A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy Summary and Analysis of The Letter - The Rose

Yorick reads the letter and thinks that it will serve his purposes, with a minor tweak or two. This document is sealed and sent to Madame de L***. Yorick then makes ready for Paris. Once alone in his new hotel in Paris, he feels a little melancholy. He exclaims, “Alas, poor Yorick!” (41) and decides that he will go wait upon the woman to whom Madame de L*** has directed a letter: Madame de R***. First, though, he must go to the barber.

At the barber's shop, the barber does not seem to be able to do much with Yorick's wig. Yorick reflects that the French always consider things on a grand scale, and that for the French grandeur resides not so much in the thing itself as in the words that surround it. Despite this emphasis on grandeur, Yorick's experience at the barbershop is more revealing to him in terms of national character than any important matter of state could be.

Since he has spent so long at the barber's shop, Yorick is obliged to postpone his visit to Madame de R*** until the next day. He is still dressed to go out, though, and decides to walk about. He has no particular destination in mind; eventually, he steps into a shop to ask a young woman, a grisset, directions to the Opera comique. He admires this female shopkeeper's comeliness and is touched that she gets up and gives him directions -- three times, no less. After thanking her for her aid, Yorick begins to leave, but then realizes that he has forgotten every word she said. Laughing, the grisset asks if such forgetfulness is possible; Yorick replies that he was thinking more about her than about the directions.

The grisset says that she is about to send a young boy with a package to the same part of Paris that Yorick intends to visit, and will thus send the boy along with Yorick. While they wait, Yorick thanks her sincerely again. He flirts with her, saying that if her pulse contains the same blood that flows from her warm heart, then her pulse will be very robust. She holds her hand out and tells him to feel it. Yorick marvels at how open this exchange is.

At one point the grisset's husband comes in and sees his wife with Yorick, but does not seem perturbed at all. Yorick recollects that in England a shopkeeper and his wife are one; here in France, the husband is rarely involved and the wife has a fair degree of autonomy.

Yorick and the grisset look into each other’s eyes. The boy comes in carrying gloves and Yorick says that he will have a pair for himself. The gloves are too large, but Yorick takes one anyway. When it comes time for him to leave, Yorick pays the grisset slightly more than the market price of the glove, which makes her happy.

At the opera, Yorick enters a box that is occupied by only an elderly French officer. Yorick is favorably disposed towards veterans on account of an old friend of his, now deceased, named Captain Tobias Shandy. The two new acquaintances exchange bows, which seem to say much more than is readily apparent: Yorick enjoys “translating” gestures and says that he has done so often. He recalls meeting a young woman at a concert in Milan, and that he and this woman kept accidentally getting in each other’s way. After some flushed flirtation, Yorick accompanied her home in her coach.

In the box, Yorick wonders at the number of dwarfs in Paris, and laments the misfortune of being such a short person. He feels himself sympathetically inclined towards this group of people. From the box, Yorick sees a dwarf craning his neck to see the show, yet unfortunately a tall and corpulent German shows no regard for the small man and continues to be an obstruction. The French officer sees Yorick growing emotional and takes action just as the German insults the dwarf: Yorick's comrade motions to a sentinel, who intervenes and places the dwarf in front. Yorick is pleased, and the officer asks if action of this sort would be taken in England. Yorick replies that everyone sits at his or her ease there.

A commotion is heard; it is a cry surrounding an Abbe. This Abbe is in the upper loge, and a few grissets are asking him to put up his hands. Yorick is shocked to discover that this request is a way of making sure that the Abbe is not doing anything inappropriate. Yorick is often shocked at what he encounters, although over time his capacity for shock lessens.


As the journey continues, Yorick offers yet more insight into the French character -- engaging in an intense flirtation with a grisset (female shopkeeper) and attending the Opera comique, where he befriends a French veteran and observes the plight of a poor dwarf.

Making further observations of French life and culture, Yorick says that everything exists on a grand scale in Paris, and that there is more grandeur in the descriptions of things than in the things themselves: “The French expression professes more than it performs” (42). He notes the apparent equality between men and women in shopkeeping (which is to his advantage, since the husband of the grisset Yorick is romancing does not seem perturbed). He also meets a French veteran whom he admires very much, especially when the older man steps in to help the dwarf deal with the tall, coarse German; the French were at war with Prussia at this time, so that antipathy toward the German makes sense in light of the novel's overall bias in favor of the French. One negative sentiment that Yorick expresses about France, though, also involves this very incident. According to Yorick, such rudeness would not have been encountered in England, for as Sterne scholar Tim Parnell explains, “the notion that Protestant Britain possessed a peculiar degree of freedom not found in Catholic France informs eighteenth-century conceptions of Britishness.”

The incident with the French veteran brings up another notable aspect of A Sentimental Journey -- Sterne’s use of language, particularly the idea of translation and interpretation. In her article on this subject, Keryl Kavanagh delves into the process of interpretation, which Sterne accentuates through “his characters’ fragmented understanding and, paradigmatically, through the fragmented nature of the text.” Yorick gives voice early on to the inherent difficulty of conveying one's experiences of travel -- especially of how uniqueness of experience and eccentricity of personality can make a traveler a stranger. In the scene with the veteran, Yorick, who “constantly wants to explain himself to himself, himself to others, others to himself, and all to us” looks to the gesture, the behavior of the man rather than listening to his words. This is Yorick's “translation,” which he believes is admirable: “in his translation Yorick wants to…question the validity of spoken language…he wishes to get below the civilized screen that language can erect between individuals.” Sterne’s point is to showcase the gap between language and what it means, which is obviously exacerbated when one is dealing with a foreign language. Ultimately, Kavanagh finds language, not plot, to be the unifying logic of the novel: Yorick’s “way with language certainly draws attention to itself, as does the novelty of his narrative vehicle. His associated leaps, his gaps and creative play in translating verbal and non verbal language trigger the ‘see-sawing,’ jiggling motion that keeps the narrative moving.”

The incident with the grisset is one of several in the text in which Yorick flirts with a young woman; noticing this pattern in Yorick's character, many critics have analyzed the sexual components of the text, and several commentators have concluded that Yorick has some sort of sexual dysfunction (impotence or small penis size). These issues perhaps become more crucial to later sections of A Sentimental Journey, but for now, Gene Koppel’s article on the “art of the incomplete” attempts to show how Sterne’s “treatment of sexual frustration can be utilized to gain an insight into the basic artistic vision of A Sentimental Journey.” According to this reading, Sterne believes that frustrated desire can be channeled into energy and creativity. Yorick’s encounters with women are all characterized by such frustration; although he flirts with them heavily, he never seems to close the deal. Koppel argues that Sterne wrote Yorick in this manner so that he could “[transmute] a painful awareness of the incompleteness of most human experience into an artistically effective vision which reinforced his basic optimism.” Although Yorick senses that his encounters will be interrupted, this intuition heightens his pleasure and awareness of the preciousness of the moment he inhabits.

In the course of daily life, many things that humans hope for turn out to be flawed or unsatisfactory once attained. Encounters that are truncated midway may at the very least still offer unlimited, imagined possibility or beauty. Koppel clarifies that this is not a perspective that Yorick is consciously trying to cultivate in most instances, but that Yorick is often “as short-sighted as we, his readers and fellow travelers, are.” Sometimes, Yorick does not want to let things be; he has La Fleur buy the bird, and he pursues the fragment-story that accompanies the butter even though its incompleteness is what interests him. Koppel concludes from these incidents that “Yorick and his readers learn that the fulfillment of human wishes leads oftener to anticlimax than to happiness” and that “there is a kind of beauty in the incomplete which the philosopher of life will experience with intensity and look back upon with tender (or ‘sentimental’) gratitude.”