Tristram Shandy

A write-up on Laurence Sterne’s landmark novel Tristram Shandy published in the eighteenth century and marked by digression, double entendre, problems of language and graphic devices.

Laurence Sterne’s ‘novel’ Tristram Shandy, born in the latter part of the eighteenth century, found itself in a waning tradition of biting satire of the kind earlier propagated by Pope and Swift. Although it is itself clearly a satire, through its meandering in and out of “scintillating wit and whimsical baffoonery” (Stedmond, 53), Tristram Shandy is nevertheless much more good-humoured than its predecessors. Even its profuse bawdy humour that presents itself almost naively throughout the novel, prompted Samuel Johnson to respond with “Nothing odd will do too long.”

And yet, two and a half centuries later, Tristram Shandy came to be widely regarded as the godfather of modernist literature. Sterne’s wild experimentation with form and voice was a radical departure from the orderly, structurally unified novels of the day, such as Fielding’s Tom Jones, and considerably ahead of its time. Sterne’s childhood was spent following his father’s army regiment around England and Ireland. This early experience of military life was to inspire some of his most memorable comic characters, including the war-game obsessed Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim. The satirical and stylistic influence of Rabelais and Cervantes can also be felt throughout Tristram Shandy, whilst the philosophy of John Locke informs one of the book’s key themes: the association of ideas.

The protagonist’s constant straying away from the story, if it could be called a story at all, switching back and forth in time, the smallest of trivialities or comical accidents triggering off the most outrageous fabrications, all contribute to render Tristram Shandy, a novel of digressions rather than of narrative. “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading! – take them out of this book, for instance,- you might as well take the book along with them” (50). And it is in this digression that the novel retains its uniqueness, a uniqueness upon which the author had long deliberated rather than stumbled upon. Thus although the author constantly laments having so much yet to write about, he still cannot check himself from straying into apparently irrelevant incidents. There is an implicit sense then, of the futility of recounting in the first place. This futility of communication seems to occur, not because of a lack of means but because the author takes on the impossible task of writing about his life while living it.

The central irony of the book is that the novel is being written more slowly than the life that is being lived, that while Tristram sits down to pen an incident, he nevertheless lives in a continuum of space and time and his experience keeps accumulating thus always adding to what he has to write.

Through this sort of hermeneutics, Sterne also seems to throw light on the complexity of human beings which are, like Tristram, brought into society by accident, or even through a process so mechanized and regulated that there is almost nothing human about it as suggested in the opening scenes with the winding of the clock. After being thus ejected into the world, human beings have to further undergo the trauma of baptism in order to exist and own an identity. It is Walter Shandy’s “magic bias” that will decide the character of his son through a name. But, Tristram is in fact a victim of several accidents, the biggest of which is probably his birth as not only is he mis-named and de-sexed in the novel, he appears, rather than the protagonist, more as a minor character or narrator whose voice is subordinated to the description of the other characters.

Tristram in the novel is in fact nothing more than a voice and yet it is Yorick that the author speaks through, deserting Tristram almost as cruelly as he does the other characters. The narration of the story is futile not because of the narrator’s continuous existence, but because of the characters in his world who are immune to him even in moments of severe crisis. This was the case when the maid and Dr Slop are trying to attend to Tristram after the window sash incident but fall to quarreling among themselves, leaving Tristram by the wayside. Everyone rides his hobby-horse and thus, not only is there no one to be part of the Tristam’s story, there is no one to listen to him as well. He is himself, like the rest of his characters, riding his own hobby horse of trying to recount a story that is never going to end.

This is where Sterne seems to equalize all his characters and allay a little bit of Tristram’s victimhood in a world in which everyone spins in his respective orbit but nevertheless in the gravitational field of the other. In a tower of Babel-like situation, everyone simultaneously talks about his own life and opinions in a desperate need to be understood and in the end, the confused hodgepodge of voices that is heard is not very different from the narrative chaos that undermines every attempt of Tristram to begin at the beginning. “Tristram Shandy is quintessentially a book about man’s attempt to give a reasonable and definitive form to his experience of the world-and about the inevitable tendency of experience to run counter to man’s formulations” (Briggs, 195).

Upon closer inspection, the narrator’s statements about narrating what he is doing and when he is doing it are seen as somehow “above or beyond the plot, as if these were outside the domain of the narrative proper- as if they existed as critical comments on narrative rather than as part of the narrative itself” (Williams, 1032). The narrator always freely shifts positions. He is self-reflexive in the way that he is aware that he is recounting his life ‘story’ and at the same time keep reminds us about it too. Unlike the self-effacing omniscient narrator, the self-conscious narrator of Tristram Shandy flaunts his whims and narrative agency to the reader. He can have a marbled page in the middle of the novel if he likes, he can have absurd patterns of asterisks or of any other typing symbol that he likes, he can even pretend the novel was suddenly a play and give stage directions to Garrick.

If he chooses, he can refrain from description altogether, then the reader might be at sea when it comes to certain events like the window sash circumcision: “It is in vain to leave this to the reader’s imagination” (377). This kind of narrator is then enormously powerful. Not only does he provide the narrative, but admits that he is as fallible as us, as ignorant. The reader’s interpretation is as biased as the narrator’s. There is no pretension of objectivity or reality. As the title itself spells out, the novel is not just about the life of Tristram Shandy, it is also about his opinions. Any act of narration is necessarily also interlinked with the act of sentience. To ‘be’ is necessarily tangled with the activity of explaining being.

In as much as Tristram may be considered as rhetor, the whole book consists of his “oration.” But this is the rhetoric of a “fool.” And it carries some interesting implications about Sterne’s conception of the nature of his audience. Like Swift in The Modest Proposal, he shocks the more squeamish members by reflecting upon their own underlying preconceptions. One kind of empty verbalism against which both Swift and Pope inveighed was the fulsome praise of the prospective patron. Sterne’s dedication of his first volume to Pitt is, significantly, not fulsome. Sterne was of course seeking a patron of a different kind-the reading public at large. He implicitly dedicates his book to them by titillating their tastes, while at the same time managing to satirize the human foibles involved in that taste. Thus, though dedicating his book to the “Lord Public,” he attempts to unseat that Lord from some of his “Hobby-Horses,” or at least to make him more aware of his “ruling passions.”

“With an ass,” Tristram says in his account of his travels in Volume VII, “I can commune forever.” Not so with jackdaws or apes, for they speak and act by rote. But with an ass, “surely never is my imagination so busy as in framing his responses from the etchings of his countenance-and where those carry me not deep enough-in flying from my own heart into his, and seeing what is natural for an ass to think-as well as a man, upon the occasion” (VII. xxxii.). The reader whose responses Tristram can gauge as accurately as he can those of an ass is one who will laugh at certain words in the bedchamber, but abuse them in the parlor. For his sake, Tristram must seek devices whereby he can “satisfy that ear which the reader chuses to lend me,” while not dissatisfying “the other which he keeps to himself” (VII. xx.).

Works Cited

Briggs, Peter M. “Locke’s ‘Essay’ and the Tentativeness of ‘Tristram Shandy’.”
Studies in Philology, Vol. 82, No. 4 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 493-520.

Stedmond, J. M. “Satire and Tristram Shandy.”Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 1, No. 3, Restoration and Eighteenth Century,(Summer, 1961), Rice University, pp. 53-63.

Williams, Jeffery. “Narrative of Narrative (Tristram Shandy).”MLN, Vol. 105, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1990), The Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 1032-1045.


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