Gioiella Bruni Roccia
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The discursive construction of the self in Shaftesbury and Sterne
Tristram Shandy and the quest for identity
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The long eighteenth century witnessed a renewed interest in the philosophical and psychological problem of the ‘self’ and the related notions of subjectivity and self-consciousness – all issues and discussions so brilliantly parodied in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. This chapter proposes a rereading of Laurence Sterne’s masterpiece in the light of the contemporary debate about selfhood. Despite the veiled allusion to Locke’s theory of personal identity within a novel which explicitly refers to An Essay concerning Human Understanding, the most important influence on Sterne’s narrative seems to be the ‘method of soliloquy’ or ‘self-discoursing practice’ recommended by Shaftesbury. The ‘soliloquy’ Shaftesbury proposes is a kind of ‘self-dissection’ in which an individual ‘becomes two distinct persons’ in order to achieve integrity and self-unity within his or her mind. The result of this dialectical process is the construction of a unified ‘self’. Shaftesbury’s dialogical lesson becomes even more significant when applied to Sterne’s novel. When Tristram takes on the identity of the other characters, interpreting their actions and their words, the narrator constructs his own self through an authentic inter-subjective relationship. Indeed, the underlying interior dialogue of Tristram’s ‘conversation’ achieves a passionate quest for identity.

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