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From Sterne to Wodehouse : The Life and Death of Humour

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynold

Dr Johnson, the most renowned critic of his time, famously said: "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." He was certainly not alone in voicing this opinion. But Laurence Sterne's novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, has lasted. A brief glance at Amazon reveals scores of different editions, as well as dramatisations and critical notes.

There is no doubt that analysing humour is like eating soup with a fork: the best of it falls through the prongs. Or, as E. B. White wrote, it is like dissecting a frog, but the frog "dies in the process" (xi-xxii.). However, the purpose of this article is not to examine humour as such but the mode of its expression; for that, we shall argue, is the reason why some humour lasts and some does not. In short, when it comes to jokes the saying rings true: it is the way you tell ‘em.

A means of doing this is not only to create, as we shall see, a juxtaposition of tone and style in the narrative but also to place the reader in a special juxtaposition to the humour: that is to say the reader is given a ‘knowing’ perspective, standing with the author, a little aloof from the humour itself.

Illustration of Tristram Shandy by George Cruickshank

It is axiomatic that taste in everything changes over time; this can be found in such strongly held beliefs and outlooks such as morality, beauty, manners, and certainly extends to humour. A contemporary audience can experience an example of humour from fifty years ago, and will be surprised it was ever found funny in the first place. Even those that found a form of humour funny in their youth may well consider it to be dated later on in life, and nothing sounds the death-knell of humour more than the word 'dated'.

Thus, humour cannot be relied upon to stand on its own. A work of fiction shall fail over time if it’s just an assemblage of humorous remarks loosely strung together. A simple joke is unlikely to remain funny because it depends upon an evaporating relevance. More so, incidents of farce are likely to become antiquated. The concomitant conclusion is therefore the idea that something else must be needed to 'support' the humour in order to give it an enduring appeal.

One frequently used mode or manner of expression is the sustaining support of a serious, specifically non-humorous, register. In Tristram Shandy, Sterne chooses to "draw my uncle Toby's character from his Hobby-Horse," and he claims that for the drawing of Toby's character there is "no instrument so fit". Sterne continues:

"A man and his Hobby-Horse, though I cannot say that they act and react exactly after the same manner in which the soul and body do upon each other: Yet doubtless there is a communication between them of some kind, and my opinion rather is, that there is something in it more of the manner of electrified bodies, and that, by means of the heated parts of the rider, which come immediately into contact with the back of the Hobby-Horse - by long journeys and much friction, it so happens that the body of the rider is at length filled as full of Hobby-Horsical matter as it can hold; so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other” (Sterne 98-99).

This pseudo-scientific explanation of how intermingling a hobby-horse and a person reveals how the character of that person transforms, despite its incidental absurdity, the satirical - and indeed sexual - humour from something potentially banal and vulgar, into a passage where the wit transcends its limitations. The humour itself becomes less something to laugh about, rather something to relish and enjoy. The reader can be drawn in by the inventiveness of this construct - it requires an entirely separate level of attention through this inventiveness. It’s as if we are being invited to share a private joke from a position of superiority. The later Irish writer Flann O'Brien in The Third Policeman uses a remarkably similar device. In this instance, what is being described by a police sergeant is the effect of bicycle-riding:

“people who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of their parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who are nearly half people and half bicycles (O’Brien 74).

The process of becoming part bicycle, part human

It can of course be objected that this passage relies even more heavily on its absurdity to achieve the affected humour, and that it is not so much a means of sustaining humour as being humour itself. However, throughout the novel, reference is made to a fictional physicist and philosopher named De Selby - in almost entirely footnote form - and to his various theories that are often decidedly peculiar, sometimes ridiculous, but not quite inconceivable. This provides a counterpoint to the borderline impossible notions expressed in the book, such as a magnifying glass that magnifies to invisibility:

"It makes everything so big that there is room in the glass for only the smallest particle of it - not enough of it to make it different from any other thing that is dissimilar" (O’Brien 118).

The effect of all this is a mix of strange scientific theories positioned outside of the narrative, and equally bizarre notions developed within the narrative. The rural Irish setting is combined with dialogue that is couched in a strange mix of Irish colloquialisms; More, there is the use of technical, intellectual terms that the speaker might not normally be expected to use. Each of these contrasting elements provide the counterpoints for the other: they mutually sustain each other to provide that same enjoyment of humour that is found in Tristram Shandy. The disparity of elements - if you like, Schopenhauer's incongruity at one remove - do not remain at odds with each other, they combine to make something more than the sum of their parts.

Another example can be found in a passage from P.G. Wodehouse's Something Fresh, which describes a collision in the dark:

Coming down to first causes, the only reason why collisions of any kind occur is because two bodies defy Nature's law that a given spot on a given plane shall at a given moment in time be occupied by only one body. There was a certain spot near the foot of the great staircase which Ashe, coming downstairs, and George Emerson, coming up, had to pass on their respective routes. George reached it at one minute and three seconds after 2 a.m., moving silently and swiftly, and Ashe, also maintaining a good rate of speed, arrived there at one minute and four seconds after the hour, when he ceased to walk and began to fly, accompanied by George Emerson, now going down. His arms were round George's neck, and George was clinging to his waist. In due season they reached the foot of the stairs and a small table covered with occasional china and photographs in frames which lay adjacent to the foot of the stairs (Wodehouse’s 138).

Admittedly, there is much more in train here than just the use of a scientific explanation for the collision: Wodehouse is providing anticipation of the collision, he is mixing the dry description of a law of nature with a very Wodehousian register - ‘maintaining a good rate of speed’ - and he is giving rein to the reader's imagination by not describing the fate of the table and its ornaments. Nonetheless, what was no more than the simplest of uninteresting farcical incidents has been given sustained interest through the delicious complexity of its description. Wodehouse is the master of this kind of contrapuntal juxtaposition.

An aristocrat, a Wodehouse character.

In Tristram Shandy there is the structural hyperbole of a single line chapter, vastly exaggerating the importance of its announcement:


"I'll put him, however, into breeches, said my father, —let the world say what it will.


There are a thousand resolutions, Sir, both in church and state, as well as in matters, Madam, of a more private concern;—which though they have carried all appearance in the world of being taken, and entered upon in a hasty, hare-brained, and unadvised manner, were, notwithstanding this...entered into, and examined on all sides with so much coolness, that the GODDESS OF COOLNESS herself (I shall not take upon me to prove her existence) could neither have wished it, or done it better,

Of the number of these was my father's resolution of putting me into breeches;" (Sterne 419-20).

The elaborate length and seriousness of this comparison - between the great affairs of church and state and putting a small child into breeches (an examination of which continues for several more pages) - creates and sustains the humour by taking the very ordinary event and giving it a lengthy and engaging narrative all of its own; including a chapter devoted to how the boy looks in them, how they were made, and how they fit. The interest and the 'enjoyment of humour' are established by drawing the reader into a discussion that is almost abstract since no such seriousness can really be devoted to the subject of a child's breeches. This thereby creates a new dimension governed by a diffuse humour: one that the reader may relish without the distraction of a forced humour.

This examination of devices that support narrative humour, and which contribute to its longevity, are by no means exhaustive: the variety of humour and the variety of these devices precludes a detailed review of every type. However, the main point made here is that for a humorous book just to be funny is not sufficient, at least not sufficient for it to last. It must provide a pervasive and engaging framework that not only enhances its humour but retains the reader's affection over and above that humour. It must blind the reader to humour's frailty in the face of passing trends.


Boswell, J. (1791) The Life of Samuel Johnson. Vol. 2 p.449 (20 March 1776)

White, E. B. (1941) Preface. A Subtreasury of American Humor. Ed. E. B. White and Katharine S. White. New York, Coward-McCann

Sterne, L. (1985) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. London, Penguin Classics

O’Brien, F. (1974) The Third Policeman. London, Picador

Wodehouse, P.G. (1979) Something Fresh. London, Penguin

​​Image references

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1 comentário

Cesca Rampley
Cesca Rampley
01 de mar. de 2022

Very interesting! Some humour never 'dates'

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Oliver Nicholson

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