For the past two weeks, I’ve been teaching Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy in my eighteenth-century Honors Tutorial class. This is the second time I’ve taught this novel; I also taught it last year in this class.
I’ve been very honest with my students. I taught Tristram last year just to make myself read it finally. I had twice been assigned to read it in graduate classes but had never been able to finish it.I decided to teach it this year so that I could see if I wanted to write about it in my current book project. I think it’s good to be upfront with them about my choices in the class.
I enjoyed reading and teaching it last year, but I’ve loved it this time through. Reading it a second time has opened it up in whole new ways. Now that I’m not reading just to get any handle on it, I can enjoy it and try to get into it as a scholar and critic.
My students have done a great job with this novel so far. We watched Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 adaptation of the novel yesterday, so some of them are writing reviews of it for this essays this week. To do so, they have to think about what they think the novel is really all about, what it’s doing. Then they can evaluate whether the movie captures that. So far, they’ve done a great job on both counts. I’ve been really impressed with their ability to analyze this incredibly difficult work. They’ve been game for it, which I guess is one of the perks of teaching in the HTC program.
One of the things I’ve enjoyed in reading the novel this time is Sterne’s wit and wisdom, especially in his descriptions of “human nature,” whatever that may be. My students are compiling a commonplace book. My favorite quote, which I will add to my book when I finally remember to do so, is:
But there is a fatality that attends the action of some men: Order them as they will, they pass thro’ a certain medium that so twists and refracts them from their true directions — that, with all the titles to praise which a rectitude of heart can give, the doers of them are nevertheless forced to live and die without it.
This is just one of many aphorisms that one could quote from the novel. Sterne seems especially insightful about the randomness and uncontrollability of life. Whatever we plan, we have to know that it’s probably not going to turn out how we thought it would. As one of my students said, “According to Sterne, we’re all Walter Shandys!”
On a less positive note, I’m not sure what role this work will play in my current book project. Part of me thinks that my reputation as a scholar will be made forever if I figure out a way to have a chapter on Tristram. At this point, I’m not sure that’s going to happen. One of my goals this summer is to read more from the 1750s and 1760s in order to figure out how work from those decades fit into my project. We’ll see. Maybe Tristram will be relevant, or maybe I’ll end up going in a different direction.
In the mean time, we have two more days on Tristram this quarter — one of tutorials and one for our seminar. I was thinking about trying this novel out in my regular eighteenth-century class, but I doubt that I will. It would just take up too much time in the quarter. (Rumors are circulating again that OU might switch to semesters. If that happens, maybe I would teach it in the regular class.) And I’m not sure I’m that good a teacher!