'All Job's stock of asses': The fiction of Laurence Sterne and the theodicy debate

Green, Peter Geoffrey (2010). 'All Job's stock of asses': The fiction of Laurence Sterne and the theodicy debate. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00005b86


This thesis argues that Sterne's fiction is an ambiguous representation with religious and libidinal subtexts of a struggle to give a coherent metaphysical account both of the significance of compassion for suffering and of causality. This implies that Sterne's fiction cannot be fully understood without reference to eighteenth-century arguments about the compatibility of belief in the power and goodness of God with the existence of evil otherwise known as the theodicy debate. This becomes clear when analysed with Slavoj 'i–ek's concept of the fetish: the lie which enables one to live with an unendurable truth.

The thesis is organised into six chapters. After setting Sterne's fiction in the context of contemporaneous theodicies, these examine in turn its theodictic features, its narrative procedures, its representations of mortality and class hierarchy, and its relationship to Sentimentalism. It shows that in each of these areas two of the major themes of contemporaneous theodicies are also fetishised subtexts in Sterne's fiction: the religious attachment to the Newtonian idea of a perfectly ordered cosmos and the anxiety that the unmanaged appetite for pleasure might provoke divine displeasure.

An array of concepts from 'i–ek identify the theodictic implications of the fictions – the author as the omniscient 'subject supposed to know�; the 'Master-Signifier' that is meant to define the narrator's role but fails because of a repressed remainder that it cannot encompass; the mechanisms by which subjects interpret experiences as messages from the divine; the idea of language as a reality that can outlive the subject; and the theory that the prospect of rational social order can be psychologically unendurable.

Sterne's fiction highlights the fact that fiction often trades on the reader's need for comprehensible patterns of causality: its refusal to provide this is theodictic and this fact has hitherto received no extended critical attention.

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