thumbnail taken from the First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

The ‘stuff’ of Tristram Shandy

Dashes, loops, wiggles and blanks: John Mullan investigates the visual oddities of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy.

The first readers of the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy knew that they were reading a novel like no other. Its originality was not just a matter of how it told its story; it was also a matter of how it looked. Its author, Laurence Sterne, took very great care over the physical appearance of his book. His surviving letters to his publishers are stringent in their demands about paper quality, print type and layout. Even though he had to travel from his Yorkshire home to do so, he supervised in person the printing of each successive volume. He made sure that the narrative’s pleasures and puzzles were for the eye as well as for the mind.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

All nine volumes of Tristram Shandy, which was written and printed over eight years.

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Dashes

The experience of reading almost any page of Tristram Shandy involves encountering the expressive effects of print. The novel has become notorious for its extraordinary pictographic devices, but the visual trickery is there in almost any paragraph of its prose. Essential to the narrative is Sterne’s idiosyncratic system of punctuation, and especially his use of dashes. These vary considerably in length, but are almost always much longer than the dashes in other printed texts of this (or any other) period. Every page of the novel splits up its sentences with these dashes, reaching out from one thought to the next. On the one hand, they separate clauses, giving the impression of a narrator who is always improvising, pausing for a moment before he decides what to say next. On the other hand, they often seem to race across the page, enacting the speedy life of that improvisation.

The dashes produce other effects too. In the fourth chapter of the novel, Tristram tells us just how he knows the precise date of his conception. He tells the reader who is incurious about such details to ‘skip over the remaining part of this Chapter’, while he seems to take aside the curious reader for a confidential explanation. Two long dashes split the page, either side of the phrase ‘Shut the door’. It is as if the reader sees on the page the closing off of this narrative space from what has preceded it. The longest dashes in the novel are found at the beginning of Volume 4, Chapter XXVII, which does not so much describe as depict the response of the eminent clergyman Phutatorius when an extremely hot chestnut drops into his breeches. ‘ZOUNDS!’ is his blasphemous exclamation (though in more emphatic capital letters than this) – which is followed by a dash that fills the rest of the line and the following two lines. It is a typographic equivalent to the loudness and length of his agonised exclamation.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

‘He flew like lightning – there was a slope of three miles and a half – we scarce touched the ground – the motion was most rapid – most impetuous’: here, the succession of dashes help to convey the speed at which Tristram is travelling in a horse-drawn coach (from Volume 5).

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Manuscript of 'Le Fever's story' from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy

Manuscript of 'Le Fever's story' from Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy

This manuscript page, which is peppered with long dashes, is probably written in Laurence Sterne’s own hand.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

The black page

Everywhere, the appearance of the text matches its content. Halfway through the first volume Tristram narrates the dying moments of Parson Yorick, with his close friend Eugenius taking his ‘last farewell’ of him. The chapter ends with Tristram telling us that Yorick now lies buried in the churchyard of his own parish, with only the epitaph from Hamlet – ‘Alas, poor YORICK!’ (5.1.184) – on his grave. The comic aspect of the pathos was emphasised by the famous words being printed in an oblong box, isolated in the middle of the page, as if in imitation of the ‘plain marble slab’ under which he was buried. The reader learns that many a passer-by stops to read the inscription, sighing aloud those words. As the chapter sadly and reflectively ends, the reader sees something else. The facing page is entirely black. So is its reverse side. The novel has gone into mourning it would seem. Yet the mourning is also a visual joke, in tune with the way that death always mixes with comedy in Sterne’s book. No wonder that Sterne named the fictional clergyman with whom he had so much in common ‘Yorick’, after the dead jester of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

The first black page from Volume 1, mourning the death of Parson Yorick.

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Illustrations

Via Tristram, Sterne makes much play with the language of art criticism and references to visual art. It often makes pictures of its scenes. Appropriately, therefore, it was one of very few 18th-century novels that came with professionally produced illustrations. Partly by flattering Hogarth in the novel, he obtained from the artist a frontispiece for the second edition of the first two volumes, published in March 1760. It depicted Corporal Trim reading Yorick’s sermon (which was actually one of Sterne’s own sermons) to Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby, while Dr Slop, the man-midwife, sleeps in a chair. Tristram, of course, is being born upstairs. A year later Hogarth also supplied a frontispiece for Volumes 3 and 4 of the novel, which showed a half-dressed Walter Shandy arriving just in time to prevent the botched christening of his son, who has been given the ill-omened name Tristram instead of the magnificent ‘Trismegistus’ that he intended.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

William Hogarth’s illustration for Volume 4 shows the terrible moment when Tristram is baptised with the name most hated by his father.

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Straight and wiggling lines

To visualise is, literally, to see the absurdity of human pretensions. So this is a book that provides its own self-mocking diagrams of itself. In Volume 6, Chapter X, Tristram, as if regretting his own tendency to digress, foresees getting on with ‘my uncle Toby’s story, and my own, in a tolerable straight line’. Seizing on his own metaphor, he then draws the anything-but-straight lines that might represent the progress of his narrative – often backwards or sideways or roundabout – in the previous five volumes. And there, in front of the reader, are the five wiggling, winding, roaming lines on the page. Of course the ideal of a narrative as a straight line is offered in jest. ‘The best line! say cabbage-planters’.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

Squiggly lines from Volume 6, illustrating the meandering path of Tristram’s story.

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A torn-out chapter

We are made to see how the business of shaping the narrative relies on the materiality of the pages in front of us. In Volume 4 the novel leaps straight from Chapter XXIII to Chapter XXV, at the opening of which Tristram confesses that ‘there is a whole chapter wanting here – and a chasm of ten pages made in the book by it’. Tristram has torn out a chapter, judging it ‘so much above the stile and manner of any thing else I have been able to paint in this book’ that the rest of the book would suffer by it. In the first edition this meant that the remaining right-hand pages of the volume were (as they never are in a normal book) evenly numbered. The effect must have been radically disruptive of readerly expectations, though it is never replicated in modern editions, which number their pages as though nothing untoward has happened.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

In Volume 4, Tristram confesses that ‘there is a whole chapter wanting here’.

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Widow Wadman: ‘paint her to your own mind – as like your mistress as you can’

The visual jokes go on. When Tristram finally, after many a promise and hint, gets to tell us about the ‘concupiscible’ Widow Wadman in Volume 6, he thinks of a new way of representing her allure as vividly as possible to the reader. For the purposes of his trick, he imagines the reader to be male (just as, where convenient, he elsewhere imagines the reader to be female), and invites him to take pen and ink and

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.

And there is the paper that the reader can use, for the facing page has been left entirely blank, as the screen for his libidinous imagination.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

The blank page which is inserted after Tristram invites the reader to ‘paint [Widow Wadman] to your own mind – as like your mistress as you can – as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you’.

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In Volume 9, two chapter headings – Chapter XVIII and Chapter XIX – introduce further blank pages, just at the stage where Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim enter Widow Wadman’s lair. The next text that is relevant to this episode comes in Chapter XXX where, after several lines of asterisks (what is being said here?) Toby promises the Widow that she ‘shall see the very place’. It is five chapters later before we find out what those blank pages were doing: where he was wounded (in the groin). It is telling that many of the book’s visual tricks involve ‘missing’ material. These include the many lines or paragraphs of asterisks where Tristram tactfully or insinuatingly omits what should not be said. This is a novel much concerned with the kinds of meaning – whether innuendo or heightened emotion – that lie beyond words. Gesturing at what cannot be said was Sterne’s delight.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

A paragraph of asterisks from Volume 6, where Tristram omits to describe the scene between Widow Wadman and Uncle Toby.

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The looping line

Perhaps the most audacious instance of this was the pictographic device reserved for the final volume of the novel, where Trim’s flourish with his stick is illustrated – indeed, enacted – by a famous looping line. Uncle Toby and Trim have paused before Widow Wadman’s front door, musing on the consequence of knocking and being admitted (the first step to being drawn into marrying the alluring Mrs Wadman). Sterne paid five shillings for the woodcut needed to produce this. ‘“Whilst a man is free …”’. The line illustrates freedom and is itself an expressive freedom. Uncle Toby may be bamboozled by words, but he understands the gesture. ‘A thousand of my father’s most subtle syllogisms could not have said more for celibacy’. Giddily, the line has all the freedom and verve that words lack.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

The looping line from the final volume, depicting the physical flourish of Trim’s stick.

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These devices and designs and visual inventions are essential to the novel. Tristram even tells us that one of the visual devices is the ‘motley emblem of my work’. In between Chapters XXXVI and XXXVII of Volume 3 is a double-sided marbled page. In the first edition of the novel, each of these pages was marbled by hand before being stuck in to an individual copy of the book, a laborious and therefore expensive process that included hand-stamping of the page numbers. In modern paperback editions of Tristram Shandy the marbled page is both monochrome (as opposed to the vividly crowded colours of the original) and uniform (every copy of a Penguin Classics version has the same marbled page, photographically copied from an 18th-century original). Thereby we lose the point, which is that each of its first readers looked at a completely unique design. The reader might think that he or she is reading the same book as everyone else, but in fact his or her novel is singular. As readers, we make our own meanings out of the best kinds of fiction. Look and see.

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, signed by Laurence Sterne

First edition of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

The hand-marbled page from Volume 3, which serves as a ‘motley emblem’ of Tristram’s work.

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  • John Mullan
  • John Mullan is Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.