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The Hack in Swift's A tale of a tub compared with Tristram in Sterne's Tristram Shandy McMillan, Theresa Kathleen

Abstract

The similarities between Swift's Grub Street Hack and Sterne's Tristram are persistent and remarkable, even though the Hack is a satiric pose of Swift and Tristram a comic projection of Sterne. Perhaps the most striking similarity lies in the constant tension between the reader's expectations of a wise narrator and a sequential style and the Hack's and Tristram's perverse frustration of the reader's desire for order. The foolish narrators, in an obstructive style, develop systematic theories based on absurd hypotheses. This perversity is not only witty and amusing, but also a reflection of Swift's and Sterne's eighteenth century “rage for order." To Swift, order is a necessity, to be defended by attacking all that threatens order. Swift imitates the chaos he saw in seventeenth-century style and thought by assuming the mask of a fool who speaks in the accents of hundreds of modern pretenders to learning. But the seeming chaos of the Hack's discourse is ordered by Swift's satiric intent and his views on Gnosticism. In the end, comic order predominates as the quintessence of disorder, the Hack is laughed off the stage. Wit triumphs over dulness. However, the comedy is undermined by tragic associations of evil, madness, and anarchy. To Sterne, conventional order of time and formal logic are illusions. He imitates the disorder in men's minds by assuming a mask and playing many parts. The seeming chaos of Tristram's narration is ordered by the association of ideas, a central group of characters, and the values of humour, common sense, feeling and benevolence. In the end, in spite of suggestions of the world's ill nature, hypocrisy, and corruption, comic order predominates.

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