Images in Tristram Shandy
by Brandy Anderson
Laurence Sterne famously interweaves the story of Tristram Shandy with words and images. The visual aspect of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is equally as important as the words themselves. Sterne masterfully employs visual tricks and cues throughout the novel to assist in both plot and character development. More than most novels, it is imperative that a reader has access to the physical book when reading Tristram Shandy in order to experience the story fully.
The most peculiar example of Sterne’s visuals combining with the text occurs in chapter 38 when the reader is encouraged to physically mark in the book. The reader is asked to draw his or her own visualization of the character the Widow Wadman. Sterne coaxes
‘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 ––– as like your mistress as you can ––– as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you – ’tis all one to me – please but your own fancy in it’
The reader is invited to become actively involved with not only the story but the visualization of the story as well. Readers are challenged to materialize their own mental image of the character. This invitation is given in a lighthearted and laughing manner, further putting readers in good humour as they navigate through their personal interpretation of the story. This call for reader interaction makes it necessary for readers to have the paper book in their hands so that they may fully engage with the story as the narrator intends. Any format other than paper negates this possibility. Any online or other electronic version of Tristram Shandy disallows readers the chance to commit to this level of interaction. The experience is utterly changed and the reader is left bereft of that peculiar connection.
Another striking feature of Tristram Shandy is the playful system of hyphens, asterisks, dashes and squiggly lines scattered amongst the text. Indeed, this unconventional format sometimes makes it difficult to quote sections of the novel in type. In chapter 38, the dashes between portions of the sentence vary in length. The narrator’s instructions to readers to draw the Widow Wadman contain a variety of dash lengths, varying from short to long, indicating different readings based on the dash itself. The short dash of: ‘To conceive this right – call for pen and ink – here’s paper ready to your hand’ suggests a hurried aside to the reader, simple instructions for what will be needed to complete this assignment. Whereas the elongated dash found in the following sentence: ‘ ––– Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind ––– as like your mistress as you can ––– as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you’ suggests a mischievous and lively aside to readers which may entice readers to laugh. This is another instance where the visual elements work in unison with the words, complementing each other and adding further meaning to both.
A further area where visuals play a particular significance in Tristram Shandy is the death of Yorick and the subsequent black page which directly follows the scene. In the paper book, the scene looks something akin to this:
‘Ten times a day has Yorick’s ghost the consolation to hear his monumental inscription read over with such a variety of plaintive tones as denote a general pity and esteem for him;––– a foot- way crossing the church-yard, close by the side of his grave,––not a passenger goes by without stopping to cast a look upon it,––– and sighing, as he walks on,
Alas, poor YORICK!’
There is a black page following this lament with no text. An online text version of this same scene looks like this:
‘Ten times a day has Yorick’s ghost the consolation to hear his monumental inscription read over with such a variety of plaintive tones as denote a general pity and esteem for him: – a footway crossing the church-yard, close by the side of his grave,-not a passenger goes by without stopping to cast a look upon it,-and sighing, as he walks on, ALAS,’POOR YORICK!’
There is no black page in this electronic edition; the page is simply indicated as being blank. This is a further example of how the visuals are inseparable from the text in Tristram Shandy.
Sterne, Laurence, The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. (London: Harper Collins, 2012).
Sterne, Laurence. The Live and times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. MOA. Digital Archive. <http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=moa&cc=moa&sid=95e3f6e828e116b80d4cccd93c806bc1&view=text&rgn=main&idno=AAN6489.0001.001> [accessed 27 February 2014]
Image Credit: The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. (London: Harper Collins, 2012).