How are readers meant to interpret the scene with Maria?
Maria is a character from Tristram Shandy, Sterne's first, sensational literary success. Yorick visits her and experiences a welter of emotions -- lust, pity, sorrow, and even a sense of the spiritual. Critic Tim Parnell notes that modern readers may find Yorick's conflation of sexual and emotional impulses just another example of Yorick's self-satisfied attitude, but explains that "Sterne takes the orthodox position that since matter cannot think, emotion, like other physical feelings and sensations, has its source in the immaterial soul. A kind of circular reasoning thus imbues Yorick's tearful sympathy for Maria with spiritual value."
Why is Yorick's speech about the Sensorium significant?
The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the sensorium is "the seat of sensation in the brain of man and other animals; the percipient centre to which sense-impressions are transmitted by the nerves." Yorick quotes Joseph Addison's Cato, which discusses the comfort derived from confronting and considering God's omniscience and omnipotence. After his sweet, sad, lustful, and contemplative encounter with Maria, Yorick revels in his ability to experience these emotions and connect them to something infinite and majestic.
How is the novel influenced by Cervantes's Don Quixote?
Cervantes was a towering figure in the 18th century literary world, and one with whom Sterne was very familiar. Sterne references Don Quixote multiple times, calling attention to the figures of Sancho Panza and Quixote himself. The scene with the dead ass is a direct allusion to the dead ass from that novel. More generally, as critic Tim Parnell points out, both authors "are unwilling to let either genuine feeling or satiric laughter stand alone: rather [they present] both in their mutually qualifying integrity." Certainly, as Yorick explains, "there is nothing unmix’d in this world" (74).
How can we interpret Yorick's preface?
The preface is an unusual section, for it comes not at the beginning of the work, where it ought to, but many pages in. It almost takes the reader by surprise and does not even get to be a complete passage, for Yorick is interrupted by Englishmen. As critic Keryl Kavanagh notes, the preface "is paradigmatic of the work itself, suggesting misplaced meaning, eccentricity, going against custom and disappointing expectation which results in the reader being disappointed not only in terms of narrative structure but also in terms of action." Yorick writes this anomalous preface in a private, single-person chaise called a "desobligeant," the very word suggesting "disobliging" circumstances. This is a place almost like a confessional, "a place where he can admit his failings and be absolved of guilt." It is important, then, that this scene of writing comes soon after Yorick has been very disobliging to the monk. Kavanagh adds that Yorick's preface ends when he is discovered, owing to the desobligeant bouncing up and down. This suggests sexual activity in general and masturbation in particular, since Yorick is in the chaise alone. Together, these descriptions and suggestions fit Yorick's overall approach to sex -- personal, imaginative, and unfulfilled.
How does Yorick depict the French?
Yorick has the opportunity to meet many types of French people, from barbers to peasants to ladies to chambermaids to counts to monks to beggars. He admires their civility, class, mildness, and grace. In some notable instances, he appreciates their ability to fall in love, to demonstrate honor and wit and charity. Overall, though, when the Count de B**** asks him his opinion, he explains, "they are a loyal, a gallant, a generous, an ingenious, and good temper’d people as is under heaven;—if they have a fault—they are too serious" (75). Yorick also says that all of these traits are exhibited in an excessive way. While not excessively critical, Yorick nonetheless displays a measure of pro-English snobbery and superiority.