publisher colophon
  • "good cursed, bouncing losses":Masculinity, Sentimental Irony, and Exuberance in Tristram Shandy

Unhappily, Sterne the man seems to have been only too closely related to Sterne the writer: his squirrel-soul leaped restlessly from branch to branch; he was familiar with everything from the sublime to the rascally; he had sat everywhere, and always with the same shamelessly watering eyes and play of sensibility on his features. If language does not start back at such a juxtaposition, he possessed a hard-hearted good-naturedness; and in the enjoyment of a baroque, indeed depraved imagination he almost exhibited the bashful charm of innocence. Such an ambiguousness become flesh and soul, such a free-spiritedness in every fibre and muscle of the body, have as he possessed these qualities perhaps been possessed by no other man.

—Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

At the end of volume 1, chapter 12 of his comic masterpiece, Laurence Sterne famously confronts his readers with a page completely coated on both sides in pure black ink. The most memorable oddity in a book filled with memorable oddities, the black page marks the first death in Tristram Shandy, that of Parson Yorick, Sterne's whimsical, laughter-loving innocent. All sail and no ballast, Yorick invariably lands into trouble by exposing, all too wittily, the scurrilous hypocrisies of his more serious superiors. According to Yorick, the authorities' grave deportment is best understood as a "mysterious carriage of the body [designed] to cover the defects of the mind."1 Eternally tempted to let loose with such witticisms by the shamelessly underhanded behavior all around him, Yorick acquires enemies even more quickly than he can produce bons mots, until at last the knaves confederate and exact their revenge by attacking Yorick in the press—slandering his character, questioning his faith, distorting his writings, trampling his learning, and burying every trace of his troublesome wit. Wearied by this war of words, Yorick finally "threw down the sword; and though he kept up his spirits in appearance to the last,——he died, nevertheless, [End Page 3] as was generally thought, quite broken hearted" (TS 1:12.33). "Alas, poor YORICK!" Tristram cries (TS 1:12.36)—and then his startling gesture of absolute opacity.

Haunting in its strangeness, Sterne's famous black page offers a particularly dense example of a rhetorical formation that I would like to call "sentimental irony," irony and sentimentality placed in a mutually constitutive, dialogical relationship. The black page's sentimental appeal both deepens and complicates—and is in turn deepened and complicated by—its ironic implications. An overflow of ink, the black page seems to record Tristram's overflow of feeling at Yorick's death. It is as if, overwhelmed by the task of conveying his sentiments on Yorick's demise, Tristram tries to say everything at once—and therefore can say nothing at all. The black page thus takes to its absolute limit the inexpressibility topos that is the hallmark of sentimental rhetoric: the formula "words cannot convey what I then felt" surely finds here its most extreme expression. And yet if the black page records all the things that Tristram can't quite say, it also registers all the things that Yorick's enemies actually did say. It is as if, outraged at the circumstances leading to his friend's death, Tristram has collected all the slanderous invectives published by Yorick's enemies and deposited them on one horribly inky page. In this light, the black page satirizes the workings of what Jürgen Habermas has dubbed the public sphere.2 A synecdoche for all the ink shed in all the vicious logomachies of the world, the black page savagely ironizes the Enlightenment notion that public argumentation inevitably produces the truth.3 Sentimental inexpressibility here reinforces and is reinforced by satiric irony.

In this and other experiments with sentimental irony, Sterne not only hybridizes the satirical and the sentimental, arguably the two most important modes of writing in the eighteenth century; he also brings together a contradictory set of historically specific cultural associations, for the eighteenth century assigned the qualities of mind necessary for composing satire (learned wit, rational judgment, and fortitude of will) to the masculine domain, those necessary for producing sentimentality (naïve emotionality, intuitive perception, and delicacy of feeling) to the feminine.4 Indeed, the black page constitutes a particularly noteworthy moment of gender instability in a text riddled with gender instability.5 After all, it memorializes a figure associated at once with masculine valor ("Yorick . . . fought it out with all imaginable gallantry" [TS 1:12.33]), feminine naiveté ("[as] utterly unpracticed in the world . . . at the age of twenty-six . . . as a romping, unsuspicious girl of thirteen" [TS 1:11.27–28]), and comically dilapidated manhood ("never appearing better, or otherwise mounted, than upon a lean, sorry, jack-ass of a horse" [TS 1:10.18]). Moreover, it is positioned so as to adjudicate in a quiet but crucial moment of gender conflict. Shortly before the story culminating in the black page, we learn that Yorick and his wife once helped to establish an elderly woman as the local midwife, thereby rescuing her from imminent poverty. Though both man [End Page 4] and wife participated equally in this charitable act, "the parson's wife . . . did run away at that time with the whole of [the credit for it]" (TS 1:10.11). It is with the explicit aim of setting the record straight and claiming credit for his friend that Tristram tells the story of Yorick's sad demise. Dripping with pathos and irony, the black page thus ultimately serves as a sort of trump card in Tristram's attempt to renegotiate the gendered distribution of public recognition for an act of benevolent sympathy. On Sterne's celebrated black page, then, sentimental irony functions not only as a locus of formal experimentation, but also as a rhetoric for thinking and feeling gender instability—a language for reimagining masculinity in an age of sensibility.

Historicizing Sentimental Irony

Recent critical discussion of Tristram Shandy has sought to provide an historical account of the book's many, seemingly unaccountable, oddities. In what cultural context, this line of inquiry seems to ask, does Sterne's first novel look less like an historical anomaly—a throwback to the tradition of learned wit, for instance, or an astonishingly prescient harbinger of postmodernism—and more like a text firmly grounded in its own historical moment?6 Most studies in this vein attempt to historicize Sterne by concentrating on his thematic preoccupations, his forays into philosophy, or his contemporary circulation and readership. In this essay, however, I strive to do so by focusing on one of Tristram Shandy's key rhetorical experiments—specifically, its willful mixtures of the satirical and the sentimental. Previous critics interested in this feature of Sterne's writing have typically defined the issue as a straightforward, binary category question: is this text sentimental or satirical?7 As I hope my reading of the black page makes clear, however, the very terms of the category question are fundamentally mistaken. Indeed, as any number of texts from the period will demonstrate, satire and sentimentality exist not in some irreconcilable antithesis, but in a fluid, open-ended dialog. Sarah Fielding's David Simple, for instance, uses satiric disjunctions as a means of generating sentimental value. Henry Fielding's Tom Jones employs sentimental ideals as satiric norms, valorizing Tom for his benevolent good nature and vilifying Bliful for his calculating self-interest. Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote places sentimental and satirical energies in a ludic, self-reinforcing dialog whereby the text's will to espouse sentimental doctrine displaces its impulse to deploy satiric ridicule, which in turn undermines scenes of sentimental bathos. The binary taxonomic question—is it sentimental or satirical?—thus not only impoverishes our understanding of Sterne's Tristram Shandy, but also obscures a crucial, generative, and recurrent feature of eighteenth-century literary history: its experiments in hybridizing satire and sentimentality.8

With this observation as a starting point, I approach Tristram Shandy by reformulating the category question as a cultural question. Instead of asking [End Page 5] whether Tristram Shandy is sentimental or satiric, I strive to explain what sociohistorical conditions enabled such an audacious act of generic hybridity in the first place. As a way of approaching this issue, I situate Tristram Shandy's experiments in generic hybridity in the transformations wrought upon masculinity by the emergent culture of sensibility. As I will demonstrate, Tristram Shandy formulates these developments in contemporary gender ideology as an episode of loss—specifically, as the loss of traditional forms of phallic authority and the encroachment of effeminacy on male identity. As I will further demonstrate, the text responds to phallic loss with a highly peculiar version of the psychological phenomenon that Freud named "melancholia," the painful inability to relinquish the lost object. By examining the twists and turns of Tristram Shandy's ambivalent and sentimentally ironic effort to relinquish the lost phallus, I offer a theoretical description of the aesthetics of exuberance. Often described as the product of individual creative genius, exuberance is, I will argue, simply the name we give to a particularly delightful form of anxious male melancholia.

What It Feels Like for a Man: Masculinity and Loss

The last two decades in eighteenth-century studies have bequeathed to us two major narratives about sentimental masculinity. The first and more established narrative is based on a now familiar story of eighteenth-century class formation. Seeking to further its self-legitimation, the ascendant bourgeoisie complemented the figure of the bourgeois domestic woman by constructing the figure of the bourgeois domestic man, most often particularized as the refined and sociable man of delicate feeling. Though celebrated as a civilizational advance over the predatory, rakish aristocrat on the one hand and the loutish working-class male on the other, this new bourgeois style of masculinity frequently provoked apprehensions of widespread effeminacy, as Adam Smith attested when he lamented in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that "the delicate sensibility required in civilized nations sometimes destroys the masculine firmness of the character."9 In this narrative, then, bourgeois sentimentality feminized eighteenth-century masculinity.10

Challenging this story of the bourgeois feminization of values, Claudia Johnson has proposed an intriguing alternative narrative of what might be called the reactionary masculinization of sentiment. In her view, the emergence of the man of feeling betokens not greater gender equity, much less a greater valuation of the feminine, but rather an act of gender colonization that ultimately works to validate male authority, degrade female feeling, and reinforce a regime of heteronormativity. She writes:

[S]entimentality entailed . . . the 'masculinization' of formerly feminine gender traits . . . the affective practices associated with it are valued not because [End Page 6] they are understood as feminine, but precisely and only insofar as they have been recoded as masculine. . . . The sentiment celebrated in very different ways by Sterne, Goldsmith, Burke, and Rousseau validates male authority figures by representing them as men of feeling, but it also bars the women whose distress occasions their affective displays from enjoying any comparable moral authority by representing their affectivity as inferior, unconscious, unruly, even criminal.11

Johnson further argues that "sentimental man, having taken over once-feminine attributes, leaves to women only two choices: either the equivocal [i.e., the queer] or the hyperfeminine";12 and in a series of brilliant intertextual close readings, she explores the complex and varied ways in which such women writers as Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, and Austen exposed and critiqued the gendered contradictions of what she succinctly terms "chivalric sentimentality."

The class-based narrative rightly recognizes the instability at the heart of sentimental masculinity, but it risks lapsing into an excessively narrow functionalism according to which gender formations are mere epiphenomena of class struggle.13 By contrast, Johnson's account powerfully demonstrates the complex and multiple imbrications of eighteenth-century gender formations—their involvement in political discourses on the French Revolution, in the advent of compulsory heterosexuality, and (more obviously) in the struggle between the sexes—but she downplays the extent to which masculinity itself may have functioned as a radically disrupted term from the start. Indeed, in her view, "masculinity" is a category so utterly stable that it can unproblematically colonize and assimilate even its traditional opposite, feminine feeling, thus leaving to women writers of the period the task of demystifying the contradictions at work in sentimental gender ideology.

If we are thus faced with an unhappy choice between diametrically opposed narratives with diametrically opposed virtues, it is perhaps because, in truth, neither narrative is centrally concerned with describing sentimental masculinity as such. The class-based narrative typically treats the story of the man of feeling as a sort of afterthought, a sequel to the story of the bourgeois domestic woman. For her part, Johnson treats sentimental masculinity as a kind of setup, a framework that helps to highlight the radicalism of the women writers who are properly her subject. Of course, one can hardly begrudge these scholars their right to define their projects as they see fit; nor can one deny that there remain compelling reasons to focus on the historical plight of eighteenth-century women (the still pressing need to recuperate women's writing of the period being only one of the most obvious). One should observe, however, that gender is, after all, a relational system of difference—a complex, multiply determined, unstable, and often contradictory system, to be sure, but a system nonetheless. Each variable necessarily impinges [End Page 7] on and is impinged on by the other. Thus, as Natalie Zemon Davis has argued, historians of gender "should not be working only on the subjected sex any more than an historian of class can focus entirely on peasants."14

Taking Davis's admonition to heart, a number of scholars have recently come to focus on eighteenth-century masculinity as a particularly dense site of ideological contestation. Like Johnson, scholars working in this emerging field find masculinity imbricated in multiple complex historical developments—not just in bourgeois social ascendancy and the installation of regimes of heteronormativity, but also in discourses of British nationalism, in the tactical formations of party politics, in the gradual and uneven shift from a notion of personal identity based on public reputation to one based on internal character, and in the equally gradual and uneven shift from a Galenic, single-body model of the sexes to an essentialist, two-body model.15 Like the class-based narrative of yore, these more recent accounts of gender formation also insist on the radical instability of eighteenth-century masculinity. Indeed, they have even proposed that masculinity is necessarily unstable and that, paradoxically enough, its instability results precisely from its hegemonic status.16 Nonetheless, several questions remain to be asked about eighteenth-century masculinity. Most particularly, how was sentimental masculinity lived? If, as the historical scholarship so powerfully demonstrates, eighteenth-century masculinity in general and sentimental masculinity in particular was rent with contradictions and vexed by apprehensions of its own effeminacy, then how did male subjects of the period respond to the felt inadequacy of their own gender identities? What was it like to be caught in that peculiar subjective bind, being a bourgeois man of delicate feeling? What, in short, did it feel like for a man?17

If the novels of the period are any indication, there were many different attitudes toward the period's developing gender formations. In Sir Charles Grandison, for instance, Richardson straightforwardly celebrates sentimental masculinity, even as he unconsciously exposes its contradictions.18 In Tom Jones, Fielding responds to the potential effeminacy of sentimental masculinity with a strategy that has been favored by gender-panicked men since time immemorial—namely, a strategy of blustering denial. Describing his hero's physical appearance for the first time, Fielding writes:

[H]is face had a Delicacy in it almost inexpressible . . . which might have given him an Air rather too effeminate, had it not been joined to a most masculine Person and Mein [sic]; which latter had as much in them of the Hercules, as the former had of the Adonis.19

For its part, Tristram Shandy faces sentimental masculinity and its concomitant sense of effeminacy with an attitude of loss and nostalgia. The sense of phallic loss is obvious enough. We are talking, after all, about a veritable encyclopedia of phallic injury. Consider the plummeting parapet that crushes Uncle Toby's [End Page 8] groin, for instance, the errant sash window that gives Tristram his surprise circumcision, and the infamously "unseasonable question" with which Elizabeth Shandy interrupts her husband at the climactic moment of sexual intercourse (TS 1:2.2).20 The sense of nostalgia is no less obvious, if somewhat more muted. Tristram may speak in the voice of the perpetual adolescent, but the fact remains that there are really no young people in Sterne, only old men grappling with their obsolescence. Indeed, Toby and Walter arguably represent sentimentally ironic re-workings of masculine ideals that would most likely have seemed distinctly antiquated by the time Sterne began writing Tristram Shandy: the man of martial valor who fulfills his manhood through combat, and the stoic man of reason who does so through restraint of his sexual passions—both of which were being gradually displaced by the figure of the civilized man of heterosocial conversation.21 Moreover, with the death of Bobby and with Tristram's failure to beget an heir, the book seems to record the impending extinction of the Shandy line.22 Noting this air of nostalgia and phallic sorrow, it might be tempting to conclude that Tristram Shandy simply rejects the period's developing gender formations, and indeed some readers have done precisely that, offering a variety of arguments for reading the novel as a reactionary attack on sentimental masculinity and/or the bourgeois feminization of culture.23 Nonetheless, I think it would be a mistake to draw any conclusions simply from the air of phallic loss that saturates the novel, for the phenomenology of loss is itself a deeply ambiguous thing, capable of fostering a variety of complex attitudes and conflicted responses.

Mourning, Melancholia, and Exuberance

All my joyes to this are folly, Naught so sweet as melancholy.

—Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

In his seminal 1917 essay on the topic, Freud described two divergent modes of dealing with loss: one that he named "mourning," another that he termed "melancholia." In mourning, the grieving subject withdraws from social intercourse and rehabilitates herself by gradually learning to disinvest from the lost love object. At the conclusion of this slow and painful process, the recovered subject rejoins the social world, older and sadder, but wiser and capable of living and loving once more. Melancholia, by contrast, is failed mourning. The grieving subject is haunted by some repressed and unresolved ambivalence toward the lost object, and this ambivalence insistently resurfaces to disrupt the work of mourning. Thus, whereas the course of mourning can be described as a balanced narrative of loss, recovery, and reintegration, the plot of melancholy is characterized by failure, ambivalence, interruption, and open-endedness.24 [End Page 9]

Itself a narrative characterized by failure, ambivalence, interruption, and open-endedness, Tristram Shandy may seem like an ideal text to examine through the lens of Freudian melancholy. Quite aside from its air of loss and nostalgia, the book has seemed to certain critics amazingly prescient about the findings of modern psychoanalysis. Its exploration of the association of ideas, its frequent illustrations of how hobbyhorses can offer compensatory erotic satisfaction, its understanding of the way repressed desires can find expression in unwitting gestures and dubiously chosen words—all these qualities make Tristram Shandy seem like an uncannily insightful eighteenth-century illustration of modern accounts of "what passes in a man's own mind" (TS 2:2.98).25 Even granting Tristram Shandy's suggestive resonance with Freudian concepts, however, I think it would be a mistake simply to impose twentieth-century psychoanalytic paradigms onto eighteenth-century cultural material without substantial revision. Indeed, we can infer this need for revision from the novel's very first sentence:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions that were then uppermost:——Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,——I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.———

(TS 1:1.1)

According to Freud, Sterne's wonderful opening sentence should be rife with grinding torments of the utmost psychic agony. Ruefully observing the moment of his own conception, Tristram here enacts a version of what psychoanalysis calls the primal scene, the moment when the male child suffers a loss so profound that it will organize the rest of his psychological development. Witnessing his parents in the act of coupling, the son discovers that he is not his own source, that he is not a self-created autonomous being, that his mother, his primary love object, was lost to him even before his birth, and that his father is in fact his deadly rival. From this traumatic experience, the male child learns the sorrows of castration anxiety, the inevitability of separation from the primary love object, and the hardships of personal individuation. For Freud, then, the primal scene impels the male child through the family romance and the Oedipal drama that is his tragic male destiny. For Sterne, however, the primal scene is simply a hilarious and pathetic failure of reason. If Freud understood the primal scene by drawing on the model of Greek [End Page 10] tragedy, then for Sterne the model is sentimental irony: Tristram's ironic jabs at his father's hyper-rationality are deliciously mixed with an oddly touching kind of self-pity. To be sure, there is an element of Oedipality at work here: exposing Walter's sexual shortcomings, Tristram is in a sense slaying the father and rising up to assert his own identity. But if the Sophoclean tragedy turns on the fact that Oedipus could not recognize his own mother and father, then the Shandean joke is that Tristram may not even be Walter's child.26 And if in Freud the primal scene brings a kind of order to the narrative of male psychological development, then in Sterne it only presages the joyous disorder of Tristram's subsequent life and opinions.

So the categories of Freudian psychoanalysis are only imperfectly applicable to Sterne's novel. I would suggest that we have this disjunction between theory and text in part because the eighteenth century entertained modalities of the self very different from the one that Freudian psychoanalysis was designed to explain. Freud aimed to describe the subjectivity of the modern bourgeois private individual. That figure is on its way in the eighteenth century, to be sure—indeed, its eventual arrival is arguably being heralded in the very pages of Tristram Shandy—but the period also entertained other, radically different modalities of the self that do not so readily yield their secrets to Freudian theory. Alongside the emergent modern individual memorialized in psychoanalytic theory is a residual, more properly early modern idea of the self as a work of art, a self-consciously fashioned style of perceiving and behaving in the world. This early modern self is public where Freud's is private (art is meant to be seen, after all); its satisfactions come from skillfully playing a role rather than from fully actualizing some internal essence; its native literary genre is the theater rather than the modern novel. And if for Freud overcoming loss is a matter of decathecting, of the grieving subject gradually relinquishing its libidinal investment in the lost object, then for the early modern self, it is a matter of improvisation and performance—of artfully taking losses and making them seem like part of the script, part of the role that the self is so skillfully fashioned to play. I will ultimately suggest that this theatrical modality of the self also had its own version of melancholia, but first I want to establish the response to phallic loss with which theatrical melancholia stands in contrast. In so doing, I hope not only to suggest why theatrical melancholia might have appealed to Sterne, but also to offer insight into the aesthetics of exuberance for which his novel has been so justly celebrated.

Shortly after the appearance of the first installment of Tristram Shandy, Sterne was severely attacked by an unidentified critic for his unrepentant bawdiness in general and his satires of recognizable individuals in particular. Besides complaining that Sterne's depiction of Kunastrokius unfairly insulted the deceased Dr. Richard Mead, the critic apparently insinuated that Sterne had written Tristram Shandy only for ignoble, mercenary reasons; declared that the book could not safely be read by "any woman of character"; and demanded [End Page 11] that Sterne excise certain passages from his second edition.27 Sterne responded to these attacks with understandable vehemence; but if it is unsurprising to find him angrily defending his first novel from the depredations of a meddlesome critic, it is nonetheless noteworthy that he experienced these comments largely as so many direct assaults on his manhood. Near the beginning of his reply, he confesses himself momentarily incapacitated by his critic's attacks. "[T]hat the humours you have stirred up might not work too potently in me," he writes, "I have waited four days to cool myself, before I would set pen to paper to answer you" (L 88). To re-inflect this statement only slightly, we might say that Sterne was for several days blocked from wielding his (phallic) pen for fear of his adversary's all too threatening potency. Indeed, throughout the letter, Sterne evinces several such masculine anxieties. Urged to censor his own novel, he descries his critic's "attempt of castrating my book to the prudish humours of particulars" (L 90–91). Accused of writing for debased, mercenary purposes, he exclaims, "[A]n author is worse treated than a common ***** [whore] at this rate" (L 89). Finally, charged with both "cowardice and injustice" for satirizing the deceased (L 89), Sterne says curiously little about the accusation of injustice and instead fixates explicitly on the imputation of unmanly cowardice.28 "But why cowardice?" he asks, devoting an entire paragraph to the question (L 89).

Sterne responds to these threats of phallic loss with a strategy of straightforward remasculinization. Refusing to excise certain passages from Tristram Shandy, he brings his letter to a climax by declaring:

[A]n author is not so soon humbled as you imagine——no, but to make the book better by castrations——that is still sub judice, and I can assure you upon this chapter, that the very passages and descriptions you propose, that I should sacrifice in my second edition, are what are best relish'd by men of wit, and some others whom I esteem as sound criticks—— [.]

(L 90)

Sterne here claims for the satiric element of his text the status of a phallus, one in which he takes manifest pride: "not so soon humbled" by the book's detractors, he will not meekly submit to its "castration." Defiantly identifying this textual phallus as the part "best relish'd by men of wit," Sterne places himself in a male homosocial network that, according to recent historians of gender, served as an antidote to various male fears of effeminacy in the eighteenth century. Responding to the gender anxieties provoked by his critic, then, Sterne asserts his proud possession of a textual phallus greatly relished by his fellow men, thereby securing his place in a male homosocial community that validates and reaffirms his masculine identity.29

Sterne briefly considered publishing this letter at the beginning of the second installment of Tristram Shandy.30 It is well that he did not. To be sure, the letter does offer flashes of Sterne's characteristic rhetorical brilliance (e.g., his gloss on De mortuis nil nisi bonum as "a nonsensical lullaby of some nurse, put [End Page 12] into Latin by some pedant, to be chanted by some hypocrite to the end of the world, for the consolation of departing lechers" [L 88]), but on the whole the letter must be read as a failure of authorial composure—a rare and curious breakdown in an otherwise effortlessly whimsical authorial persona. For surely there is something strange at work when Laurence Sterne—who so joyously celebrates his will not to "confine myself . . . to any man's rules that ever lived" (TS 1:4.5)—feels he must defer to the judgment of "sound criticks" to defend his writing. Surely there is something strange at work when Laurence Sterne—who so gleefully put the dedication of his first novel up for public auction—answers the charge of "raising a tax upon the public" by murmuring, "[H]ow very mortifying!" (L 89). Surely there is something strange at work when Laurence Sterne—indisputably one of the greatest ironists in English literary history—is reduced to sputtering the crudest levels of sheer sarcasm. Defending his text from the accusation of inflammatory indecency, Sterne simply seethes:

But the chaste and married, and chaste unmarried part of the sex——they must not read my book! Heaven forbid the stock of chastity should be lessen'd by the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy——yes, his opinions——it would certainly debauch 'em! God take them under his protection in this fiery trial, and send us plenty of Duenas to watch the workings of their humours, 'till they have safely got thro' the whole work.——

(L 90)

And surely there is something strange at work when Laurence Sterne—who took such pleasure in cultivating an infinitely ludic authorial persona and who generally regarded hostile critics as so many playthings for his deliciously corrosive wit—is moved to confess to his unknown correspondent, "[Y]ou have made me at length as serious and severe as yourself" (L 88).31

I have lingered over Sterne's strange letter in some detail because it both illustrates a commonsensical kind of response to phallic loss and suggests why Sterne might have found that commonsensical response profoundly unsatisfying. However effective as a reassertion of the phallus, the strategy of straightforward remasculinization leaves much to be desired as a path toward ludic theatricality. Simply put, when Sterne endeavors to remasculinize himself, he forfeits the ability to theatricalize himself. What I wish to suggest, then, is that Sterne faced the peculiar challenge of formulating a theatrical response to phallic loss—one that would enable him both to expiate the masculine anxieties he so plainly felt and to enjoy what Nietzsche would later call his "free-spiritedness," his ability to make, unmake, and remake the authorial persona in which he so delighted.

Seeking to grasp the logic of this theatrical response to phallic loss, we might turn to Stephen Greenblatt's highly influential work on Renaissance self-fashioning. Greenblatt writes: [End Page 13]

[W]e may say that self-fashioning occurs at the point of encounter between an authority and an alien, that what is produced in this encounter partakes of both the authority and the alien that is marked for attack, and hence that any achieved identity always contains within itself the signs of its own subversion or loss.32

According to Greenblatt, faced with a sufficiently alien threat, the theatrical self is condemned to reinstate the very anxieties it seeks to overcome. Self-fashioning is therefore always self-subverting; and this, I would argue, is the structure of theatrical melancholia: the effort to overcome loss that is doomed to reproduce loss. Tristram Shandy takes this fundamental paradox of early modern self-fashioning one step further, however, in that it seeks to overcome phallic loss precisely by reinstating phallic loss. Threatened with emasculation, Sterne emasculates himself; he fashions a new self that has already accommodated the threat of phallic loss, thereby making emasculation seem like just another part of the script, part of the role that the self is so expertly fashioned to play. Indeed, anomalous letters to anonymous critics aside, Sterne manifestly enjoys the way theatrical melancholia endlessly reproduces loss, because in so doing it endlessly reproduces occasions for improvisatory self-fashioning. This, I submit, is the logic of Sternean exuberance: the effort to overcome loss that joyously reproduces loss.

We see this ludic pattern of theatrical melancholia quite concretely when, in a particularly poignant moment of phallic loss, Tristram confesses his sexual impotence. "[R]eflecting upon what had not passed" with his dear Jenny, Tristram writes:

——Everything is good for something, quoth I.

——I'll go into Wales for six weeks, and drink goat's whey——and I'll gain seven years longer life for the accident. For which reason I think myself inexcusable, for blaming Fortune so often as I have done, for pelting me all my life long, like an ungracious duchess, as I call'd her, with so many small evils: surely if I have any cause to be angry with her, 'tis that she has not sent me great ones—a score of good cursed, bouncing losses, would have been as good as a pension to me.

——One of a hundred a year, or so, is all I wish——I would not be at the plague of paying land tax for a larger.

(TS 7:29.624–25)

We see the same exuberant attitude to loss even more audaciously in the death of Le Fever, that old soldier and emblem of masculinity: "the pulse fluttered—stopp'd—went on—throb'd—stopp'd again—moved—stopp'd—shall I go on?—No" (TS 6:10.513). But theatrical melancholia informs the text at structural levels as well. We see it in Sterne's habitual use of the dash, for instance, the syntactical mark of an interruption that enables improvisation, the break in phallogocentric grammar that allows for spontaneous performance. We see [End Page 14] it, too, in the way Sterne's characters ride their hobbyhorses, those strangely delightful compensations for phallic loss that only continue phallic loss. Thus Walter seeks solace for the inadequacies of his "nose" in the pages of Bruscambille's and Slawkenbergius's vast nosologies, only to experience again and again the same impotent rationality that has hung over him from the novel's very first page. Thus, too, Uncle Toby finds compensation for his injured groin in the hobbyhorsical campaigns enacted on his bowling green, but his remasculinizing project proves delectably self-defeating in that it places him on a field of manly valor that is quite literally diminished. As I will demonstrate in the following section, however, the pattern of theatrical melancholia makes itself felt most intriguingly in Sterne's revisionary use of that trademark eighteenth-century form, the mock-epic. In a sense, of course, this form is constitutionally obsessed with phallic loss, inasmuch as it is by definition a self-conscious displacement of the epic, by far the most massively phallic genre of all. Most commentators have rightly seen in the mock-epic a certain lingering, melancholy attachment to the epic and its values.33 As I will demonstrate, however, Sterne transforms the ambivalent loss of epic possibility into a source of exuberant pleasure and sentimental irony.

Size Matters: Sentimental Irony and the Mock-Epic

Alexander Pope neatly summarizes the contemporary conventional wisdom on mock-epic form in the postscript to his translation of The Odyssey. He writes:

I believe, now I am upon this Head, it will be found a just observation, that the low actions of life cannot be put into a figurative style without being ridiculous. . . .

The use of pompous expression for low actions or thoughts is the true Sublime of Don Quixote. How far unfit it is for Epic Poetry, appears in its being the perfection of the Mock-Epick.34

For Pope and most other eighteenth-century theorists of the form, the mock-epic is characterized by its use of grand epic style for distinctly un-epic subjects—a device deployed to devastating satiric effect in The Rape of the Lock and The Dunciad, two texts all but universally cited as signal instances of the genre.35 Writing some thirty-three years later, Sterne defends his own authorial practices with a description of mock-epic form that subtly but importantly differs from Pope's. Apologizing for his minute description of Dr. Slop's tumble in the mud, Sterne writes:

[I]n general I am perswaded that the happiness of the Cervantic humour arises from this very thing—of describing silly and trifling Events, with the Circumstantial Pomp of great Ones[.]

(L 77) [End Page 15]

Both writers find in Cervantes the mock-epic's characteristic disjunction between manner and matter; but where Pope is concerned with "the true sublime of Don Quixote," Sterne is interested in "the happiness of the Cervantic humour." The former is interested in sublimity and greatness, the latter in pleasure and humor.36 The two writers consequently entertain radically different conceptions of mock-epic subject matter. In Pope's view, the mock-epic depicts "the low actions of life"—"low" being a standard term of neoclassical poetics for the common and the everyday, of course, but one that nonetheless unmistakably registers a certain snobbish revulsion for the inglorious, undignified stuff of modernity. In Sterne's view, by contrast, the mock-epic simply concerns "silly and trifling events"—i.e., the inconsequential, the amusingly trivial, the bagatelle. Thus if Pope saw in Colley Cibber a dunce all but satanic in his powers of uncreation, then Sterne imagines in Tristram "a mortal of so little consequence in the world, it is not much matter what I do" (TS 1:8.13).

I would argue, then, that if the mock-epic offers a displaced version of the epic, Sterne gives us a double displacement, revising the mock-epic and its attitude to the loss of epic possibility as well. He accomplishes this task largely through a process of disarticulation. As we have seen, for Pope and many other contemporary practitioners of the form, the mock-epic is characterized by stylistic disproportion: petty subjects presented with outsized rhetoric. As I will show, however, Sterne disarticulates this principle of disproportion, separating it from its conventional association with mock-epic style and applying it promiscuously to various other dimensions of writing. Keeping faith with his ethos of exuberant phallic loss, Sterne invents new, sentimentally ironic ways to make size matter.

Deidre Lynch has already commented on one of Sterne's many games with size, showing how he willfully generates egregious quantitative mismatches between signifier and signified. As Lynch has shown, Sterne destabilizes "the equality of words to things," playing with "disproportion[s] between form and substance, writing and matter," thereby upsetting neoclassical protocols of "discursive proportion."37 Lynch cites the story of Diego and Julia as one example of a blatant disproportion between signifier (Diego's outlandishly large nose) and signified (Diego's identity, which could just as easily have been established by less extravagant means). Adding to Lynch's insights, we may note that Sterne also plays with elaborate disproportions between cause and effect. Indeed, Tristram begins the novel by urging the reader to adopt a preposterously lopsided doctrine of causation, arguing that the state of his parents' mind at the moment of conception "is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it" (TS 1:1.1); that the concentration of the animal spirits at so crucial a juncture is "not a halfpenny matter" (TS 1:1.2); and that a single, ill-timed question from his mother was responsible for "a thousand weaknesses both of body and mind, which no skill of the physician or the philosopher could ever afterwards have set thoroughly to rights" (TS 1:2.3). [End Page 16] Consider, too, the ill-starred chestnut that plummets, piping hot, into the all too open aperture of the unsuspecting Phutatorius's breeches (TS 4:27.380–86). Phutatorius blames Yorick for this discomfiting incident, only because Yorick happened to pick up the offending chestnut at the conclusion of its adventures in Phutatorius's pants. "[T]he action was trifling," but as Tristram goes on to explain:

It is curious to observe the triumph of slight incidents over the mind:——What incredible weight they have in forming and governing our opinions, both of men and things,——that trifles light as air, shall waft a belief into the soul, and plant it so immoveably within it,——that Euclid's demonstrations, could they be brought to batter it in breach, should not all have power to overthrow it.

(TS 4:27.383)

Thus Yorick becomes the object of Phutatorius's deepening animosity—an animosity which will, we can infer, play no small role in the ecclesiastical feud ultimately leading to the innocent Parson's death. The minute adventures of the errant chestnut finally terminate in the colossal catastrophe of the black page and the melancholy cry, "Alas, poor Yorick!"

By using disproportion as a principle of causation, Sterne shows that the logic of the mock-epic (treating the small as if it were great) is formally identical to the logic of sentimental narrative (aggrandizing even the most minute, delicate particulars of the protagonist's life as if they were of the greatest urgency).38 Because we know so much about how they came to be what they are, we sympathize with Sterne's characters in a way that we cannot sympathize with the characters in a mock-epic. We sympathize with Tristram, even as we feel certain that he has blown things out of all proportion; and our hearts go out to Yorick, precisely because his enemies have blown things out of all proportion. By transforming mock-epic disproportion from a stylistic principle into a principle of causation, then, Sterne transforms a standard device of eighteenth-century satiric irony into one of sentimental irony: disproportion in the service of blame becomes disproportion in the service of sympathy.

Sterne also uses disproportion as a principle of characterization. Many of his characters are marvelously given to misapprehending the scale of things, their habits of mind notably derived from mock-epic conventions. Take Uncle Toby, for instance, whose bowling green simultaneously literalizes and reverses the procedures of the mock-epic. Rather than treating the small as if it were great, Toby takes large, world-historical events and reduces them to the size of his backyard, downsizing all the military battles of contemporary European civilization to the scale of his hobbyhorse.39 And then there is Walter, whose noodle functions in a manner even more directly tied to the mock-epic. "[M]uch given to close reasoning upon the smallest matters" (TS 1:3.4), Walter is forever treating small, trifling events—e.g., the fate of his nose, his nuptials, [End Page 17] his theory of names—with all the circumstantial pomp of great ones. If Toby miniaturizes, Walter magnifies. Moving from the micro to the macro, from the commonplace to the cataclysmic, Walter has an uncanny ability to see vast consequences in the seemingly inconsequential. In his view, for instance, nose size is an issue so weighty that "the greatest family in England could [not] stand it out against an uninterrupted succession of six or seven short noses" (TS 3:33.261). Similarly, he believes the question of who will attend Elizabeth Shandy during her delivery to be a matter of national importance. Walter fears that, through a complicated series of causes and effects, a mishap in Tristram's birth may induce a "state-apoplexy" that will ultimately be the political and economic ruin of the nation (TS 1:18.53). Given Walter's stupendous knack for making his personal life a matter of epic importance, well might Tristram remark, "[M]y father had extensive views of things" (TS 1:18.52).

By using disproportion as a principle of characterization, Sterne finds yet another way to transform satiric irony into sentimental irony. For if we know characters best only once we have grasped their habitual misapprehensions of scale, then disproportion is no longer a way of judging characters but rather a way of understanding them, not a way of assigning satiric blame but a way of describing "what passes in a man's own mind."

With his revisions to the mock-epic form, Sterne also offers a revisionary attitude to the loss of epic possibility. For whereas Pope deployed the mock-epic partly as a remasculinizing assertion of phallic authority, a reminder of the sublime grandeur from which modernity has fallen, Sterne manifestly regarded the loss of epic possibility as a moment of exuberant liberation, as Tristram attests when he says of his ab Ovo narrative design:

Horace, I know, does not recommend this fashion altogether: But that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem or a tragedy:—(I forget which)—besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr. Horace's pardon;—for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived.

(TS 1:5.5)

Towards Defining an Age of Exuberance

Some thirty years ago, Donald Greene proposed dubbing the eighteenth century "the Age of Exuberance," identifying as the period's central characteristic "the magnificent, apparently inexhaustible and indefatigable fund of sheer energy that its best art affords." Exemplifying the very quality he seeks to describe, Greene elaborates:

the energy one hears in the firm bass line of a Bach allegro or the apocalyptic choral and orchestral climaxes of a Handel oratorio, that one sees in the fantastic design of a Vanbrugh mansion or the steeple of a Wren church, in the [End Page 18] extravagantly imaginative conception of a great Reynolds portrait or a Nollekens bust, in a drawing room decorated by Adam or furnished by Chippendale, that one responds to—unless one's ability to read the plain sense of the words in front of one's nose has been subverted by dogmatic preconceptions about what one is expected to find there—in the Walpurgisnacht quality of Mac Flecknoe, The Dunciad, and A Tale of a Tub (Dryden, Pope, and Swift would have need to take no lessons in "the literature of the absurd" from its twentieth-century practitioners; why should they, when they had all sat at the feet of its supreme exponent, Rabelais?), in the elaborately baroque diction and sentence structure of Johnson's Rambler prose style and the demonic hammer blows with which he demolishes a Lord Chesterfield or Soame Jenyns, in the fervent religious passion that shines out from the poetry of a Christopher Smart or Charles Wesley or William Cowper.40

A work of exuberance in its own right, Greene's description of exuberance designedly provokes more than it performs, deliberately opening up questions rather than providing conclusive answers. Most notably, it challenges us to produce a suitable working definition, something more precise than our intuitive understanding of exuberance as "sheer energy." As I have argued, we can best understand eighteenth-century exuberance as a melancholic structure, an attempt to overcome loss that ultimately reproduces loss. This definition of exuberance has two major conceptual advantages. First, it enables us to explain the otherwise mysterious sense of inexhaustibility on which Greene rightly seizes and which one invariably senses in works of exuberance. Exuberance is indefatigable because it is circular: by reproducing loss, exuberance also reproduces the need to overcome loss, and thus it continually calls on the imaginative energies of its practitioners in greater and greater quantities. Hence Tristram's justly celebrated observation about the infinite nature of his authorial labors: "the more I write, the more I shall have to write" (TS 4:13.342). Second, if we understand exuberance as a species of melancholia, as a ceaseless dialectic of loss, then we can begin to recognize and account for varieties of exuberance. Exuberance may be a self-subverting attempt to overcome loss; but the object of loss is variable, as is the attitude toward endless self-subversion. One may have a ludically self-subverting effort to overcome phallic loss, as in Sterne; a maniacally self-subverting effort to overcome the loss of clear guides to moral conduct, as in Richardson; a furiously self-subverting attempt to overcome the losses entailed by the onslaught of modernity, as in Pope and Swift; a deliriously self-subverting attempt to overcome the multiple, complex losses inscribed in the position of eighteenth-century woman, as in the work of Eliza Haywood and Frances Sheridan. And one could, exuberantly, go on.

Greene's proposal also challenges us to periodize exuberance. For while eighteenth-century literature on the whole may indeed be characterized by a [End Page 19] certain sense of inexhaustibility, so is much Romantic literature; and there are obvious and important differences between the exuberance of the Augustans on the one hand, that of the Romantics on the other, and that of midcentury writers in between. I would suggest distinguishing between Augustan, midcentury, and Romantic exuberance by looking at the kind of irony through which each is generated. For if exuberance is an effort to overcome loss that ultimately reproduces loss, then the economy of exuberance is fueled by irony, by the trope of nonidentity and self-subversion. Thus, if Pope and Swift are exuberant satiric ironists, and if Blake and Byron are exuberant romantic ironists, then one may describe certain midcentury writers (e.g., Sterne, Frances Sheridan, Samuel Richardson, and the Samuel Johnson of Rasselas, to name only a few) as exuberant sentimental ironists. Necessarily schematic, such a vision of the long eighteenth century at least has the virtue of giving the literature of the midcentury its proper due, recognizing its special qualities even while establishing its ties to what preceded and what followed. This, I would argue, is a virtue of some consequence. For many years now, literary historians have been at a loss for a way to make useful generalizations about mid-eighteenth-century literature—a historiographical aporia evident in the contradictory names that have been affixed to the period. The years between the death of the Pope and the outbreak of the French Revolution have been variously termed the Age of Reason, the Age of Sensibility, the Post-Augustan Age, and the Pre-Romantic Age—but more often than not, they have simply been slighted altogether, dismissed as a dreary backwater, a bundle of confused energies and hack projects that have rightly been forsaken by the main currents of literary history.41 By understanding the midcentury as a moment of exuberant sentimental irony, we can at last begin to understand this period on its own terms—not as a "Post-Augustan" moment of exhaustion overshadowed by the greatness of the preceding generation, nor as a "Pre-Romantic" moment of anticipation bungling with aesthetic and cultural problems to be solved by the succeeding generation, but as a moment with its own aesthetic and its own cultural projects. At the same time, however, we can connect the literature of the midcentury with that of contiguous periods. For the lust for loss that I am describing makes itself felt throughout the literature of the long eighteenth century: in the libertine verses of Rochester, with their repeated affirmations of eros, vitality, and sensation; in the furious logomachies of Pope and Swift, who evince an unmistakable delectation for the very modernizing forces they so scathingly excoriate; in the disturbing mania of Christopher Smart, whose verses record a disquieting form of religious ecstasy; in the haunting strangeness of William Blake, to whom excess was wisdom and exuberance beauty; and in the errors and wrecks of that decadent genius, Lord Byron. It appears, too, in the thrillingly inventive fictions of Eliza Haywood and Frances Sheridan; the panoramic novels of Henry Fielding, whose gloriously expansive narratives aspire to catalog all of human nature; the psychological [End Page 20] intensity of Samuel Richardson, who made of his heroines' moral choices an infinitely intricate world of subtlety and nuance; the violence and scatology of Tobias Smollet; the hyperbole and excess of the Gothic tradition; and in the black page, the marbled page, the blank page, and the gleefully squiggled lines of Tristram Shandy.

James Kim
Fordham University
James Kim

James Kim is currently an assistant professor of English at Fordham University, where he specializes in both Eighteenth-Century British Studies and Asian American Studies.


1. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman: The Text, 2 vols., ed. Melvyn New and Joan New (Gainesville, 1978), 1:11.28-29, emphasis in original; hereafter cited parenthetically as TS, followed by volume, chapter, and page number.

2. Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass., 1989).

3. The black page thus exemplifies the satiric device that Christopher Fanning has recently described as "textual presence"; see his "Small Particles of Eloquence: Sterne and the Scriblerean Text," Modern Philology 100 no. 3 (2003): 360-92.

4. On sentimentality's association with the feminine, see G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 1992), 37-153 and 215-86. See also Terry Eagleton, The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality, and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Minneapolis, 1982), 95-101; John Mullan, Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Oxford, 1988), 81-93; and Philip Carter, "An 'Effeminate' or 'Efficient' Nation? Masculinity and Eighteenth-Century Social Documentary," Textual Practice 11 no. 3 (1997): 429-43. On satire's association with an emphatically masculinist—indeed, virulently misogynistic—literary tradition, see Felicity Nussbaum, The Brink of All We Hate: English Satires on Women 1660-1750 (Lexington, 1989).

5. For various accounts of Sterne's gender politics, see Ruth Marie Faurot, "Mrs. Shandy Observed," Studies in English Literature 10 (1970): 579-89; Leigh A. Ehlers, "Mrs. Shandy's 'Lint and Basilicon': The Importance of Women in Tristram Shandy," South Atlantic Review 46 no. 1 (Jan. 1981): 61-75; Ruth Perry, "Words for Sex: The Verbal-Sexual Continuum in Tristram Shandy," Studies in the Novel 20 no. 1 (Spring 1988): 27-42; Helen Ostovich, "Reader as Hobby-horse in Tristram Shandy," Philological Quarterly 68 no. 3 (Summer 1989): 325-42; Paula Loscocco, "Can't Live Without 'Em: Walter Shandy and the Woman Within," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 32 no. 2 (1991): 166-79; Barbara M. Benedict, "'Dear Madam': Rhetoric, Cultural Politics and the Female Reader in Sterne's Tristram Shandy," Studies in Philology 89 no. 4 (Fall 1992): 485-98; Juliet McMaster, "Walter Shandy, Sterne, and Gender," Critical Essays on Laurence Sterne, ed. Melvyn New (New York, 1998), 198-214; and Bonnie Blackwell, "Tristram Shandy and the Theater of the Mechanical Mother," ELH 81 (2001): 81-133.

6. For an admirably lucid and erudite summary of the novel's reception in modern criticism, see Thomas Keymer, Sterne, the Moderns, and the Novel (Oxford, 2002), 1-27.

7. For sentimental readings of Sterne, see R. F. Brissenden, Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade (London, 1974) 187-217; Martin Battestin, The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts (Oxford, 1974), 241-69; John Traugott, Tristram Shandy's World: Sterne's Philosophical Rhetoric (New York, 1970); and Mullan, 147-200. For satirical readings, see Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), 223-39; John M. Stedmond, The Comic Art of Laurence Sterne: Convention and Innovation in Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey (Toronto, 1967); Ernest Nevin Dilworth, The Unsentimental Journey of Laurence Sterne (New York, 1969); Melvyn New, Laurence Sterne as Satirist: A Reading of Tristram Shandy (Gainesville, 1969); [End Page 21] Eugene Korokowski, "Tristram Shandy, Digression, and the Menippean Tradition," Scholia Satyrica 1 (1975): 3-15; Gary Sherbert, Menippean Satire and the Poetics of Wit: Ideologies of Self Consciousness in Dunton, D'Urfey, and Sterne (New York, 1996); and Fanning.

Stuart Tave and Ronald Paulson rightly saw that Sterne's work incorporated elements of satire and sentimentality together, of course, but they nonetheless insisted on conceiving of the two genres in antithetical terms (see, respectively, The Amiable Humorist: A Study in the Comic Theory and Criticism of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries [Chicago, 1960], and Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England [New Haven, 1967]). Aside from Fanning (384), few seem to have heeded D. W. Jefferson's quiet observation of long ago that Sterne used satiric wit as a way of "giving edge to [feeling]" ("Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit," Essays in Criticism 1 [1951]: 248).

8. There are growing indications that eighteenth-century studies is fundamentally rethinking the relationship between satire and sentimentality. G. A. Starr, for instance, has written, "[T]he task of reconciling satire with sentiment is crucial [to] writers of the mid-eighteenth century" ("From Socrates to Sarah Fielding: Benevolence, Irony, and Conversation," Passionate Encounters in a Time of Sensibility, ed. Maximillian E. Novak and Anne Mellor [Newark, 2000], 106). See also Jonathan Lamb, "Modern Metamorphoses and Disgraceful Tales," Critical Inquiry 28 (Autumn 2001): 133-66; and Wendy Motooka, The Age of Reasons: Quixotism, Sentimentalism, and Political Economy in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New York, 1998). Motooka examines the philosophical implications of sentimental irony (or as she terms it, "sentimental quixotism"); here I begin to uncover its cultural implications. Also highly relevant is Elizabeth Wanning Harries, The Unfinished Manner: Essays on the Fragment in the Later Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville, 1994). For a study that insightfully examines satire and sentimentality individually but that has little to say about their intersections, see Claude Rawson, Satire and Sentiment (Cambridge, 1993).

9. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (Oxford, 1976), 5:2.12.209.

10. For the most exhaustive account along these lines, see Barker-Benfield, 37-153 and 215-86. See also Eagleton, 95-101; Mullan, 81-93; and Carter, 429-43. For various accounts of the bourgeois domestic woman, see Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford, 1987); Eagleton, 1-94; Mullan, 57-113; Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist: From Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (New York, 1986); and Janet Todd, The Sign of Angellica: Women, Writing, and Fiction, 1660-1800 (London, 1989), 161-75.

11. Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s: Wollstonecraft, Radcliffe, Burney, Austen (Chicago, 1995), 14.

12. Johnson, 12.

13. John Tosh, "The Old Adam and the New Man: Emerging Themes in the History of English Masculinities, 1750-1850," English Masculinities 1660-1800, ed. Tim Hitchcock and Michèle Cohen (New York, 1999), 223.

14. Natalie Zemon Davis, "'Women's History' in Transition: The European Case," Feminist Studies 3 (1976): 90. There are some happy exceptions to the pattern I am describing, of course, most notably Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850, rev. ed. (London, 2002).

15. For a historiographical survey of English masculinity, see A. J. Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 (New Haven, 1995). For a brief survey of the literature on early modern homosexuality, see Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700-1800 (New York, 1997), chapter 5. On masculinity's involvement in discourses of British nationalism, see Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1996), as well as her "Manliness, Effeminacy and the French: Gender and the Construction of National Character in Eighteenth-Century England," in Hitchcock and Cohen, 44-61. On masculinity's imbrication in party politics, see Anna Clark, "The Chevalier d'Eon and Wilkes: Masculinity and Politics in the Eighteenth Century," Eighteenth-Century Studies 32 no. 1 (1998): 19-48. On the shift from reputation to interiority, see Tosh "Old Adam," 230-6. On the shift from a single-body to a two-body view of the sexes, see [End Page 22] Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Mass., 1990).

16. This point appears repeatedly, in varying ways, throughout the literature on masculinity; see, for example, Hitchcock and Cohen, "Introduction," in Hitchcock and Cohen, 8. See also Robert Shoemaker and Mary Vincent, "Introduction," Gender and History in Western Europe, ed. Robert Shoemaker and Mary Vincent (London, 1998), 6; and, in the same volume, Tosh, "What Should Historians Do with Masculinity?," 75-80.

17. Tosh argued for the need to consider just this question nearly a decade ago: "Masculinity . . . demands to be considered as a subjective identity, usually the most deeply experienced that men have. . . . It is therefore a mistake to treat masculinity merely as an outer garment or 'style,' adjustable according to social circumstances. Nor does it make much sense baldly to equate masculinity with the reflexes which serve to maintain gender inequality. Subjectivity is the other, indispensable part of the picture" ("What Should Historians Do with Masculinity?," 77). Tosh has recently repeated his call to examine "the terms on which individual men internalized the discourse" of masculinity ("The Old Adam and the New Man," 230).

18. For some readings of Sir Charles Grandison along these lines, see Eagleton, 95-101, and Mullan, 81-93.

19. Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, ed. Fredson Bowers (Middle-town, Conn., 1975), 9:5.510.

20. For commentary on Tristram's misadventures with the sash window, see Robert Darby, "'An Oblique and Slovenly Initiation': The Circumcision Episode in Tristram Shandy," Eighteenth-Century Life 27 no. 1 (Winter 2003): 72-84.

21. On the man of martial valor, see Tosh, "Old Adam," 222. On the stoic man of reason, see Stephen H. Gregg, "'A Truly Christian Hero': Religion, Effeminacy, and Nation in the Writings of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners," Eighteenth-Century Life 25 (Winter 2001): 20-21. On the man of heterosocial conversation, see Cohen, "Manliness," 44-50.

22. William Bowman Piper, Laurence Sterne (New York, 1965), 25.

23. For some readings along these lines, see New and, in a very different way, Barbara Benedict, Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in English Prose Fiction, 1745-1800 (New York, 1994), 69-92.

24. Sigmund Freud, "Mourning and Melancholia," The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al., vol. 14: On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology, and Other Works (London, 1957), 243-58.

25. For example, see Henri Fluchère, Laurence Sterne: From Tristram to Yorick, an Interpretation of Tristram Shandy, trans. Barbara Bray (New York, 1965), 94; and Robert Gorham Davis, "Sterne and the Delineation of the Modern Novel," The Winged Skull: Papers from the Laurence Sterne Bicentenary Conference, ed. Arthur H. Cash and John M. Stedmond (London, 1971), 36-37.

26. On bastardy and the anxieties of paternity in Tristram Shandy, see J. Paul Hunter, "Clocks, Calendars, and Names: The Troubles of Tristram and the Aesthetics of Uncertainty," Rhetorics of Order/Ordering Rhetorics, ed. J. Douglas Canfield and J. Paul Hunter (Newark, 1989), 182-96.

27. Letters of Laurence Sterne, ed. Lewis Perry Curtis (Oxford, 1935), 90; hereafter cited parenthetically as L, followed by page numbers. As the critic's letter is unavailable, my reconstruction depends on inferences from Sterne's reply. When I originally began work on this essay, I was unable to consult the authoritative text of Sterne's letter because, in an irony that Sterne would have enjoyed, the relevant pages had been torn out of the book.

28. Sterne encloses the phrase "cowardice and injustice" in quotation marks in his letter, suggesting that he is quoting his critic directly.

29. On remasculinization in Sterne, see Carol Kay, Political Constructions: Defoe, Richardson, and Sterne in Relation to Hobbes, Hume, and Burke (Ithaca, 1988), 232. Though my assessment of Sterne's gender politics differs from Kay's, I find her account of remasculinization [End Page 23] highly suggestive. On satire's ties to misogynistic male culture, see Nussbaum. On the remasculinizing power of homosociality, see Cohen, "Manliness," as well as Gregg.

30. Near the end of the letter, he writes, "I believe the short cut would be to publish this letter at the beginning of the third volume, as an apology for the first and second" (L 91).

31. For a useful examination of Sterne's self-consciously cultivated authorial persona, see Mullan, 147-200.

32. Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago, 1980), 9.

33. See the two best accounts of mock-epic available: Ulrich Broich, The Eighteenth Century Mock-Heroic Poem, trans. David Henry Wilson (Cambridge, 1990), 67; and Gregory G. Colomb, Designs on Truth: The Poetics of the Augustan Mock-Epic (University Park, Penn., 1992), xv and 27-28. My discussion below is much indebted to them both.

34. Alexander Pope, The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. Maynard Mack (New Haven, 1967), 7:388-89.

35. On contemporary accounts of the mock-epic, see Colomb, 3-30, esp. 15-18.

36. I owe this insightful gloss to Patrica Meyer Spacks.

37. Deidre Shauna Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago, 1998), 24, 25.

38. On the logic of sentimental narrative, see Brissenden, 118-39. Brissenden hints at, but he does not develop, the argument I am making here; see 124.

39. Following the example of Swift in Gulliver's Travels, Sterne employed just such a reduction for satiric purposes in his first foray into fiction, A Political Romance, which downsizes a dispute over ecclesiastical appointments into an internecine village squabble over an old watch-coat. He offers a more neutral reduction, however, when he reduces "the world" to "a small circle described upon the circle of the great world, of four English miles diameter, or thereabouts" (TS 1:7.10).

40. Donald Greene, The Age of Exuberance: Backgrounds to Eighteenth-Century English Literature (New York, 1970), v, v-vi.

41. For a strong case for understanding the midcentury in Post-Augustan terms, see John Sitter, Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth-Century England (Ithaca, 1982). For a strong argument in support of the term "Pre-Romantic," see Marshall Brown, Preromanticism (Stanford, 1991). [End Page 24]

Additional Information

Print ISSN
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.