exploration points to the difference between the language of philosophy and the language of literature. The former aims to communicate rationally and with certainty; the latter aims to communicate imaginatively. Sterne cast Tristram not as the "historian" he claims to be, but as a psychologically realistic author, dramatizing his process of creativity.

Sterne's dramatization of the creative process lays bare the limits of language and shows the creative writer's quest for new ways to communicate. My fifth chapter treats this dimension of Sterne's author-persona. Sterne's rendering of the creative process forces us to read Tristram Shandy creatively. It forces us to participate in an imaginative process, rather than a completely rational one.

My final chapter views A Sentimental Journey as the consequence of Tristram Shandy. In Tristram Shandy Sterne's iii main concern had been with man's creative imagination. Yet even in that first novel Sterne suggested that intuitive, imaginative sympathy can transcend philosophical scepticism and lead to communication through "feeling". In A Sentimental Journey Sterne repeatedly dramatizes the possibilities of sympathetic communication. Hence, Sterne's second novel reflects the message of his first: men can communicate imaginatively, even though logic, philosophy, and pure rationality preclude absolutely certain communication.

There is, perhaps, nothing startling in my conclusion that Tristram Shandy denigrates rationalism, the better to extol man's imaginative potential. Yet, the detailed analysis that leads to my conclusion gives a new, philosophical exactitude to the epistemological puzzles that most readers "see" at the heart of Tristram Shandy, but do not pause to analyse. In the course of this paper I also throw new light upon such well-worn Shandean issues as "the association of ideas" and "time in the novel", while showing, too, that Sterne's humour and his sentiment both emanate from the faculty of imagination.

Since Sterne himself jettisoned the linear plot-line, I have often followed the tactic of quoting from different volumes of Tristram Shandy to substantiate the particular point I am arguing at the time. Likewise, I sometimes use the same incident in several places to illustrate diverse points. At any given time I may not be saying the single, most important thing which can be said about the Shandean passage under discussion. Yet, if commentary upon Tristram Shandy is to be orderly, this approach (though it occasions some repetition) seems unavoidable. I have, therefore, abstracted the form for my paper from Sterne's artful confusion in order to provide a pattern for critical exposition.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.94490
Additional information: This thesis has been digitised by EThOS, the British Library digitisation service, for purposes of preservation and dissemination. It was uploaded to KAR on 25 April 2022 in order to hold its content and record within University of Kent systems. It is available Open Access using a Creative Commons Attribution, Non-commercial, No Derivatives ( licence so that the thesis and its author, can benefit from opportunities for increased readership and citation. This was done in line with University of Kent policies ( If you feel that your rights are compromised by open access to this thesis, or if you would like more information about its availability, please contact us at and we will seriously consider your claim under the terms of our Take-Down Policy (
Subjects: P Language and Literature
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
SWORD Depositor: SWORD Copy
Depositing User: SWORD Copy
Date Deposited: 14 Jul 2023 15:05 UTC
Last Modified: 14 Jul 2023 15:05 UTC
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