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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

by Laurence Sterne

Language Quotes

How we cite our quotes:

Quote #1

"'Twas not by ideas,---by heaven! His life was put in jeopardy by words." (1.2.15)

Here, Tristram explains that Toby is obsessed with building fortifications because he can't figure out exactly what happened at Namur. As with any professional jargon (try talking to a computer programmer, much less an English professor), military vocabulary is incomprehensible. Words matter, maybe even more than ideas. One way of thinking about this is to consider that Mr. Shandy is so obsessed with ideas that he constantly gets everything wrong; and Toby is so obsessed with words that he can't get anything right, either. Both of them, hearing the same word, imagine two entirely different things. Maybe Tristram's novel is trying to figure out the relationship between words and the ideas (or things) that they represent.

Quote #2

A woman moreover of few words and withal an object of compassion. (1.7.1)

The woman of few words is the midwife whose story Tristram tells at the beginning of the novel. "Withal" is an old-fashioned adverb (and sometimes preposition) that means something between "also" and "because." It's not exactly causal, but it's also not not causal. So being of few words seems to help make her an object of compassion, just like it's hard to feel sorry for people who constantly post veiled self-pitying updates on Facebook.

Quote #3

The many perplexities he was in arose out of the almost insurmountable difficulties he found in telling his story intelligibly, and giving such clear ideas of the differences and distinctions between the scarp and counterscarp,—the glacis and covered way,—the half-moon and ravelin,—as to make his company fully comprehend where and what he was about. Writers themselves are too apt to confound these terms (2.1.3-4)

Here, military language prevents Toby from understanding what happened to him at Namur. Confusing battle terms make telling a story impossible, so words and language seem to prevent meaning rather than help it along. Gee, it sounds like someone's been reading Tristram Shandy.

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