The Reason Behind the Hobby-Horse Essay
Literature of the Eighteenth Century is characterized by reason, moderation, good taste and simplicity. In addition, the ideals of impartial investigation and scientific experimentation were influential in the development of clear and simple prose as an instrument of rational communication. This dominant and persistent faith in a systemic approach to life, however, does not apply to Laurence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy.Sterne, through his digressive narrative style and cast of solipsistic characters, satirizes the scientific and philosophical opinions of his time that rational discourse is the only means by which human communication can exist.
The story itself, written as a fictitious autobiography, is of secondary importance to how it is told. Where traditionally novelists construct their details to achieve a consistent verisimilitude, Sterne’s aim is toward coherent disorder. Tristram Shandy deviates from the linear nature of traditional discourse by allowing digressions to obtrude themselves into the novel as naturally as it does into one’s mind. In his “chapter upon chapters,” Tristram addresses the unorthodox style in which his novel is being constructed by declaring, “is a man to follow rules———–or rules to follow him?” (204) This declaration is in obvious contrast to the Eighteenth century’s perception of the rationality and order that shaped the literature of the time.
Tristram informs the reader he will begin the story of his life ” as Horace says, ab Ovo,” even though he assumes Horace would disagree with this narrative design. He defends his decision by taking a satirical jab at the Augustan writers who believe in a return to the Classics as a model for worthy literature. “For in writing what I have set about,” Tristram states, “I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man’s rules who ever lived” (4). Staying true to his word, Tristram goes on a series of narrative detours involving names, Lockean learning theory, squeaking parlour doors, noses and sleep, (To name but a few) before finally arriving, in volume four, at the scene in which his birth actually occurs.
By interjecting the stories with chains of associated memories and anecdotes, Tristram allows the thematic and structural significance of the novel as a whole to emerge, an approach that is made in resistance to the obsessively rigid, formal structure of Eighteenth century literature. He contends, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—–they are the life, the soul of reading;——-take them out of this book for instance,—–you might as well take the book along with them” (52).Through the use of a casual conversational tone, Sterne incorporates the reader into the novel as a participatory figure. Tristram speaks directly to the reader by addresses such as madam, sir, ye powers, your worships, etc.
, and claims, “As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship” (6). The reader, when resolved to prescribe to “Shandian” logic, quickly becomes personally acquainted with the author. This technique forces the reader to accept the fact that his relationship with the author will take precedence over any one episode of the novel. We accept his digressions in the narrative as readily as we would in a conversational situation. Tristram, in turn, shows gratitude toward the reader for whom he “would go fifty miles on foot, for I have not a horse worth riding on, to kiss the hand of that man whose generous heart will give up the reins of his imagination into his author’s hands,—be pleased he knows not why, and cares not wherefore” (133).Once again poking fun at Eighteenth Century mores, Sterne riddles the stories in which Tristram digresses with elaborate wordplay, making a playful response to John Locke’s, Association of Ideas.
Locke contends that it is an insurmountable task to distinguish and label every object in the world with its own name; therefore, human communication depends on the mind’s ability to compare, contrast and classify objects and ideas. Tristram exploits Locke’s serious concern over the potential for miscommunication as an opportunity for wit. When Dr. Slop must construct a bridge in order to repair Tristram’s crushed nose, an unfortunate result from the use of forceps during delivery, Uncle Toby “took it instantly for granted that Dr Slop was making a model of the marquis d’Hopital’s bridge” (155).
In volume Five, Tristram wanders off onto the subject of whiskers. Here, he not only deviates from rational discourse but also introduces sexual innuendo, referring to whiskers as “a pair,” and “a pile.” The Lady Baussiere commands her page, “Take hold of my whiskers.” Tristram explains that there are trains of ideas “we see, spell, and put together without a dictionary,” and as a result, “’twas plain to the whole court the word was ruined” (244). In the final volume of the novel, Uncle Toby, having suffered a wound to the groin during battle, informs the Widow Wadman he will allow her to view and touch the place in which he received his wound. He then sends for the map and places her finger upon the location.
Tristram acknowledges, “it shews what little knowledge is got by mere words” (440).In addition to his unique narrative style, Laurence Sterne argues against the Enlightenment’s belief that clear rational discourse is imperative to human communication by assembling a cast of eccentric, self-absorbed characters who are capable of communicating beyond the realm of diction. Introducing the concept of the hobby-horse, the solipsistic tendencies of each character, Tristram demonstrates how one person’s “rational” dialogue is interpreted, and misinterpreted, by another individual who does not share the same hobby-horse. Furthermore, Tristram defends the innate comfort of the hobby-horse by stating, “so long as a man rides his hobby-horse peaceably and quietly along the King’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,—-pray, sir, what have either you or I to do with it?” (8)The Characters of Uncle Toby and Trim share the same hobby-horse, thus making social interaction between the two effortless.
Uncle Toby not only loved Trim, but “what attached him more to him still, was the similitude of their knowledge” (67). By sharing in Toby’s obsession with fortifications and battle reenactments, Trim learns how to communicate with Toby in a way that the other characters can’t understand. Toby’s brother Walter, on the other hand, whose hobby-horse is that of obsessive “rational” discourse, fails to communicate with Toby on a verbal level. This is due to the fact that Walter Shandy “would see nothing in the light in which others placed it,—–he placed things in his own light;—–he would weigh nothing in common scales;——–no,—–he was to refined a researcher to lay open to so gross an imposition” (104). Although Walter and Toby may not understand each other within the linear restrictions of “rational” discourse, they understand each other on an emotional level, often patiently allowing the other to ride off upon their given hobby-horses.
Rather than seeing the difficulty of communication as a dangerous form of isolation, Tristram shows the reader that human emotions are a strong enough force to link men.Although Walter and Dr. Slop share the same hobby-horse, the fascination and unquestioning reliance on science, the decisions made during their conversations prove to be disastrous. The agreement that forceps should be used in the delivery of Tristram results in the crushing of his nose. Tristram informs us, “the breaking down of the bridge of a child’s nose, by the edge of a pair of forceps,—however scientifically applied,—-would vex any man in the world, who was at so much in begetting a child as my father was” (157). Walter is left distraught over this course of events and can only be consoled by Toby.
The most notable hobby-horse in this novel is the novel itself. Tristram’s obsession with telling the story and opinions of his life consumes his entire existence. In addition, the manner in which he chooses to construct the novel makes it very difficult to effectively communicate with his audience. However, when the audience chooses to abandon their preconceived notions on literature, language, time and science, they can embrace the spirit of true “shandyism” and relate to Tristram within an individualistic non-rational domain. Tristram’s novel is not unlike his family whom he describes as follows:Though in one sense, our family was certainly a simple machine, as it consisted of a few wheels; yet there was thus much to be said for it, that these wheels were set in motion by so many different springs, and acted one upon the other from such a variety of strange principles and impulses,- that though it was a simple machine, it had all the honor and advantages of a complex one,- and a number of as odd movements within it, as ever were beheld in the inside of a Dutch silk-mill.
(251)Through writing Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne has effectively and hysterically destroyed the straight and narrow walls that imprisoned the individualistic spirit of Eighteenth Century literature. Tristram Shandy speaks up in dissent of obsessive rationalism, advocates for tolerance and rebels against the system. He proves that Bawdiness can co-exist with morality, reason should be more reasonable, and a balance between the head and the heart can be found without prescribing to a “systematickal” approach.