A Sentimental Journey Summary
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Irish novelist Laurence Sterne wrote A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy in 1768 following a trip to France and Naples in 1765. Focusing on the adventures of Sterne’s fictional alter ego, Yorick, as he travels abroad, the novel is an early specimen of the travel-writing genre that gained popularity in the eighteenth century. The novel is actually incomplete, as Sterne died of tuberculosis before he could finish it. English writer John Hall-Stevenson, a friend of Sterne’s, wrote a continuation of the novel after his death. Although it received mostly praise at the time of its publication, the novel also drew some criticism for its sexual innuendo.
Yorick, a British clergyman, travels to Calais on a whim after noting that a dish he was enjoying at dinner would be better served in France. In Calais, he eats a hearty meal at a hotel and toasts to the health of the King of France. As he is finishing dinner, an old monk approaches him and begs for money for his monastery. Yorick rebuffs him, telling him that he does not have a right to the bread of others. The monk leaves, and Yorick feels guilty about responding to him so harshly.
Yorick decides that he needs a chaise, or horse-drawn carriage, to make his travels easier. He notices an old chaise in the hotel courtyard and sits in it to begin writing the prelude to a manuscript documenting his travels. He ponders the reasons for which people travel and puts them into categories. He decides that some people travel for sickness or mental health, others travel for education, and another category of people are “simple” travelers. In Yorick’s mind, simple travelers come in many subgroups – idle travelers, inquisitive travelers, vain travelers, splenetic travelers, lying travelers, proud travelers, delinquent travelers, unfortunate travelers, innocent travelers, and finally, sentimental travelers. He puts himself into this last category.
While sitting in the chaise, Yorick notices an attractive young woman talking to the monk whom he had turned away. He admires the woman’s good looks, but does not approach her because of his desire to avoid the monk. Yorick asks Monsieur Dessein, the owner of the hotel, whether he could have the old chaise in the courtyard. Monsieur Dessein replies that he will not give Yorick a chaise that is about to fall apart, but offers to take him to look at newer chaises at a shop called Remise. At the shop, Yorick comes across the young woman he had seen in the courtyard and strikes up a conversation.
Yorick notices that the woman has an air of melancholy about her. Seeing the monk nearby and worrying that he told the woman about his stinginess, Yorick apologizes to him and offers to exchange snuff boxes. Yorick picks out a small chaise, and Monsieur Dessein urges him to try it out by shutting him and the woman inside. They share a tender moment before Dessein comes back into the store and tells the woman that her brother has arrived. The woman says goodbye to Yorick and leaves. Yorick reflects on the importance of keeping an open mind while traveling and mentions a miserable traveler named Smelfungus who criticized every place he visited, even the majestic Pantheon in Rome.
Yorick buys the chaise and travels to Montriul. There, his landlord introduces him to La Fleur, a young man who wishes to accompany Yorick as his servant. Although La Fleur does not have any skills besides playing the drum and fife, Yorick agrees to take him on because of his handsome looks and good manners. The two set out with Yorick riding in his chaise and La Fleur on a small horse. Along the way, they see a dead donkey lying in the road. La Fleur’s horse is spooked and runs away, forcing him to share the chaise with Yorick.
In the town of Nampont, Yorick and La Fleur meet the grieving man whose donkey had died. He tells them that he does not care about the financial loss; he just really loved his donkey as a companion. Yorick is touched by the man’s story and later offers him money, which the man declines. The two continue on to the town of Amiens, where Yorick crosses paths once again with the young woman he had met in Calais. The woman’s name is Madame de L, and she sends Yorick a note asking him to deliver a letter to another woman named Madame de R in Paris.
In accordance with Madame de L’s wishes, Yorick and La Fleur go to Paris to deliver the letter. Yorick asks a barber to get him ready for his meeting with Madame de R, and ends up spending so much time there that he decides to postpone the meeting. He goes to the opera, stopping at a shop to buy gloves and ask the female shopkeeper for directions, flirting with her as he does so. At the opera, Yorick notices a French officer intervene to help a dwarf whose view was blocked by a rude, corpulent German.
The next day, Yorick goes out to a bookstore where he meets a charming young lady who tells him that she is the fille de chambre, or chambermaid, of Madame de R. When Yorick returns to the hotel, La Fleur tells him that a police inspector was there asking for his passport. Yorick panics at this since he does not actually have a passport. He goes to see the Count de B in Versailles for help. The Count is a lover of Shakespeare’s works. When he asks Yorick for his name, Yorick takes down a volume of the play Hamlet from the Count’s vast library and points to the character of Yorick. Mistaking him for the king’s jester, the Count is tickled and gets Yorick a passport right away.
While in Paris, Yorick goes to visit a woman named Maria, an acquaintance of his friend, Mr. Shandy. He finds Maria at her parents’ house, dressed all in white and clearly troubled. After visiting Maria, Yorick travels to Lyon and stops at an inn for the night, where he finds himself sharing a room with a lady and her chambermaid. To make the situation less awkward, the three of them agree that Yorick should sleep in his breeches and draw the curtains around his bed for privacy. In addition, he is not to speak until the morning. However, Yorick has trouble falling asleep and proclaims, “O my God!” The chambermaid comes and stands near his bed at the sound, and he reaches up to grab her. The text ends here.
The main themes of A Sentimental Journey are travel, romance, love, grief, adventure, and foreign cultures and customs. The novel paints a vivid picture of the French people, language, and traditions, and also conveys the joy and sense of freedom that comes with traveling. The novel contains a reference to Sterne’s earlier novel, TristramShandy, as well as a critique of Tobias Smollet’s Travels Through France and Italy for being too cynical and close-minded. The character of Smelfungus, whom Yorick mentions in the novel, is believed to be a satirical portrait of Smollet, a cynical traveler who cannot find pleasure anywhere he goes. His attitude towards traveling stands in direct contrast to that of Yorick, who enjoys and learns from his adventures.
The full title Lawrence Sterne gave his unconventional mixture of autobiography, travel impressions, and fiction—A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy—is misleading. Sterne told of his travels through France, but he died of tuberculosis before writing the Italian section of his narrative. Sentimental, outrageous, and eccentric in its humorous effects, the novel is replete with delightful accounts and observations of whatever came into the author’s mind. Like The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), the book broadened the scope of prose fiction for later writers by demonstrating that form and unified plot are not necessary for a successful novel.
In form and apparent subject, A Sentimental Journey follows in the tradition of the grand-tour novel. The depictions of scenes and persons, of escapades on the road, of the cultural adjustments required of an Englishman abroad, and of the things to be learned and the places to be visited were common, enjoyable reading matter for an eighteenth century audience. Sterne’s grand tour, however, sports a delightful touch of irreverence. Its hero, Yorick, is not a typical young gentleman matriculating into a peripatetic finishing school but a low-key picaro buffeted by impulse and whimsy. Therefore, his “traveling” seems random. Unplanned, untimed, it accords perfectly with his sole principle, which, it seems, is to have no principle whatever except obedience to natural affections, to his growing sensibility, and his often unseemly passion. He prefers filles de chambre to cathedrals and a pretty face to a gallery portrait. Given his free-flowing nature, he does not seek to improve himself in accordance with a travel plan; he prefers to stumble over it in following his heart. The point Sterne makes is that a benevolent nature can be trusted not to err in promoting human goodness.
“Sentiment” and a host of such attendant words as “good nature,” “sensibility,” and “affections” were all terms with particular significance in Sterne’s day. The doctrine of sensibility, popularized by the late seventeenth century Latitudinarian divines, urged an inherent goodness in human beings, a“sense” of moral absolutes that expresses itself in acts of charity and social benevolence. Championed philosophically by the third earl of Shaftesbury (in his Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, and Times, 1711) and in fiction by Henry...
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