Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Materials as Meaning


It’s difficult to call The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman a novel. The first of its nine volumes appeared in 1759, while the novel was still being developed as a genre. But that’s not why the term “novel” seems pathetically imprecise for this book. Endlessly digressive, the title character isn’t even born in his own supposed autobiography until about a third of the way through. Large portions of texts are cribbed from other writers (if adapted to new purposes). But most fascinating to me is Laurence Sterne’s use of the physical traits of the book to add meaning to his text.


Most obviously, Sterne uses unusual punctuation to create meaning. The copious and expressive dashes jump out even with the quickest of flips through any edition of Tristram Shandy. One of my favorites is just after Phutatorius has dropped a hot chestnut onto his…lap. The chapter begins with the curse Zounds! It is followed by dashes covering more than two full lines, then another curse—but this time: Z—ds! “As if,” according to J. Paul Hunter, “on second thought, Phutatorius has the propriety to censor himself.”


But Sterne didn’t just drive the printer and his compositors crazy with minute demands over punctuation and other typographical quirks (such as purposefully including bad French grammar the compositors kept trying to fix). He incorporated entirely unexpected pages as well:


The Black Page (I, p. 73): Memorializing the late Parson Yorick

Used with the kind permission of the Laurence Sterne Trust.
The Black Page. Used with the kind permission of the Laurence Sterne Trust.


The Interactive Blank Page (VI, p. 147): The reader is encouraged to draw a picture here of the Widow Wadman “as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you.”

The Blank Page. In the 1769 "new edition" owned by the University of Glasgow. Reproduced with the kind permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.
The Blank Page. This page is from the 1769 “new edition” owned by the University of Glasgow. Reproduced with the kind permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections.


The Skipped Pages (IV, ch. 24): This chapter doesn’t even exist. Nine pages are omitted, once again leaving the printer with an irritating scenario: now the right-hand page picks up with an even-numbered page number 156—whereas in every other book the right-hand page is always odd numbered.


It would be easy to dismiss these gimmicks as part of some shallow shtick. But there is more going on here than first meets the eye.

I think we’re ready to talk about the Marbled Page (III, p. 169). I love this page something fierce.

The Marbled Page. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Laurence Sterne Trust.
The Marbled Page. Reproduced with the kind permission of the Laurence Sterne Trust.


I’ve spoken elsewhere about paper marbling, one of the most beautiful and unusual arts used in book production. Sterne insisted on incorporating a page, marbled on both sides to the dimensions fitting the text, and calling it:

“(motly emblem of my work!)”


Let’s unpack that parenthetical. By nature, the process of marbling paper creates a unique page every time. Each page features a variegated design, special to that marbling’s moment of conception. These dappled glories are a powerful visual metaphor for the philosophy behind this work.

This wandering, unexpected, bawdy, silly, gorgeous, labyrinthine work.

The clergyman Sterne would likely have appreciated a later celebration of the peculiar by the Jesuit priest Gerard Manly Hopkins:


All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

(“Pied Beauty,” 1918)


Do you know how expensive it would have been to create these handmade marbled pages, with the additional work of the careful folds to match the dimensions of the text? Sterne hides behind the appearance of whimsy, but underneath the façade he is going to great lengths to allow some brilliant notions to boil.


(Forgive me. I’m about to borrow from Sterne and use a typographical quirk to communicate an aural concept. Given the expense of marbling, many later editions—and most modern editions—depict the marbled page with a black-and-white photocopy of a marbled page WHICH ENTIRELY DEFEATS THE POINT OF THE BEAUTIFUL UNIQUE SNOWFLAKE CONCEPT at the heart of it. These editions have–yes, I’ll say it–metaphorically ripped the heart out of Tristram Shandy.)

(While we’re digressing, I can happily say that not all modern editions disappoint. More particularly, Visual Editions has published a stunning edition that updates Sterne’s quirks, such as a page of redacted lines in place of the Black Page. Oh, it is lovely.)


In an important article about the marbled page, Peter J. De Voogd argues that the page is more than a symbol of Sterne’s style, but a commentary on how we read: “Each marbling is unique, as is each reading of Tristram Shandy. It is fitting that your copy of Tristram Shandy is different from mine, since your subjective experience of the book is different.”


A sheet of marbled paper I created myself.
A sheet of marbled paper I created myself.


But I’d like to take it a step further. This book is the character Tristram Shandy’s attempt at an autobiography. When Tristram then calls the marbled page the “emblem of my work,” he is drawing a direct connection between the page and his own life.

The marbled page is more than a symbol of his style, or of the reader’s experience. The marbled page is each of us, in our own glorious “pied beauty.”



Sources and Further Reading:

  • The J. Paul Hunter quote is from his article, “From Typology to Type: Agents of Change in Eighteenth-Century English Texts,” in Cultural Artifacts and the Production of Meaning: The Page, the Image, and the Body ed. by Margaret J.M. Ezell and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe.
  • The Voogd quote is from his article, “Laurence Sterne, the marbled page, and ‘the use of accidents’,” in A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, 1:3.
  • Also check out Voogd’s article “Tristram Shandy as aesthetic object,” in Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, 4:1.
  • For more somewhat related visual-literary criticism, take a look at Christopher Fanning’s “On Sterne’s Page: Spatial Layout, Spatial Form, and Social Spaces in Tristram Shandy,” in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 10:4; and W.B. Blake’s book Laurence Sterne and the visual Imagination.
  • A couple of years ago there were two amazing fundraisers for the Laurence Sterne Trust centering on the Marbled Page and the Black Page as inspirations for original new art. This is my form of internet nerd heaven.



18 Comments Add yours

  1. Nerd Heaven shared.
    Thank you!
    (from the New Bookseller who keeps plaguing you with books about books questions on facebook 🙂 )

  2. annathrax says:

    Love learning about books and literature through your blog. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  3. Rick says:

    This may seem a stretch, but it seems incorporating the book’s artistry as part of the story is along the same basic concept as modern graphic novels – where the graphics and text rely on each other to give the whole picture (no pun intended). Thanks for your blogs, great stuff!

    1. No, it’s not a stretch. Puts me in mind of Jimmy Corrigan, as a great example off the top of my head, but obviously this idea is integral to graphic novels. “The medium is message,” says McLuhan.

  4. Reblogged this on Bibliodeviancy and commented:
    Reblogged due to unseemly admiration for Rebecca Romney, unseemly I say.

  5. James says:

    You may enjoy Michael Winterbottom’s film “A Cock and Bull Story” – a movie about the making of a movie of Tristram Shandy – which is both funny and pays due metafictional homage to the original.

    1. Thanks! I had heard of this film, but hadn’t seen it. I’ll make it a priority now that I know it’s worth checking out.

      1. James says:

        I imagine this might tickle your fancy as well then:

        1. Yes, thanks. I linked to the page about it in my Further Reading section, but nice to have the direct line to where one can purchase it.

          1. James says:

            Yes, I noticed just after I posted it. Apologies.

            1. As I said, no problem. I hope some people use the direct link to purchase one.

              1. Tom Rothwell says:


                When are you an Mark going to get your own television program. Come on, you two can come up with something that will work.

  6. Michael B says:

    The marble page is excellent. There’s a bit of scholarship in a similar vein regarding Jonathan Swift and the multiple “chasms” he left throughout the text of Tale of a Tub. This idea of Swift constantly reminding the reader of the physical book in their hands– it’s applied to footnotes, parenthetical statements, and all sorts of other distracting elements. It adds a extra layer of insanity to the book, and I think the idea applies doubly well to Sterne.

    1. Thank you very much for this comment. I enjoy these details to an embarrassing degree (if you couldn’t tell).

      1. David Brookshire says:

        I have just just joined Rebecca and enjoyed the last three posts and I’m happy I found you.

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