Squeaking Hinges and Wicked Strings

Harmony and the Art of Listening in Tristram Shandy

Peter De Voogd, in a guide to reading Laurence Sterne’s discursive The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, advises the Shandean novice to “remember that most books in the eighteenth century were read out loud, and commented upon by fellow readers (or listeners) during the reading, and that it helps enormously when you, too, read out the text, doing different voices” for the various characters. Indeed, Sterne’s text is a cacophony of voices which interweave and interrupt, overlap and unite, grate and collide to create a polyphonic chorus which even the carefullest of readers may find it hard to follow. Though it is the voice of Tristram himself that dominates, others vie for the reader’s attention with operatic bombast, speaking over, under, and around one another in search of “the sportable key” which will “give sense and spirit”  (IX.vi.553) to their tales and fix the attention of their listeners. Even Tristram acknowledges the primacy of voice in his account and particularly the importance of multiple voices: “Writing,” he says “when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation” (II.xi.96)—conversation between himself and his presumed audience, himself and his reader, between the many characters in his tales, and, of course, with himself. Sterne’s many voices, in conversation and in combat, are noticeable not only for their omnipresence, but for the consistency of the scheme by which they are described. Throughout the text, Tristram borrows words from the realm of music to describe voices’ tones and capabilities and, by extension, to approach the character of a voice—and through it, the person.

Early in the text, Tristram takes a moment to introduce his reader to the method by which he means to paint his characters. It is here that we first encounter Tristram’s idea of the “hobby-horse,” that is, the idea that every person has a particular obsession so peculiar to themselves and so bound up in who they are “that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other.” However, Tristram only arrives at this notion of hobby-horse following the rejection of a different mode of characterization—a musical one, in a style which he attributes to Vergil’s Aeneid. Such writers, he contends, “draw all their characters with wind instruments. . . but [to do so] is as fallacious as the breath of fame—and, moreover, bespeaks a narrow genius” (I.xxiii.66). Tristram, being quite thoroughly convinced of his own genius as far as narrative prowess goes, elects to set himself apart from the Italians who “pretend to a mathematical exactness in their designations of one particular sort of character among them, from the forte or piano of a certain wind instrument” (I.xxiii.66) and blaze a new trail in characterization “by no mechanical help whatever” (I.xxiii.67), but only by the hobby-horse. From this outburst, we might expect Tristram’s attitude towards music to align with his excoriating lampoons of both the artist who mathematically evaluates his work and the critic, who, having been to see Garrick perform, analyzes an ill-appointed pause inserted between a noun and an adjective with the aid of a stop-watch and a “rule and compasses” (III.xii.164) to the bemusement of his interlocutor.¹ This early assertion of music as “mathematically exact” sets the reader up to accept music as antithetical to Tristram, his method of characterization, and to the emotion so glaringly absent in Tristram’s portraits of scientific precision. And yet, it is not long before we become aware of music creeping in at the edges of the text—in whistles and voices, metaphors and images. As with so many of the promises he makes his reader, Tristram is unfaithful to his commitment to prevent his “pencil [from being] guided by any one wind instrument which ever was blown upon” (I.xxiii.67), often calling upon the musical to aid him in characterization, both of people and events, over the course of the book. Voices move in thirds and fifths (IV.xxvii.286), people search for the proper key in which to tell a story (VIII.xix.508), whistled melodies stand-in for speech and emotion, music is struck up between people in love (VIII.xxxiv.535), hearts and men are figured as possessing vibrating strings (IV.i.246), and even, in Chapter XV of Volume V, Tristram’s own hobby-horse—that is, the writing of his autobiography—is abruptly figured as a musical instrument, as he wonders whether his “fiddle” is in tune (V.xv.335).

Why, then, does Tristram break his promise? What is it about music that turns out to suit his purposes so well that, not only does he allow its inclusion, but he saturates his text with musical allusions, metaphors, motifs, and images? John Leslie, in his “Music’s Sentimental Role in Tristram Shandy,” locates music’s importance to Tristram Shandy in its potential to bridge the gap between persons, facilitating connection through sentiment. In comparing the hobby-horse  method of characterization to the musical one, communication emerges as the central contrast. Whereas hobby-horses tend to stand in the way of effective communication between characters and prevent the possibility of connection (as Toby’s repeated misunderstandings of his brother illustrate, hobby-horses possess their owners so completely as to render them entirely deaf and blind to anything that falls outside their obsession’s scope), music in the text does not operate in isolation, but rather, as Leslie argues, it provides a catalyst for connection and a vehicle for sentiment. “So long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the king’s highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,—pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?” (I.vii.13) Tristram asks, providing a quintessential statement about the isolating force of the hobby-horse as a method for characterizing man.

Ironically, though Tristram turns to the hobby-horse to avoid ‘mathematical exactitude,’ it is not music that turns out to be absolute, but the hobby-horse. Musical language and musical characterization are based in relation, as William Freedman emphasizes in his study of Tristram Shandy as a “musical novel.” Freedman moves beyond concrete references to music (and thus exceeds the scope of Leslie’s conception of music in the novel) to analyze the structure of the text itself in terms of music. Music, for Freedman, is the essential metaphor for the human psychology and experience because it “reduces the most manifold and most contradictory movements of our soul to the same beautiful harmonies”—the key figure for which is music’s relation to time. Unlike visual art, which, as static, can only be a slice of frozen time, or literature and cinema, in which time is necessarily linear (in the sense that only one thing may happen at any one time), musical time is in constant process, constantly “creat[ing] […] a future and a past in the actual present moment, in each present moment.” Psychological time—the individual experience of time, what Bergson theorizes as duration—is the survival of the no-longer-present in the present, the constant expansion of the present by the yet-to-be-present, and, as such, music, for Freedman, becomes the perfect image for and expression of subjective experience.

Both Freedman and Leslie, then, take similarly positive views of Tristram Shandy’s use of music and musical language, finding in them the means for deep connection and meaningful psychological representation. However, neither of their arguments fully comprehend Sterne’s uses of musical language. It is somewhat surprising, given that Leslie’s argument foregrounds music’s sentimental capacity to convey emotion, that he takes Uncle Toby and his whistling of Lillibullero as his key figure. Uncle Toby and his sometimes expressive, sometimes sympathetic whistling provide a neat image, but hardly constitute the most powerful example the text gives of music’s connective capability. If we are to accept Leslie’s argument, then that position, without a doubt, would go to Tristram’s encounter with “poor Maria,” the tragic roadside pipe-player of the last volume. In the Maria episode, Tristram, feeling “the kindliest harmony vibrating within” caused by “the sweetest notes [he] ever heard” (IX.xxiv.573), stops his chaise to ascertain the source of the melody. His postilion, “with an accent and a look so perfectly in tune to a feeling heart” (IX.xxiv.573), explains that the musician is Maria, a beautiful girl who became “unsettled in her mind” following the dissolution of her wedding banns and who spends her days playing upon her pipe. Tristram is so moved by her “cadence so melancholy, so tender and querulous” (IX.xxiv.574) that he springs to her aid only to find himself “betwixt her and her goat.” Taken at face value, the episode provides the perfect image for Leslie’s argument: here, language dissolves to be replaced entirely by music. Maria’s music “speaks” to Tristram, “[telling him] such a tale of woe” (IX.xxiv.574), transcending the barriers of sense and language to convey emotion whole and unmitigated. The problem of representation and its limits falls away as music does not merely express emotion, but becomes it, providing a pathway for direct connection between two separate souls. As Tristram presents it, the moment stands as a shining hope for the possibility of connection through “irrational ‘feelingness,’” to borrow Leslie’s phrase, amidst a chaotic world fraught with misunderstanding.

However, we must not take the Maria episode at face value; and Leslie knows this—hence his omission. Deborah Vlock cautions against taking Sterne’s assertions of the affective power of musical language in good faith, demonstrating how scenes that begin—as the Maria episode does—with an apparently serious attempt to evoke emotion musically inevitably disintegrate, destabilizing the musical language that preceded the moment of deflation or rejection. The Maria episode follows just such an arc, exposing Sterne’s far more complex relation to musical language than Leslie’s purely sentimental understanding allowed. The bubble of Leslie-an harmony and sympathetic connection which Tristram—and Sterne—build up in their musical language is merely that: a bubble. The last line of the chapter exposes it for what it is, popping the fantasy of music-as-affective-connection with the deflationary “——What an excellent inn at Moulins!” (IX.xxiv.574), abruptly shifting registers and undercutting the sentimental pastoral that has just been presented. How deep could Tristram possibly have been moved to end his chapter—his “invocation”—with such a worldly observation? As in all the brief flashes Leslie describes, the moment of connection ends and we are left down in the muck of everyday life, selfish thought, misunderstanding, and miscommunication once more.

Harmony, however farcical and nonexistent, does not, by its failure to last or even to exist, cease to exist as a dream for Tristram to yearn after. In Volume IV, he omits a chapter because it was “so much above the stile and manner of any thing else I have been able to paint in this book, that it could not have remained in it, without depreciating every other scene; and destroying at the same time that necessary equipoise and balance […] from whence the just proportions and harmony of the whole work results” (IV.xxv.283-84). Harmony as an ideal exists in the text, even if, as Pierre Dubois contends, the key to understanding Sterne’s system is to understand that harmony, if it ever occurs, is accidental and leaves no lasting effect. The default state of the universe is Shandean chaos; harmony exists as “the exception, the dreamt-of, but unlikely state that is reached only transitorily.”

In an essay on quickness of style, Italo Calvino quotes Carlo Levi’s introduction to an Italian edition of Tristram Shandy, in which Levi approaches Tristram’s dream of harmony obliquely through his relation to time and death: “Death is hidden in clocks, as Belli said; and the unhappiness of individual life, of this fragment, of this divided, disunited thing, devoid of wholeness: death, which is time, the time of individuation, of separation.” Levi sees Tristram’s yearning after harmony as part-and-parcel of his fear of death. Clock-time, in its universality, is a fragmenting force. That the moment of Tristram’s conception is intimately connected with the winding of a clock might seem to suggest that Tristram is born into a world governed by the clock—a world of scientific, precise time. However, that infamous clock, we must bear in mind, may not have been wound by Tristram’s father and thus—at the moment of conception—might have been stopped. Whether we realize it, we, with (and even before) Tristram, are thrust into a world which does not operate by ordered clock-time, but by subjective experiential duration. Sentences like “a cow broke in (to-morrow morning)” (III.xxxviii.212) provide a microcosmic expression of the disjointed, jumbled, time structure of the book itself: temporal, linguistic versions of Tristram’s digressive, curlicue lines—and of Tristram’s own experience of time: an experience designed to beat time at its own game and, as in Volume VII, outrun death.

Levi is not alone in configuring harmony and connection as antithetical to death in their opposition to time. Leslie cites G. A. Starr’s note that “in the sentimental novel time becomes a major enemy, the agent of feared or despised changes,” developing the idea of strategies “devised to arrest or fragment [time’s] ongoingness” to address the strangeness of Tristram’s flight from death in Volume VII. Connecting time and death like Levi, Leslie formulates music as the antithesis of death because music, as the creation of artificial, organized time, becomes a system by which to combat the ceaseless forward-progress of normal time. Music, for Leslie, is the manifestation of the sought-after time-defeating harmony. And yet—we have seen that harmony—no matter how longed for—is, at best, transient when sought through music; at worst, it is nonexistent.

It is here that we must return to De Voogd’s suggestion that Tristram Shandy is a book to read aloud. In suggesting that a would-be Shandean read the book out loud, De Voogd not only draws attention to the intense orality of the text, but also to its aurality. In suggesting that the reader keep in mind eighteenth century reading culture, De Voogd follows in the footsteps of Walter Ong, who traces the evolution of reading practices in the transition from an oral culture to a print one, emphasizing the long reach of orality’s long-time primacy in our literary culture. Ong’s argument, though, extends the notion of orality beyond mere utterance, casting “reading” as “converting [a text] to sound, aloud or in the imagination,” a construction which, in figuring the aural as an inextricable element of reading and writing, provides insight into Sterne’s literary project. Tristram Shandy is not only a cacophony of voices musically expressed, but of polyphonic, overwhelming sound: a persistently squeaking hinge, the whistled bars of Lillabullero, the cries of an injured (and offended) Phutatorius, the mangled tuning of a fiddle. In reading the text, we must conjure these sounds for ourselves, immersing ourselves in the richly-textured sound-world Sterne creates. Just as characters perceive their world as much through their ears as their eyes, so must we, as readers, train ourselves to do; we must listen for sounds we ourselves create. This, as it turns out, is precisely the formula Levi and Leslie propose as a figure for Tristram’s efforts to evade death: an ourobouros of constant production and consumption. Vlock, in turning her focus away from musical language, recasts the question of harmony not in terms of production, but reception, arguing that “the harmony which Tristram seeks but fails to find in contemporary musical discourse is based in the deeply personal pleasure found in listening” (emphasis added). Here, Vlock proposes an alternative harmony, generated not by connection, affective sentiment, or fortuitous circumstance, but by engagement in the sound-world we inhabit. Shandean chaos can, with the right ear, become harmony. It is only in this light that the bizarre scene of Tristram’s fiddle-tuning gains meaning.

Ptr . . r . . r . . ing — twing — twang — prut — trut — ’tis a cursed had fiddle. — Do you know whether my fiddle’s in tune or no? — trut. . prut. . — They should be fifths. — ‘Tis wickedly strung — tr. . . a.e.i.o.u.-twang. — The bridge is a mile too high, and the sound post absolutely down, — else — trut. . prut — hark! ’tis not so bad a tone. — Diddle diddle, diddle diddle, diddle diddle, dum. […] Twaddle diddle, tweddle diddle, — twiddle diddle, — twoddle diddle, — twudle diddle, — prut trut — krish — krash — krush. […] Diddle diddle, diddle diddle, diddle diddle — hum — dum — drum. […]— trut-prut, — prut-trut.

O! there is — whom I could sit and hear whole days, — whose talents lie in making what he fiddles to be felt, — who inspires me with his joys and hopes, and puts the most hidden springs of my heart into motion. (V.xv.335)

The fiddle ends as it begins, “prut—trut” becoming “prut-trut”—and yet Tristram seems content; he has found what “puts the most hidden springs of [his] heart into motion.” Here, though the sounds of the badly-tuned fiddle do not change, Tristram’s relation to them does. He finds, in learning to listen to his self-generated Shandean chaos of sound, a harmony in the cacophony.


  1. In speaking of his own dedication, Tristram takes on the persona of a painter evaluating his own work, parodying evaluations of art based in scientific exactitude, rather than emotion: “to speak more like a man of science,—and measure my piece in the painter’s scale, divided into 20,—I believe, my Lord, the out-lines will turn out as 12,—the composition as 9,—the colouring as 6,—the expression 13 and a half,—and the design,—if I may be allowed, my Lord, to understand my own design, and supposing absolute perfection in designing, to be as 20,—I think it cannot well fall short of 19” (I.ix.16).



Calvino, Italo. “Quickness.” Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Trans. Patrick Creagh. New York: Vintage International. 1993. pp. 31-55.

De Voogd, Peter. “How to Read Tristram Shandy.Revue de la société d’études anglo- américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. No. 63, 2006. pp. 7-17. Persée, <http://www.persee.fr/docAsPDF/xvii_0291-3798_2006_num_63_1_2318.pdf>. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017.

Dubois, Pierre. “Music and Modernity in Laurence Sterne: The Dialectics of Harmony and Dissonance.” Revue de la Société d’études anglo-américaines des XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles, vol. HS3, 2013, pp. 229-42. Open Edition,

http://1718.revues.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/690, doi:10.4000/1718.690. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.

Freedman, William. Laurence Sterne and the Origins of the Musical Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

Leslie, John C. “Music’s Sentimental Role in Tristram Shandy.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 41, no. 1, Winter 2005, pp. 55-66. EBSCOhost, ezp- <prod1.hul.harvard.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx? direct=true&db=aph&AN=16165302&site=ehost-live&scope=site>. Accessed 4 Nov. 2017.

Sterne, Jonathan. The Audible Past. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. London: Penguin, 2003.

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Vlock, Deborah M. “Sterne, Descartes, and the Music in Tristram Shandy.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 38, no. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century, Summer 1998, pp. 517-536. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/451061. Accessed 3 Nov. 2017.

Yahev, Amit. “Sonorous Duration: Tristram Shandy and the Temporality of Novels.” PMLA, vol. 128, no. 4, Oct. 2013, pp. 872-87. MLA, doi-org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1632/ pmla.2013.128.4.872. Accessed 5 Nov. 2017.


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