Close Reading: a Sentimental Journey

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  • Topic: Laurence Sterne, Mind, A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy
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  • Published : March 6, 2013
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English Literature 2

Close Reading Exercise: ‘A Sentimental Journey’

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...
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