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Close Reading: a Sentimental Journey

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A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy was the second and final novel of Laurence Sterne, published barely a month before his death in 1768. The novel first popularised the travel writing genre and describes the journey through France and to Italy undertaken by Mr Yorick, the parson who first appeared in Sterne’s first and best known novel, The Life And Opinions of Tristiam Shandy, Gentleman.

As its title suggests, A Sentimental Journey is a piece of sentimental writing. The sentimental movement provided a bridge between the rational thinking and satire of the earlier decades of eighteenth century and the Romantic writing which would shortly arrive. The contrast with rationalism is fairly stark – rationalism deals with the human capacity for thought and analysis, while sentimentalism is more concerned with the human capacity for feeling and developing a sound moral theory. Sentiment refers generally to an idea created from an emotion and for this reason, it can also be deeply impractical – Yorick’s adventures in Europe begin on a conversational whim, when he claims a certain matter – which remains a mystery to the reader – is better handled by the French and a gentleman asks him if he has ever actually been to France. Despite the Seven Years War currently taking place and not having a passport, Yorick decides then and there to set off for France.

It is in this extract that a lack of passport has landed Yorick in trouble – not having one is an offence punishable by prison and there is a very real threat of Yorick ending up in the Bastille. Ever since Yorick was questioned about the matter, he seems almost infuriatingly convinced that he would be fine without one. This is not an opinion shared by Eugenius, who tries to help him financially:

‘-I’ve enough in conscience, Eugenius, said I.-Indeed, Yorick, you have not, replied Eugenius, I know France and Italy better than you. – But you don’t consider, Eugenius, said I, refusing his offer, that before I have been three days in Paris, I shall take care to do something or other for which I shall get clapp’d up into the Bastille and that I shall live there for a couple of months at the king of France’s expense. -I beg pardon, said Eugenius, drily.’ (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey 68)

‘Clapp’d’ indicates carelessness, almost as though Yorick sees the whole thing as par for the course, and the fact that he will go out of his way to commit such an offence is odd, almost as if being jailed was part of the tourist experience. This is interesting when considering that on the course of his travels, Yorick barely gives note to his surroundings, preferring to describe people over place, so it says something of the power and connotations of the Bastille for Yorick to actually acknowledge them. It is never fully clear whether he genuinely believes things will happen in this way, or if he is deluding himself. Eugenius speaking ‘drily’, almost sarcastically shows that he is not impressed with this line of reasoning. It is unusual, but perhaps characteristic of him, that Yorick refuses to listen to Eugenius’ not inconsiderable experience in France and Europe, when he himself has none.

Just before seeing the starling in the cage, Yorick is reassuring himself that captivity in the Bastille may not be so awful and claims that the ‘terror is in the word’. His tone is somewhat smug and pompous as he muses on the mind’s ability to twist things out of proportion:

‘The mind sits terrified of the objects she has magnified herself, and blackened; reduce them to their proper hue and she overlooks them.’ (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey 69)

In a sense, he is right. Humans often dread the prospect of a place, person or event rather than the thing itself as the mind blows them up out of proportion until the thought of them is terrifying; when the encounter is over, it is almost always a perfectly fine experience, which is the logic Yorick follows. The word choice of ‘blackened’ has interesting connotations – ‘dark’ objects, such as witches, are usually seen as having negative connections, while ‘light’ objects are seen as a force for good. The use of ‘blackened’ indicates that the human mind not only magnifies the approaching event (in this case, time in the Bastille), but almost by instinct makes them appear to be scary and evil. If it is reduced to ‘its proper hue’, then the negative connotations are no longer looked for. Yorick then attempts to apply this reasoning to the Bastille:

‘-the Bastile is not an evil to be despised – but strip it of its towers – fill up the fosse – unbarricade the doors – call it simply a confinement – and suppose ‘tis some tyrant of a distemper – and not of a man which holds you in it – the evil half vanishes and you bear the other half without complaint.’ (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey 68)

The short and fragmentary nature of this sentence seems as if Yorick is making a sort of list of things to do so as to ‘fix’ the Bastile and make life more pleasurable.

Just when he has more or less reassured himself about the Bastille, Yorick hears a starling in a cage repeating over and over again that it ‘can’t get out’:

‘-God help thee! said I, but I’ll let thee out, cost what it will; so I turn’d about the cage to get to the door, it was twisted and double twisted so fast with wire, there was no getting it out without pulling the cage to pieces’ (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey 69)

Yorick’s quick and frantic response to the starling’s plight displays certain key characteristics of sentimental heroism – a desire to help those in distress and a selfless generosity; normally his concern for the bird’s welfare should be commended. However, like many of Yorick’s ‘heroic’ moments in the book, he is all too aware of what he is doing and of the effect he intends it to have. It draws the attention back to him. There is a certain element of self- indulgence connected to sentimentalism, which comes across here; Yorick is almost feeding his ego in his attempt to rescue the bird. The repetition of ‘I can’t get out’ over and over helps convey a sense of how trapped the bird feels and by giving the bird a human voice, Sterne allows his readers to connect with the starling and understand its feeling. The fact that the caged bird is a starling is a very clever pun from Sterne – the German word for star is ‘der Stern’, and many readers viewed Yorick as Sterne’s alter ego. The double layers of wires surrounding the cage make it utterly impenetrable, much like the Bastille itself at the time, and Yorick suddenly realises just what is waiting for him. A caged bird is quite unnatural in a way – birds can be viewed as more ‘free’ because their ability to fly means that the laws of gravity do not tie them down in quite the same way as things that cannot fly.

To remove a bird of its freedom by locking it in a cage is unnatural, but creates a very powerful image of freedom lost. However, the element of self indulgence is particularly strong in these lines; Yorick, though he is thought of as a sentimental character, is better at sentiment through imagination, rather than in reality. (Lecture 14/10/11, Robert Irvine) This is shown when he hears the bird repeating that it ‘can’t get out.’ Since birds do not speak like humans do, it is very probable that Yorick is imagining the bird talking to him. Herein lies a problem – imagination is also a source of pleasure as well as pain, even when it is used to sympathise with others’ pain. If imagination is capable of such pleasing aesthetic tendencies in tandem with sympathy with others, it is consequently hard to distinguish sentiment from emotional self indulgence, which is why it has gained a reputation for being mawkish in recent years.

Yorick is very deeply affected by the bird’s predicament and soon realises that he may be in the same position:
‘I vow, I never had my affections more tenderly awakened; nor do I remember an incident in my life where the dissipated spirits, to which my reason had been a bubble, were so suddenly called home.’ (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey 69)

Being sentimental over such an occurrence would have been seen as a sign of virtue and humanity; that a man could sympathise so strongly with a caged bird was supposed to be a subject for admiration. However, as with several other incidents with Yorick, it is difficult to discern when his genuine emotional affectations end and when he starts overplaying the tears. ‘Bubble’ indicates a childish aspect to his tears, which is fitting as he appears to be acting in a juvenile manner at several points in the novel. The idea of his spirits being scattered and then suddenly put back together again is unusual – scattered things being reunited is usually a cause for celebration, yet his ‘dissipated spirits’ return only when he is in a negative situation. ‘Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to my nature were they chanted that they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the Bastille.’ (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey 69) There is a slight element of musicality in the word choice, befitting to a bird, when he claims the notes are ‘in tune’ to his personality, perhaps indicating that he feels himself to be, if not a musical person, then certainly a sensitive one who responds to music well and sees himself as one with the starling.

Yet ‘mechanical’ and ‘chanted’ make a strong contrast – a good piece of music flows and can be full of emotion, whereas ‘mechanical’ indicates that there is no feeling to it at all and it does not flow properly; putting it as the first word in the sentence means it becomes more emphatic. ‘Chanted’ has connotations of regiment and does not go well together with the music of a songbird. This could be the effect imprisonment can have on a person – creativity is not allowed to thrive and life soon becomes dull and repetitive. The effect this has on Yorick when he finally understands the situation is considerable, as it forces him to completely rethink his situation and, as he himself puts it, returns upstairs ‘unsaying every word I had said going down them.’

Yorick’s reaction to this is odd, as though he has been tricked in some way: ‘Disguise thyself as thou wilt, still slavery! said I – still thou art a bitter draught; and though thousands in all ages have been made to drink of thee, thou art no less bitter on that account.’ (Sterne, A Sentimental Journey 69/70)

The direct address to the Bastille sounds more like a challenge, and makes it seem even more imposing. ‘A bitter draught’ has connotations of some medicine, which criminals over the years have been forced to take. Yorick makes it sound as though the Bastille was deliberately trying to trick him into thinking that he would have a relatively easy captivity, and chooses to ignore, or is perhaps unaware of the fact that it was he who deluded himself into thinking this, just as his sentimentality often allows him to delude himself.

Works cited:

Sterne, Laurence A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, 1768 (ed Penguin Classics, 2005)

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