Arbitrary Government: Tristram Shandy and the Crisis of Whig History

ENGLISH LITERARY HISTORY 81.2 (2014): 585-613

Abstract: Although David Hume asserted that Tristram Shandy had escaped the turbulence that overwhelmed the early reign of George III by way of a distinctly “Shandean” obliviousness, Sterne’s novel cannot be so straightforwardly extricated from the growing political upheaval. While critics have connected the novel to transatlantic debates over heredity and identified partisan targets behind its character portraits, this essay argues for returning Sterne’s novel wholesale to the debates over governance that created a political crisis in later eighteenth-century Britain (and that ultimately propelled the American Revolution). Drawing on revisionist accounts of the 1688 Revolution–with whose anniversary Tristram’s birthday conspicuously coincides–and an expanded approach to eighteenth-century political culture, I propose that Sterne’s embrace of contingency and rupture mounts a broad-ranging and preemptive assault on the “Whig” premise of inevitable historical progress. From their “accidental” involvement with world-historical events to their confused interactions with each other, the Shandy family both anticipate and intersect with a crisis of governmental legitimacy and “political reasoning” within the country at large. The consequences of this clash between past and present can ultimately be discerned through Tristram himself. In the “Gentleman” anxiously appended to his name and his failure to articulate the “Opinions” advertised in the novel’s title, Tristram dramatizes a much wider predicament, while his “accident of birth” reveals the arbitrariness endemic to the established constitution and broader social order, which would transform politics in the decades to come.