A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy

A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy Themes


With a title like A Sentimental Journey, Sterne's book is intended to showcase this 18th-century concern with emotion and fine feeling. In Yorick's travels and encounters with new people, a premium is placed on manners, gentility, understanding, and sympathy. Yorick acts benevolently towards people, and (mostly) tries to act philanthropically as well. He does not shy away from expressing his feelings, whether they be wonderment, delight, amusement, fear, appreciation, or approbation. He applauds young women for their virtue, attempts to help the poor, engages in pleasing and sympathetic discourse with members of the upper echelons of French society, warmly commends his servant's love affairs, and gives vent to his terror of the Bastille. Yorick's sentimental adventures are meant to rouse within the reader feelings of tenderness and sympathy. His tale can be taken as a reminder of the inherent goodness in human nature and of the human capacity for love and mutual understanding.


Travel writing has always been a mainstay of literature, but Sterne's novel popularized this genre significantly during the 18th century. Travel writers have adopted a variety of guises, perspectives, and styles, ranging from the critical (Smollett) to the enthusiastic and benevolent (Sterne). In A Sentimental Journey, Sterne celebrates the French (and, presumably, would have celebrated the Italians had he finished writing the book) and seeks to observe and document French character and behavior. Occasionally, Sterne is critical, comparing the French unfavorably with the English, but such harshness is a minor note. Sterne also has Yorick embody his authorial view of how travelers should be -- receptive, open, spontaneous, enthusiastic. Travel can be an educating, uplifting, and moral experience, at least according to Sterne.


Sex is alluded to throughout the novel, though sexual concerns are never explicitly articulated. Rather, Yorick engages in several flirtations with young women -- Madame de L***, the grisset, the fille de chambre, Maria, and the lady and her fille de chambre at the end. For Yorick, sexual pleasure seems to derive not only from physical touch -- something as simple as a hand on a coat sleeve -- but also from the reveries that accompany his amorous adventures. He imagines comforting the sorrowful young widows Madame de L*** and Maria, and ruminates on the fille de chambre's virtue. His encounters are characterized by the incomplete, by the unfulfilled -- witness the very last scene. The interruption of romantic and perhaps sexual escapades is not a source of despair, however; unfulfilled desire seems to give Yorick immense titillation and pleasure. After all, he is a reverend, and cannot be too inappropriate.


Yorick is a complicated character where self-perception is concerned: he does not seem to be particularly perspicacious but occasionally does exhibit a tendency to reflect on himself. He forms quick judgments and acts spontaneously, but tries to assure his readers that there is a larger framework of ideas behind what he is thinking and doing. Although Yorick claims to be open and receptive in his travels, he nonetheless claims now and then that he prefers the English way of doing things and asserts that the English are superior to foreigners. He believes himself to be a certain kind of person -- virtuous and sympathetic -- but his actions often contradict this self-image. Even as he preaches virtue, he suggestively winks at his readers in relation to his romantic exploits.


A Sentimental Journey deals primarily with Yorick's perspective, so that readers naturally experience its events as they unfold in Yorick's mind. While Yorick narrates episodes and conversations, he also gives way to ruminations, fears, dreams, and flights of fancy. Yorick is a man who lives in his head just as much as he lives in the real world -- one of the most fascinating elements of a book dedicated to travel and the perceptions of the senses. Especially in regards to his romantic encounters, Yorick lets his mind wander, imagining full conversations and musing over how he would behave in certain situations. When he is threatened with imprisonment in the Bastille, he quickly moves from an observation that there are millions of people enslaved to the image of a single figure, shut up in the walls of a prison, wasting away in terror and fear. Sterne cleverly stokes the reader's imagination at several points, including the novel's sudden and ambiguous conclusion; clearly, the activity of the mind is as valuable as one's perambulations in the physical world.

Translation and Language

Part of venturing to another country is the thrill of observing and interacting with the inhabitants. However, language can become slippery in any encounter between two human beings, since the words spoken and the message conveyed and the intent behind the words may all be very different. Communication between people of different languages can be even more fraught with the potential for mis-translation and misunderstanding. Yorick experiences both pleasantly sympathetic and remarkably muddled conversations with the French (the former exemplified by the grisset, the latter by the Count de B****, who thinks that Sterne's Yorick is Shakespeare's jester Yorick). In fact, Yorick explains that translation is more than just words: it is watching people's mannerisms and actions. That is how he forms a bond with the French veteran at the Opera, and how in many cases he flirts with women. Sometimes, though, Yorick's "translations" are slightly skewed, allowing Sterne to subtly comment on our inability to truly understand anyone else.


Yorick has a few serious encounters and conundrums, but overall he maintains a sense of humor and travels in an open, benevolent, and cheery fashion. He pokes fun at himself, admits his own foibles (to a degree), and delights in both other people and the events that befall him. Sterne portrays Yorick in a way that allows the reader to laugh along with Yorick, and sometimes at him. The novel is deliciously witty, its protagonist occasionally unwittingly pompous, hypocritical, and absurd. Humor is depicted as a component of the sentimental, since humor and sentiment are both traits that promote tolerance, kindness, and sympathy.