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A Humorous Womanizer of the 18th Century: Laurence Sterne

Sterne  owed  his fame to an original work titled The Life and Opinions of Tristam  Shandy, Gentleman which  was published around  1760. The story  is composed of a series of episodes with many  digressions and cunning comments written both  in a very personal style and  syntax distortions. Sterne’s work   knew  a great  success for its good and stylistic eccentricities, which satirized  the classic sensibility of his time, and beyond, because also  Romantic literary criticism did negative judgments on Sterne’s  work.

But we can admit that The Life and Opinions of Tristam  Shandy, Gentleman   was followed by several writers both in France and in  Italy. Sterne died in London after he had attempt  to recover his health in sunnier countries. Sterne satirized the  prejudices, shaping the characteristic mentality of the middles classes. Laurence Stern was born in Ireland, the son of an army officer.  Graduated at Cambridge, he  took orders,  becoming Vicar of Sutton-in-the-Forest, Yorkshire,  about the end of the 18th century. Then  he married Elizabeth Lumley , but he wrecked  his marriage because of he was a remarkable womanizer, despite his orders .

The Life and Opinions of Tristam  Shandy, Gentleman  is seasoned with a sly humor,  and with a good deal of sentimental sensibility, and  it contains  some fun sketches of manners and characters. While  Tristam Shandy soon disappears,  the other characters form a group of humorous figures  such as  Walter Shandy, Tristam’s father; Uncle Toby,  whose hobby  was  the science of besieging fortresses; Corporal Trim, and the careless Parson Yorick. Uncle Toby is certainly one of the most humorous characters made by Stern. He was scarcely convinced that men would overcome life’s difficulties with their solely forces; on the contrary, he believed that human troubles are defeated thanks to “the assistance of the best of Beings.”

“When I reflect, brother Toby,  upon Man;  and take a view that dark side of him which represents his life as open to so causes of trouble; – when I consider,  brother Toby,  how we eat the bread of affliction,  and that we are born to it, as the portion of our inheritance, – I was born to nothing,  quoth uncle Toby interrupting my father, – but my commission Zooks! said my father,  did not my uncle leave you a hundred and twenty pounds a year? – What could I have done without it? replied my uncle Toby. –  That’s another concern, said my father testily,  but I say, Toby,  when one runs over the catalogue of all the cross reckonings and sorrowful  ‘items’  with which the heart of man is overcharged;  it is wonderful by what hidden resources the mind is enabled to stand it out, and bear itself up as it does against the impositions laid upon our nature. It is by the assistance of Almighty God,  cried my uncle Toby,  looking up,  and pressing the palms of his hands close together;  it is not from our own strength,  brother Shandy; – a sentinel in a wooden sentry-box might as well pretend to stand it out against a detachment of fifty men. We are upheld by the grace and the assistance of the best of Beings.” (1).

“Shut the door!”

is the poetic expression related to a long speech on the Homunculus,  a matter of hot  debate in psychology that continues even today. In short, the homunculus would be a little man ( Latin homunculus) inside the human brain and devoted to the self-identity concept.  Listen to what Sterne was saying:

“Let me tell you. Sir, it was a very unseasonable question at least, — because it scattered and dispersed the animal spirits, whose business it was to have escorted and gone hand in hand with the Homunculus, and conducted him safe to the place destined fat his reception.”

“The Homunculus, Sir, in however low and ludicrous  light he may appear, in this age of levity, to the eye of folly or prejudice; — to the eye of reason in scientific research, he stands confess’d — ; a Being guarded and circumscribed with rights. The minutest philosophers, who, by the bye, have the most enlarged understandings, (their souls being inversely as their enquiries) shew us incontestably, that the Homunculus is created by the same hand, — engender’d in the same course of nature, — endow’d with the same loco-motive powers and faculties with us : — That he consists as we do, of skin, hair, fat, flesh, veins, arteries, nerves, cartilages, bones, marrow, brains, glands, genitals,  humours, and articulations; is a Being of as much activity, — and, in all sense of the word, as much and as truly our fellow-creature, as my Lord Chancellor of England.”

“— He may be benefited, — he may be injured, — he may obtain redress ; — in a word,  has all the claims and rights of humanity, which Tully, Puffendorf, or the best ethic writers allow to arise out of that state and relation. Now, dear Sir, what if any accident had befallen his way alone! — or that, through terror of it, natural to so young a traveller, my little Gentleman had got to his journey’s end miserably  spent  — his muscular  strength and virility worn down to a thread ; — animal spirits ruffled beyond description, — and this sad disordered state of nerves, he had lain prey to sudden starts, or a series of melancholy dreams and fancies, for nine long, long months together. — I tremble to think what a foundation had been laid for a thousand weaknesses both of body chapter; for I declare before-hand, ’tis wrote only for the curious and inquisitive.”

—Shut the door.— (2).

A very noble being, with lofty thoughts and distinguished and refined manners. Sterne was a genius and a real Gentleman.



1)      The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman,  by the Rev. Laurence Sterne, Leipzig, 1849,  p. 213.

2)      The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman,  Edited by George Saintbury, London, B.M. Dent & Co., 1894, vol. I, pp. 6-10.




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