The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
by Laurence Sterne
More Than a Funny Name
Yorick is the pastor of the village near Shandy Hall. He baptizes Tristram, and he's a friend and confidant of both Mr. Shandy and Tristram. Like Toby Shandy, Yorick has a good heart—but unlike Toby Shandy, he just can't help but be annoying. As Tristram describes him for the first time, the character study gradually turns into the elaborate metaphor of a ship:
He was "as mercurial and sub-limated a composition,--as heteroclite a creature in all his declensions;--with as much life and whim, and gaieté de coeur about him, as the kindliest climate could have engendered … he was utterly unpracticed in the world … the brisk gale of his spirits, as you will imagine, ran him foul ten times in a day of somebody's tackling" (1.11.7)
In other words, Yorick's got a funny bone. He's lively and naïve, but doesn't really get that people get offended, particularly "the grave and more slow-paced" (1.11.7). And the world is full of opportunities: "he had but too many temptations in his life of scattering his wit and his humour,--his gibes and his jests about him" (1.11.9). (Is this beginning to sound like anyone we know?)
More than anything, Yorick's got a bone to pick with serious people. In his own words: "Gravity [is] an errant scoundrel" (1.11.8). In this regard, he's the polar opposite of Walter Shandy. Walter Shandy approves of anything if it's done seriously enough—he refuses to believe his bull's no good, because it goes "through the business with a grave face" (9.33.11). His distaste for gravity and his impatience with people who are slow ends up destroying his reputation, which breaks his heart. He ends up last place he'd want to be—his grave. We'd deliver the "Alas" bit again, but it's been done.
Yorick has yet another tough task: listening to Mr. Shandy and Toby rant on about their hobby-horses. He listens to them, counsels them, interjects useful little pieces of information, and generally keeps the conversation going. Mr. Shandy often asks his advice, wondering "Can the thing be undone, Yorick?" after Tristram's mis-baptism (4.23.1), "arguing" with him about how to spend his sister Dinah's money (4.31.13), and addressing his arguments to "Dear Yorick" when coming to terms with Tristram's circumcision (5.28.1). Toby takes advantage of Yorick's good nature, too, always happy to give Yorick "an account of the battle of Steenkirk" when everyone else is tired of hearing about it (5.20.2).
Even though Yorick doesn't take up nearly as much space as either of the other men, his presence (like Tristram's) is like glue to the novel. Check out his final line: "A COCK and a BULL," he says, "And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard" (9.33.17). He's the only one, or at least the first one, to get the joke, and, in recognizing the joke, he brings the novel to an end and closes the digressive circle that Tristram's been taking us on. More than Walter Shandy, and, thanks to his quick sense of humor, even more than Toby Shandy, Yorick embodies Shandyism—melancholy, but keeping the laughs coming like a late-night comedian.
A Decent Chap
Even though he has a sharp tongue, Yorick's a good priest and an all-around good guy. In fact, Yorick is such a sweetheart that he'd let just about anyone borrow his horse—although it's probably the equivalent to Grandpa's beat-up station wagon.
Tristram Shandy is full of religion, and Sterne, as we've pointed out, was a priest—but how seriously does it take all the religious stuff? The novel seems to have a vendetta against Roman Catholics (or Papists, as it calls them), but Yorick himself says that he's a "vile canonist" (4.33.1)—in other words, he's not too good with the ins and outs of religious law. But he does seem to be a good sermon writer and takes his writing seriously at a time when many priests just got up and read other people's sermons every Sunday (in fact, they were encouraged to).
The other priests aren't exactly saints. After Yorick mis-baptizes Tristram, Mr. Shandy (and Yorick, Obadiah, Tony, and Trim—road trip!) head off to the house of a nearby "school-divine" (4.23.1) named Didius. School-divines were priests and theologians ("divines") who liked the theology and philosophy of writers from the Middle Ages.
We know Yorick is different because, after Didius lays into him for tearing up a sermon to make lighters for his pipe, he says that the sermon "came from my head instead of my heart" and that he would rather "direct five words point-blank to the heart" (4.26.4)—and we assume he's going to say something about "than stuff it full of big words and boring philosophy," but just at that moment, another "school-divine," Phutatorius, jumps up with a hot chestnut in his lap.
That's not a metaphor. He really does have a hot chestnut in his lap, and he thinks Yorick dropped it there because he (Phutatorius) had written a book about prostitutes and mistresses: "that filthy and obscene treatise de Concubinis retinendis ["about keeping concubines"]" (4.27.12). The contrast here between the lecherous old academic and the kind, humorous priest puts even more of the book's moral weight on Yorick. Which leads us to the question:
Is Yorick Really Sterne?
Yorick might have gotten killed off, but he's got a rockin' afterlife (see scholar David Brewer for more on this). After Tristram Shandy, Sterne published a whole book of sermons that he attributed to Yorick. Sterne himself was a priest in the Church of England, and so readers and even scholars have been identifying him with Yorick since the book was first published. Yorick's come a long way from being a skull in Hamlet.Timeline