The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy – Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, first published in nine volumes over the course of seven years (1759-1767), is considered one of the greatest novels of the eighteenth century.

The novel’s importance

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, first published in nine volumes over the course of seven years (1759-1767), is considered one of the greatest novels of the eighteenth century. It is a wild and unruly book, a hodgepodge of anecdotes, digressions, and bawdy humor. But it is also a work of incredible inventiveness and originality. Sterne drew from a wide range of influences, and the result is a novel like no other, which defies easy categorization.

One of the key reasons that The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy remains an important and fascinating book today is that it is often seen as a forerunner of modernist and postmodernist literature. Sterne broke new ground by deliberately subverting readers’ expectations and playing with the conventions of narrative and storytelling. He experimented with the form of the novel, with the aim of shaking up the reader’s experience and forcing them to actively engage with the text. In doing so, Sterne helped to change the way we think about what a novel can be, and laid the foundations for a whole new way of writing.

Key themes

One of the most striking themes in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is Sterne’s preoccupation with the nature of time. As the narrator, Tristram frequently digresses into long, rambling stories, interrupting the flow of his own attempted autobiography. This tendency seems to reflect the way in which our experience of time, over the course of our lives, is often  non-linear.

Another key theme in the novel is the question of identity. Tristram’s project of writing his own autobiography is fraught with difficulties, not least because the story of his life has been so heavily shaped by figures from his family, such as Uncle Toby, and his father. 

His own identity is, therefore, incomplete without reference to the lives of his family, friends, and acquaintances. This suggests a broader philosophical question about how we form our sense of who we are – where does our own agency come into our identity, and how much are we just a product of our environment?

Historical context

One major influence on Tristram Shandy is the growing spirit of Enlightenment that pervaded Europe at the time. Philosophers and writers were calling for a new focus on reason and empiricism, and many were challenging traditional beliefs and hierarchies. Tristram Shandy engages with these discourses, and, at times, savagely parodies them. 

The novel takes particular aim at the idea of rationalism – the belief by philosophers such as Leibniz and Descartes that everything can be explained by cause and effect. Shandy tries to tell his life story in a rationalist way – by tracing all of the causes that led to him being born and developing into the man he is at the time of writing.

In trying to do so he covers most of his grandfather’s life, his parents’ lives, and their conception of him. This means that, in his own autobiography, Tristram isn’t even born until about 200 pages into the book!

Sterne shows us how quibbling over the causes of things can lead us to endless digression and distraction, when the important thing, sometimes, is just to figure out what’s happening in our own lives. 

Intellectual and cultural context

Laurence Sterne’s novel is often cited as a pioneering work in the development of the modern novel. It challenges many of the conventions of eighteenth-century literature, with its disjointed and fragmentary structure, inconsistent pacing, and playful literary style. Additionally, Tristram Shandy is one of the earliest examples of a “self-referential” novel, with the narrator frequently breaking the illusion of fiction by speaking directly to the reader.

Writing in the same era as authors such as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, who wrote stories with more straightforward narratives, Sterne’s approach in Tristram Shandy was decidedly experimental. His playfulness with form and convention would later influence a number of modernist authors, including James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. As such, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is both an entertaining read and an important milestone in the history of the novel.

Plot

The book begins with the comical circumstances of Tristram’s conception, but it quickly becomes apparent that the author is far less interested in providing a straightforward account of Tristram’s life than he is in digressing, entertaining, and puzzling his readers.

Despite these structural eccentricities, there are key events that stand out in the book. Tristram’s birth and baptism, his childhood mishaps, and the ever-worsening marital tensions between his father and mother are all given plenty of attention. While the book may not always proceed logically, we come away from the story with a far more vivid and colorful idea of Tristram’s character than a linear autobiography would ever have given us.

Narrative structure

In terms of its narrative structure, Tristram Shandy is nothing if not unconventional. Much of the story is told in a meandering, non-linear fashion, jumping back and forth in time and spacing out the events of Tristram’s life with commentary and digressions from the author himself. This might seem chaotic and difficult to follow at first, but in the end it reveals itself to be a deliberate choice by Sterne, forcing the reader to piece together the story for themselves rather than having it presented to them in an easily digested form.

The use of multiple points of view throughout the novel only adds to this sense of complexity. Sterne allows various characters to shoulder the burden of narration at different points, each of them providing their own perspective on the events that unfold. This fragmented style of storytelling ultimately cultivates a sense of intimacy between the reader and the characters, as we are given glimpses into their lives from a variety of angles.

Key characters

One of the most important characters in Laurence Sterne’s novel, aside from Tristram himself, is Uncle Toby. Toby is portrayed as a kind-hearted, eccentric retired soldier, who spends much of his time reenacting battles from his days in the military. As Tristram’s closest confidant, Toby is a key figure in the novel, serving as a sounding board for Tristram’s many opinions and offering occasional wisdom and perspective.

Another character who stands out in the novel is Dr. Slop, a bumbling and arrogant physician. His ineptitude and pompousness serve as comic relief, and he is often ridiculed by the other characters. Nevertheless, he plays a significant role in the story, as he is the one who delivers Tristram into the world, albeit after an accident that causes Tristram to be born with a crushed nose. Dr. Slop is also a symbol of the changing medical landscape of the eighteenth century, where traditional treatments were slowly being replaced by a scientific approach.

Literary devices

One of the most notable techniques that Laurence Sterne employs in his novel is the use of digression. Rather than stick to a linear plot, Sterne meanders, taking his readers down side roads and on tangents unrelated to the main story. This, in part, conveys the chaos and disorder that Sterne seems to want to highlight in life itself.

Another literary device that Sterne draws on is metafiction, or the act of drawing attention to the fact that a story is fictional. In his novel, Sterne addresses the reader directly, often commenting on the novel’s construction or its authorship. By doing this, Sterne encourages readers to think about the nature of storytelling itself, and the complex relationships between fiction, truth, and reality. 

When we read Uncle Toby telling us another of his tall tales, we know that, even within the fictional world of the story, he is not telling the truth. But what becomes clear is that listening to him, and taking the time to understand his eccentric, hilarious personality, has its own value.

Symbolism

One way in which Sterne employs symbolism is his use of metaphor to convey the chaotic nature of Tristram Shandy’s mind. For instance, in one passage, Tristram compares his own thoughts to “a wilderness of monkeys,” suggesting the unpredictability and disorder of his thought process. Sterne often uses metaphor throughout the novel in this way, allowing readers to visually conceptualize complex or abstract ideas.

Sterne also engages in the frequent use of analogy, which allows him to make comparisons between seemingly unrelated subjects. For instance, he compares the absurdity of characters like Uncle Toby and Widow Wadman to the nonsensical and perplexing aspects of human behavior at large. By making these connections through analogy, Sterne encourages readers to rethink how they understand and interact with the world around them.

Critical readings

Many critics have interpreted The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy in different ways. Some see it as a highly innovative and experimental work, pushing the boundaries of the novel form in terms of structure, language, and content. For these critics, Sterne’s novel represents a daring attempt to redefine literary conventions in the eighteenth century.

Others, however, see Sterne’s work less favorably. Some critics argue that the novel is haphazard and disorganized, lacking any clear narrative direction. They suggest that it is a meandering, scattered work, rather than a purposeful, revolutionary one. These critics argue that the novel can be interpreted as an indication of Sterne’s own lack of writerly discipline and focus, or as a cynical attempt to capitalize on the popularity of eccentric and unorthodox works in the late eighteenth century.

Influence

One of the most significant impacts The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy has had is on the novel as a genre. Sterne was highly innovative in his use of digressions, disjointed narratives, and metafictional elements, all of which have influenced a number of authors who have followed in his footsteps. In particular, Sterne’s insistence on pushing the boundaries of what a novel could be has inspired a legacy of experimental and avant-garde writers, from James Joyce to Thomas Pynchon.

The novel has also had a broader cultural impact. For many, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy is seen as the archetype of the “unreliable narrator” – a central character whose version of events is not to be trusted. This narrative device has been used in a multitude of works across a range of genres, including films, television shows, and even video games. In this way, Sterne’s novel continues to hold relevance and significance even today, more than 250 years after its initial publication.

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