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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

III. Sterne, and the Novel of His Times

§ 6. Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote

The name of Cervantes has been mentioned. And Sterne himself does not make any attempt to conceal that Cervantes was his model. Others—Rabelais, Montaigne, Burton, the last especially—may have provided hints and suggested methods. That, however, is only for the more discursive and abstract parts of the story. In the humorous handling of character, Sterne’s master was Cervantes and none other. My uncle Toby and corporal Trim are variations, but variations of genius, upon Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Yet, on taking over the suggestion, Sterne has made it entirely his own. And the differences are even more strongly marked than the resemblance. Neither master nor servant, in Sterne’s creation, has the universal significance which makes itself felt even to the most casual reader of Don Quixote. And this is true of the relation between the two men no less than of each as taken by himself. There is nothing in Sterne of the contrast between sense and spirit, between the ideal and the material, which gives a depth of unfathomable meaning to the twofold creation of Cervantes. Trim is in no wise the foil of his master. Still less is he his critic. The very thought would have filled him with dismay. He is uncle Toby’s devoted follower, the ardent sharer of his dreams, the zealous agent of their fulfilment, hardly less warmhearted, hardly less overflowing with kindness, a point or two shrewder and less unworldly, by many points less simple and more studious of effect, moulded of slightly coarser clay but on the same general pattern; altogether, far more his counterpart than his opposite. The relation between the two is full of beauty, as well as of humour. And, just because it is so, it is wholly different from that which Cervantes has cunningly woven between Sancho and Don Quixote.

But yet further differences are to be noted. Both Don Quixote and uncle Toby are possessed with a dream. So, for that matter, is Walter Shandy. But the dream of the knight, though absurd in appearance, is, in essentials, noble and heroic. Those of the Shandy brothers—no ingenuity can conceal the fact—are futile and childish. To follow them is to watch “Nestor play at push-pin with the boys.” Don Quixote may tilt at windmills; but all his thoughts are for the weak and the oppressed. As for uncle Toby, “our armies in Flanders” may be upon his lips; but all he cares about is toy cannons and tin soldiers. The one point of vital resemblance is the fervour with which each rushes in pursuit of his delusion. The heavens might fall; but Don Quixote would still worship Dulcinea as a princess. The world might come to an end; but Toby would still be rearing midget demilunes, his brother still be spinning paradoxes and striking impressive attitudes.

Thus, when all is said and done, the contrast goes even deeper than the resemblance. And this accounts for a difference of method which could hardly otherwise be explained. Cervantes is so sure of his hero’s nobility that he is not afraid to cover him with every outward mark of ridicule. Sterne puts forth all his art to make us forget the futility of the craze which he has imagined for the central figure of his story. There are moments, it must be confessed, when the ridiculous in Don Quixote is pushed further than we are willing to endure. In such moments, it is clear that the satirist has got the better of the creative artist; and it is not on the hero, but on the author, that our resentment is, instinctively, apt to fall. Our admiration is proof against all that Cervantes himself can do to undermine it. Could the intrinsic nobility of his conception be more decisively driven home? Put either Toby or Walter Shandy to the same test, and who shall say that either of them would come through it? The delicate raillery of Sterne is not too much for them to bear. Before the relentless satire of Cervantes, they would shrivel into nothing.

It is just here, however, that Goethe found not only the most characteristic, but, also, the most helpful, quality of Sterne’s genius—that from which there is most to be learned for the practical conduct of our lives. The very detachment from all that is commonly reckoned to belong to the serious interests of life, the readiness to escape from that for which other men are striving and fighting, to withdraw into the citadel of our bare, naked self and let the world go its way, to count all for nought, so long as our own ideal is kept intact, had, for him, a moral worth, a “liberating” value, which it was hard to overrate. That it was the whole truth, Goethe was the last man to suppose. Wilhelm Meister is there to protest against so impossible a charge. But, as a half-truth, and one which the world seems forever bent on denying, he held, and he was right in holding that it was beyond price. He recognised and he was right in recognising, that, of all men who ever wrote, Sterne was the most firmly possessed of it himself, and the most able, by the magic of his art, to awaken the sense of it in others. “Shandyism,” he says, in the words of Sterne himself, “is the incapacity for fixing the mind on a serious object for two minutes together.” And Sterne himself he defines as “a free spirit,” “a model in nothing, in everything an awakener and suggester.”

So much as to Sterne’s humour in the creation of character. This, however, is anything but the only channel through which his humour finds an outlet. He is rich in the humour of situation; rich, also, in that which gathers round certain instincts of man’s nature. On the former, there is no need to enlarge: the less so, as it is often inseparably interwoven with the humour of character, which has already been sufficiently discussed. If we consider such scenes as that of Trim’s kitchen discourse on mortality, or the collapse of Mr. Shandy the elder upon his bed, or, above all, the curse of Ernulphus and all that leads up to it, we shall see at once the infinite art with which Sterne arranges his limelights and the astounding effects which he makes them produce. To say, as Goldsmith came near to saying, that Sterne’s humour depends upon a judicious use of dashes and stars, upon the insertion of marbled sheets and other mechanical or pert devices, is not even a parody of the truth. As a criticism, it is incredibly beside the mark; only less so than Thackeray’s—“The man is not a great humourist; he is a great jester.”