Many a critic has spent many a word interpreting the marbled page included in Vol. III, chap xxxvi of Tristam Shandy. Tristram himself calls it "the motley emblem" of his work, and dares the reader to attempt to decipher its meaning. We, being the suckers we are, happily stumble our way through as many readings as there are variations in the page (most of these hinge on the necessary uniqueness of each copy as a result of the impossibility of mass-producing identical marbled pages). And I'm not suggesting we should stop.
In thumbing my way through an ever-increasing pile of 18th century books, however, I noticed that many came with marbled pages when originally printed or reprinted later in the century. The have marbled board-pages, and/or end-pages, as is frequently mentioned the descriptions offered by antiquarian booksellers. I wonder, then, if most of the Shandean critics out there have been missing something by somewhat failing to adequately historicize the marbled page as a regular feature of contemporary bookmaking. I give full marks therefore to Janine Barchas, who reminds us in a parenthetical of from whence Sterne gets the idea (Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel, 16). Barchas, following Hunter, rightly notes that the marbled page is another deliberately misplaced book element with which contemporary readers would have been quite familiar. The meaning--or a meaning--of the marbled page therefore (as so often happen in TS) requires us to look out from the book in front of us to the entire field of printed literature. Sterne foregrounds the common element by moving it into the body of the text, thus transforming what might hitherto have passed as merely an aesthetic addition into a visual representation of the interpretive indeterminacy to which all books are subject. The device is not new--it's old, and it has simply been used in a new way.
I, of course, would say that the way it's used is after the fashion of an encyclopedia, a statement which way well be off the wall with respect to other novels in the period but which is substantially more appropriate to TS, with its Tristrapedia and almost aggressive generic appropriations. An encyclopedia attempts to explain all knowledge--or at least present it--but in order to do so that knowledge must be broken up and displayed in an artificial and arbitrary fashion. The perfect, unified field is out there for the viewing--we call it the world, the universe, whatever-- and it has its perfect author, God. And as easy at it is to experience the unity (be alive), it's awfully difficult to understand once you start to think about it. The novel, especially in a Tom Jones or Clarissa kind of way, seeks to duplicate or at least approximate that unity. Sterne's marbled page is another encyclopedized (awful neologism, that, I swear I'll never use it again) element strategically placed to demonstrate via its absurdity that the novel cannot duplicate nature because it cannot achieve universality. The universe (thanks largely to Newton's mechanics) works the same for everybody; the laws of gravity apply across all bodies. Novels, the marbled page reminds us, don't.