Sterne’s brief novel, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, comes pretty much precisely as advertised. The narrator, Yorick, journeys through France and Italy and shares a variety of sentimental experiences with the reader. Especially to the modern reader, however, this formula might seem to present a problem, and that problem is basically the fact that, colloquially speaking, nothing happens. D.A. Miller explains in “Problems of Closure in the Novel” that plot depends upon difficulty and trial, and as such there might appear to be a problematic lack of problems in Sterne’s account. To be sure, the plot does become problematized from time to time, such as when Yorick fears the Bastille due to his passport-less condition, but, as John Mullan explains, the primary interest for Sterne’s readers would simply have been participating in Yorick’s many sentimental encounters. Nonetheless, such attractions offer little to contemporary readers so how does the novel still “work” today? I think that a partial answer might be found in an incident which at first appears to be a problem in itself.
This incident is Yorick’s quite obviously unkind and entirely unsentimental first engagement with the poor monk in Calais. This meeting happens very early in the book before Yorick writes his “Preface in the Desobligeant” where he establishes himself as a sentimental traveler, inviting the reader to join him in a journey not so much of development but of sequential incidents of sentimental sympathy. The sentimental reader is little more nor less than a guided sentimental traveler, one whose experience of the sentimental is filtered through one more additional teller. Thus, as John Mullan makes clear in “Sentimental Novels,” the reader’s primary source of enjoyment comes both from appreciating the sentimental disposition of the narrator/protagonist and from partaking themselves in that disposition by sympathizing with the narrator and the other characters of the book.
However, another important shift also occurs in the desobligeant. It is only at this point that Yorick begins his narrative in earnest. This beginning indicates that the account which we were reading before the desobligeant was conceived differently and, perhaps, intended for a different purpose or even a different audience. Our narrator is the same but his narrative purpose may have shifted. In fact, in the first entry, prior to the “Preface in the Desobligeant,” Yorick makes a direct address to his Eliza which might indicate that he is addressing her in that narrative, perhaps in a letter or at least in a journal intended for her eye. However, the account which Yorick begins to keep in and after the desobligeant is intended, not only by the author Sterne but by the narrator Yorick, for us, for the readers.
The incident of the monk and this shift in narratorial audience work jointly to complicate the relationship between the reader and the narrator. The reliability of the narrator is subtly but continually called into question, such that the reader’s surface level enjoyment of sentimental experience is accompanied by an underlying tension arising from the narrator’s questionable motivations. Thus, Sterne’s story attains greater staying power than later more simply sentimental novels, as Mullan observes, because Sterne compensates for the lack of any consistently problematized plot by problematizing the narrator himself. Just as Yorick is fascinated by the mystery of the man who implores charity from women only, so the reader is fascinated by the mystery of Yorick, as they watch him dance an often very fine line between noble sentiment and not-so-noble sensuality.
The way that the incident of the monk accentuates this ambiguity of motivation can be seen clearly by examining Yorick’s second encounter with the monk. This second encounter where Yorick apologizes for his previously unkind behavior occurs in conjunction with Yorick’s meeting with the Calais lady and the first of his several extended hand-holding sessions. On the surface level, Yorick’s second encounter is a perfect example of an incident attuned to cultivate sentimental enjoyment. As Yorick holds the lady’s hand, the monk approaches them and offers Yorick a pinch of snuff to which Yorick responds by offering the monk his own silver snuff box in its entirety, declaring, “when you take a pinch out of it, sometimes recollect it was the peace-offering of a man who once used you unkindly, but not from his heart” (99). With these words, Yorick suggests that his prior harshness does not detract from his supreme sentimentality on display throughout the story because it was not a natural outpouring of his heart. This account seems to be validated by the earlier incident in which Yorick describes how he formed a premeditated conviction to not be moved by the monk’s story, and the story waxes more sentimental yet as the monk and Yorick exchange snuff boxes and Yorick recalls how sweetly he wept at the monk’s grave some year afterward with his snuffbox in hand.
However, this sentimental sweetness cannot be accepted without reservation. At the very end of the entry prior to the one in which the snuffbox exchange occurs, Yorick is concerned about whether the monk might have told the lady about his cruel conduct, and he declares, “I set myself to consider how I should undo the ill impressions which the poor monk’s story, in case he had told it her, must have planted in her breast against me” (98). This confession casts an undeniable shadow over the snuffbox exchange. Yorick contrasts that action with his prior behavior by implying that his kindness comes from the heart while his avarice did not, but his earlier remark indicates that his kindness, at least in this incident, might be every bit as premeditated as his unkindness was before. Indeed, since he has a particular object in mind for his kindness (the good favor of the lady), it might seem to be more calculated than his unkindness which, to all appearances, actually did arise from an immediate impression.
Furthermore, that aforementioned object of Yorick’s perhaps premeditated generosity, casts even more doubtfulness on the purity of his sentiment. It is only after the shift in narratorial audience which occurs in the desobligeant that Yorick begins recounting the many sentimental incidents which put him in emotionally, if not physically, compromising positions with various ladies. Somehow Yorick’s sentiment always seems to culminate in him holding the hands of attractive women, and it seems unlikely that these incidents would be mentioned so freely were Eliza still the narratee.
Thus, this exchange with the monk aptly captures the tension in Sterne’s novel which solves the problem of problemlessness. The reader, prompted to suspicion by this early incident, is left wondering throughout the account whether Yorick’s sentiment might be more strategic than he claims or if even the natural outpourings of Yorick’s heart might not be accompanied by equally natural outpourings of desire from other less pure quarters.