The Exchange of Sentiments

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of A Sentimental Journey, Paul Goring explains that the term “sentimental” was still fairly new during Sterne’s lifetime. While its definition was somewhat ambiguous, Goring provides the reader with a basic idea of the concept: “‘Sentiment’ was generally used to mean a thought or a reflection which was produced from or informed by emotion; it conveyed a ‘mental feeling’ – an attitude which is at once intellectual and emotional, and typically this attitude concerned moral conduct” (Goring xxi). One pattern that I found interesting in Sterne’s novel is the association between such ‘mental feelings’ and their physical manifestations. In the second chapter (“CALAIS.”), Yorick discusses the physical effects of being in good spirits:

When man is at peace with man, how much lighter than a feather is the heaviest of metals in his hand! He pulls out his purse, and holding it airily and uncompress’d, looks round him, as if he sought for an object to share it with—In doing this, I felt every vessel in my frame dilate—the arteries beat all chearily together, and every power which sustained life, perform’d it with so little friction, that ‘twould have confounded the most physical precieuse in France: with all her materialism, she could scarce have called me a machine— (Sterne 6)

According to Goring’s note on this passage, Yorick seems to be echoing the materialistic philosophy that was popular in the mid-eighteenth century. This association between physicality and mentality reoccurs throughout the novel, frequently in regards to communication. In the chapter titled “PREFACE IN THE DESOBLIGEANT.”, Yorick seems to imply that communication between people of different backgrounds is difficult because their experiences are incommensurable:

‘Tis true we are endued with an imperfect power of spreading out happiness sometimes beyond her [nature’s] limits, but ‘tis so ordered, that from the want of languages, connections, and dependencies, and from the difference in education, customs and habits, we lie under so many impediments in communicating our sensations out of our own sphere, as often amount to total impossibility. (Sterne 11)

As the novel progresses, however, we witness Yorick have numerous meaningful interactions with people from ‘out of [his] own sphere’. These encounters demonstrate the power of physical actions and body language as aids to communication. To name a few: the physical exchange of snuff boxes with the monk in Calais; the first encounter with Madame de L*** at the remise door (“I felt a pleasurable ductility about her, which spread a calmness over all my spirits” [Sterne 18]); the discussion of “making love by sentiments” inside the remise (Sterne 26); Yorick’s decision to hire La Fleur at first sight (“the genuine look and air of the fellow determined the matter at once in his favour” (Sterne 31); his displeasure at the postillion’s rapid departure from the man lamenting his dead ass (“the fellow gave an unfeeling lash to each of his beasts, and set off clattering like a thousand devils” (Sterne 41); the scene where Yorick feels the pulse of the woman in the shop in Paris (“if it is the same blood which comes from the heart, which descences to the extremes… I am sure you have one of the best pulses of any woman in the world” (Sterne 50); the list goes on. In the scene in the opera box (from “THE TRANSLATION. PARIS.”), Yorick acknowledges the power of non-verbal communication:

Translate this into any civilized language in the world—the sense is this:

“Here’s a poor stranger come in to the box—he seems as if he knew no body; and is never likely, was he to be seven years in Paris, if every man he comes near keeps his spectacles upon his nose—‘tis shutting the door of conversation absolutely in his face—and using him worse than a German.”

The French officer might as well have said it all aloud, and if he had, I should in course have put the bow I made him into French too, and told him, “I was sensible of his attention, and return’d him a thousand thanks for it.”

There is not a secret so aiding in the progress of sociality, as to get master of this short hand, and be quick in rendering the several turns of looks and limbs, with all their inflections and delineations, into plain words. (Sterne 54)

This “short hand” plays a valuable role for Yorick in his travels, and these seemingly trivial interactions make up the meat of his narrative. Yorick’s truly is a “sentimental” journey.


Works Cited

Sterne, Laurence. A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy by Mr. Yorick. Ed. Paul Goring. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.