While eating, the narrator, Yorick, comments that a certain dish is served better in France, which leads a man to interrupt Yorick and ask if he has been to France. Yorick immediately goes home and packs his things; he sails at nine and sits down to dinner in Calais at three. He finishes this new dinner and toasts the good health of the King of France, reflecting on how the “Bourbon” is not a cruel race but has “a mildness in their blood” (4). Now, Yorick's cheeks feel warm with good sentiment toward the French.
At that instant, a monk from the order of St. Francis comes into the room to beg money for his monastery. The moment he sees the monk, Yorick knows he will not give the monk a cent. He moves towards the monk, his face forbidding and grave.
The monk is old, about seventy, with white whiskers. He apparently resembles a figure from a painting by Guido Reni in his meekness, looking beyond this sublunary world. He is not elegant, but is instead bent forward in a position of supplication. This posture is what Yorick remembers most.
The monk begins to speak of his convent’s needs and Yorick feels himself bewitched by the monk's words, but is still determined not to give a single sous. In fact, although Yorick feels the force of the appeal, he thinks of those thousands in distress on his own shores. He states to the monk that there is a difference between those who labor for their own bread and those who wait for the bread of others. Resigned to Yorick's attitude, the monk leaves.
Yorick is distressed the minute the monk departs and pictures him coming back. Ultimately, Yorick assures himself that he has just set out on his travels and will no doubt learn better manners soon.
Now that Yorick is dissatisfied with himself, he feels that he is in the right frame of mind to make a bargain. He needs a chaise, and calls on Monsieur Dessein, the master of the hotel where he has just dined. Monsieur Dessein is out, though, and Yorick does not want to go outside because he sees the Franciscan speaking with a young woman.
Despite these obstacles, Yorick notices an old chaise in the corner of the hotel yard and climbs in to write a preface to his work.
Yorick mulls over the things that nature has provided to bring about the happiness of men, as well as the reality that “we lie under so many impediments of communicating our sensations out of our own sphere” (8). The balance of commerce always seems to be against the traveler, Yorick adds. He then begins to discuss the types of travelers. There are those who travel to relieve turmoil of mind or infirmity of body, or those who are motivated to travel by necessity. There are also those who are traveling for government or religion, or because they are children dragged along by their parents. There is a fourth class, though: the simple travelers. They consist of idle travelers, inquisitive travelers, lying travelers, proud travelers, vain travelers, splenetic travelers. There are delinquent travelers, unfortunate and innocent travelers, and finally, the sentimental travelers. Yorick places himself in this final category, though he may occasionally be classified as a vain traveler. He is trying to pursue knowledge and improvement in the course of his journeys. Yet Yorick adds that a traveler should be aware of what he has at home.
While Yorick is sitting in the chaise, two Englishmen speak to him. He notes that one is an inquisitive traveler, while the other is a sentimental traveler.
After Yorick returns to his room, Monsieur Dessein comes to see him. Yorick wonders if the coach he was sitting in belongs to someone else, and advises the hotel master to get rid of it, because every time Yorick sees it he will be ashamed. Monsieur Dessein asserts that he will not give Yorick a carriage that will fall apart, and leads him to take a look at the available options.
Yorick observes that a buyer and seller walking together naturally assume the situation of two duelists, and begins to think that he dislikes the look of Dessein. As he is about to enter the door of the Remise to look at the carriages, Yorick notices the woman he saw talking to the monk. He offers her his hand and she accepts. Dessein realizes that he has brought the wrong key and heads off, promising to return in five minutes. Standing there with the woman’s hand in his, Yorick decides that he must start to explain himself to his readers. He states that one of the reasons he did not get out of the chaise when he saw the monk was the presence of the woman herself. Instead, from a distance Yorick admired her form and her apparent good breeding and education. Once he sees her whole face, he admires it as well. The woman is about twenty-six, pretty but not stunningly beautiful (interesting, rather), and seems to posses the sadness of a widow. Yorick feels benevolence towards her and wants to ask about her sorrows.
He begins to speak, remarking on how Fortune brings individuals such as themselves together. She takes her hand away for a moment and Yorick is plunged into despair; he feels better once she places her hand on his coat cuff. Yorick pities her melancholic expression, but becomes nervous when the rush of blood to his fingertips, which are pressing on hers, seems to give his inner tumult away. The two then remain silent.
Yorick grows nervous that the monk has told the woman about his lack of generosity. He sees the monk ahead of him and apologizes for his earlier behavior, offering the monk snuff from his snuffbox. The two men exchange boxes in a show of warmth. Yorick recalls that he has kept the monk's box with him always; only recently, Yorick inquired after the monk -- whose name is Father Lorenzo -- and was saddened to hear that he had passed.
The travelers who had spoken to Yorick earlier see him standing there with the woman and conclude that Yorick and the woman are married. It turns out that they are both setting off on travels through France. Yorick considers asking the woman if she will accept half the chaise, but then worries about the rumors that could be inspired by such an offer. He is prepared to ask when he notices her stepping away, consumed by her sadness.
Yorick is distressed that the woman is leaving without telling him her name, and that he might not see her again. He wonders how he can find out more about her, but knows that “there was no such thing as a man’s asking her directly -- the thing was impossible” (20). He is lucky when a French captain comes up to them and asks Yorick to introduce him to the lady. This obliges her to answer questions about where she is from: Brussels, Belgium.
Dessein returns and the companions enter the Remise. Yorick sees another small traveling carriage but regards it poorly. Dessein suggests that Yorick and the woman step into another one and they are left alone again. Both smile at this circumstance, and they speak of the French and of the nature of love.
Dessein returns again and tells the woman that her brother has arrived: she must go. Disappointed, Yorick tells her that he was about to ask her something; she replies that she felt his impulse, and allows him to kiss her hand.
Yorick buys the chaise and orders the horses, ruminating on how many adventures one can have if one merely goes through life receptively and with open eyes. He knows that even were he in the desert he would have something to enjoy. He then comments on a learned traveler, Smelfungus, who had nothing nice to say about even the great Roman Pantheon, and who always complained about his travels. The rich traveler Mundungus, for his part, journeyed everywhere and had nothing pleasant to say. Yorick pities these men, speculating that even if they had mansions in heaven they would be unhappy.
Laurence Sterne followed up his enormous literary success Tristram Shandy with A Sentimental Journey. This second book is ostensibly a novel, but is based on Sterne’s own travels: in fact, the character Yorick is based on Sterne himself. A Sentimental Journey is famously unfinished, for the seriously ill Sterne died before he could shift his narration from France to Italy. As a paragon of travel writing and of sentimental fiction, the text partakes of two genres very much in vogue at the time of Sterne’s writing. Readers today, however, may find the work a little confusing, since it is episodic in structure and highly whimsical in style. Much of the “action” takes place in Yorick’s head as he imagines scenes and conversations.
In this first section, readers are introduced to Yorick, a reverend, who decides that he will narrate his trip abroad. His decision to go to France is incredibly spontaneous, and that same spontaneity is manifested by Yorick in many of his later adventures in Continental Europe. He often changes plans or lets his thoughts take him hither and thither, sometimes at the clear expense of preordained, orderly arrangements.
Much of the critical analysis of A Sentimental Journey has focused on Yorick’s ironic sense of his own character, his conscious thoughts and utterances in contrast with what is revealed in his encounters with people. In lines of analysis such as this, the early scene with the monk is quite important. While ambivalent about giving money to poor people throughout the novel, Yorick comes forth at his most disdainful in this one episode. He decides in advance that he does not want to give any money, and further peruses the monk’s visage and demeanor in a manner that fully convinces him of the rightness of his mindset. Yorick even lectures the simple, demure monk on how people who earn their bread are better than those who ask others for it. There are poor people back in England, as Yorick notes, and he ought to think of them before giving foreign aid. This patronizing attitude will resurface, though modified, in the scene of the poor beggars and Yorick’s sous.
However, it is also possible that Yorick's manner of dealing with the monk is an aberration; there is much about Yorick's kindly character that is inconsistent with his heavy-handed approach here. One of the reasons behind the novel’s initial popularity (especially in France, where it went through many translations and editions) was Yorick’s positive, open attitude regarding both travel and the people he encounters. In this first section, he generously says about the “Bourbon” that “they may be misled like other people; but there is a mildness in their blood” (4).
As a traveler to foreign regions, Yorick knows that he is in a special position of observation and judgment. The preface he composes regarding the different types of travelers is another one of the most revealing passages in A Sentimental Journey. Yorick distinguishes the types of travelers who have to travel for some reason from those who choose to do so. Within the final category of the “Simple Traveler,” Yorick creates a new set of subdivisions: Vain, Idle, Splenetic, Sentimental, etc. At the close of this section he mentions two travelers who preceded him, Smelfungus and Mundungus, and critiques their mindset and writings. This is not merely fiction, ridiculous though the names are; Sterne is jabbing at Tobias Smollett (Smelfungus), with his travel account that is nothing more than a record of his “miserable feelings,” and Samuel Sharp (Mundungus), who has not one “generous connection or pleasurable anecdote to tell of” (25). Yorick identifies these men as governed by spleen, which makes them irritable, censorious, and incapable of receiving joy or pleasure -- in this case, the multi-faceted pleasure of traveling.
In an article on the emotional and comedic elements of A Sentimental Journey, Gardner D. Stout, Jr. writes that Smollett's and Sharp’s works “typify the morose and splenetic observations of many contemporary Englishmen on their travels abroad.” These authors were proud and vain, and “were betrayed into dullness and absurdity by their uninspired efforts to be original.” Yorick, in contrast, travels and writes in a way that is “intended to teach his contemporaries the value of behaving in a civilized manner.” He reveals that “delicacy and decorum, good manners and cosmopolitan tolerance are civilizing and humanizing virtues conducive to a benevolent disposition toward one's fellow-men.”