Introduction ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ is a novel written by Laurence Sterne, which was published in nine volumes from 1759 until the author’s untimely death in 1767. Although classified as an 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy does not fit the proverbial box of the era. The story that is being told in this novel is supposed to cover a span of years from 1680 until 1766, but the chronological sequence of the story-telling was obscured by the vast amount of digressions. These digressions are often stories or anecdotes from Tristram’s life, and they move the time setting of the novel back and forward.
This makes the novel’s story line hard to follow and the characters and events that appear with it too many to memorize. It takes nine volumes to cover a chain of seemingly unrelated events only for the novel to end unfinished with a promise of another volume. (http://www2. iath. virginia. edu/elab/hfl0259. html) The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman „Sterne writes at a time when the conventions of fictional representation, such as they were, remained fluid, ill-defined, and keenly contested. “ – Thomas Keymer
Prose fiction as a genre of literature itself was still relatively new, hence the name – novel. The common misconception regarding Tristram Shandy is that it is a satirical commentary on the ‘novel’ genre. Terry Eagleton claims that ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ is not a novel; in fact, it is an anti-novel, for it does not fit the traditional image of what a novel is supposed to be. And indeed, Laurence Sterne ‘violates’ the rules of form and content. This is the sole reason why this book report will not contain any plot summarization – the novel has none.
And this is also why the author’s ‘style’ would be more fitting of a 20th century novel. Sterne includes completely blackened pages and various drawings to prolong certain chapters, he provides the readers with blank pages to be used as a canvas so that the readers themselves could perhaps sketch a portrait of a certain character or artistically express their reaction to the words on the pages. In other circumstances, the chapters consist of a single sentence only. The novel deals more with the reflection of particular ideas and notions than with the actions of the protagonist.
This is surprising, especially if one takes in account the title of the novel. The name ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ suggests a description of actions, deeds, and perhaps life in general of the protagonist, since Tristram is the supposed hero of the book. However, Tristram is no hero, he is simply a narrator of a story that is composed of ideas, thoughts, chains of associations, anecdotes, feelings and observations. There is no concise plot behind the story. It is about the making of the story itself. To say that there is no satire at all in the novel would be a blatant lie.
The title of the book is a parody on similar titles by authors like Daniel Defoe and his ‘The Life and Strange and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’. But in comparison to Robinson Crusoe, Tristram’s ‘life’ is not the center of the book, nor are his ‘opinions’ as one would deduce from the misleading title. The novel is very literal; the protagonist is simply the narrator, a valuable tool that shares his internal reality and the reality of those around him with the readers. However, even with all of this said, Tristram Shandy can still not be classified as an anti-novel.
The definition of a novel as a genre of fictional literature is very flexible. A novel does not have to tell a story, it acknowledges no obligatory structure nor form, it does not have to have a protagonist, a setting nor a concise idea. Which is exactly why many consider Tristram Shandy a predecessor to the movement known as ‘the stream of consciousness’. As aforementioned, the novel’s plot is barely existent. The audience is repeatedly surprised after every new page is turned. From the start, the reader is prepared to always expect the unexpected.
And on first glance – the novel seems almost picaresque: the readers are misled to believe that the book is a strange biographical narrative of seemingly indefinite length and its only restriction being the narrator’s life. Sterne is influenced by many authors whom he freely quotes, paraphrases and even borrows whole paragraphs from. There are traces of Cervantes’ ‘Don Quixote’, Shakespeare, Burton’s ‘Anatomy of Melancholy’ and most notably Locke’s ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’. There is not one unified theme throughout the novel. There is an emphasis on the sense of awareness and the process of self-reflection.
The narrative is both progressive and digressive. The story-telling sequences are fractured to the degree that no absolute plot can be re-constructed in the minds of the readers. The novel is not organized as a series of events. The main premise is that the mind, and thus the narrator’s story-telling, functions by association. It is impossible to organize these thoughts in a reasonable sequence, therefore the story-telling itself will be in disorder. Human consciousness is fragmented and chaotic, which is why digressions are a welcomed sight in the narration of the book. (Locke, ‘an essay.. ) “Sterne took pleasure in destroying the normal order of things and in creating an exaggerated appearance of disorder, but only to link up the pieces in another and more interesting way. ” – D. W. Jefferson Whether Sterne wants to ridicule this Lockean doctrine is questionable, but cannot be overlooked. There is also a lot of stylistic manipulation going on. The author himself suggests that the book should be read aloud, so that the flow of the repetition and the rhythm in the novel could be seen. Tristram the narrator relies on the audience to support his opinions by having an active participatory role.
It is often achieved by simply telling the readers to agree with what is said or to answer a question posed in the text. The figure of the narrator is of extreme importance. Tristram is an authority like no other and his sole job is to draw in the reader. And the point that the author with this novel tries to make is metafictional: the novel is not about the characters or about the plot. The novel is about the novel itself. Conclusion ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’ has often been named a post-modern novel which just happens to have been written in the late 1700s.
Following the almost incoherent story-line of the narrator and main character of the story, Tristram Shandy is Laurence Sterne’s masterpiece for many. Using a rather unconventional technique, Sterne is able to spin a tale which is not the usual linear story, but a set of digressions linked by free association. The story doesn’t lead anywhere and there is surprisingly no conclusion to it, yet all of the nine volumes of the novel are sure to make the book one you, as a reader, will undoubtedly never forget.