This masterpiece of eighteenth century narrative, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent., was written by a man who never reconciled his sentimental nature with his roguish tendencies and who never tried to reconcile them. Laurence Sterne was educated at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he met John Hall-Stevenson, a young aristocrat who shared and encouraged his taste for erotic subjects and exaggeration. After taking holy orders, Sterne received an ecclesiastical appointment in Sutton through family connections, but he was temperamentally completely unsuited for the clerical life. In fact, the only part of religion he mastered was sermon writing, but at that he excelled. Eventually, he turned his pen to miscellaneous journalism in York periodicals. In 1759, he published A Political Romance, which included many elements that would characterize his masterpiece: allegory, multiple levels of meaning, verbal fanfare, whimsical use of scholastic learning, profanity, and great stylistic versatility.
Nevertheless, it was the appearance of the first two volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (commonly known simply as Tristram Shandy) that made Sterne an instant celebrity, despite the immediate denunciation of Samuel Johnson, Samuel Richardson, Horace Walpole, Oliver Goldsmith, and other literary establishment figures who condemned Sterne’s iconoclastic style and frankly mercenary attitude for both ethical and artistic reasons. Sterne characterized the first part of his life’s work as “taking on, not only the weak part of the sciences in which the true part of Ridicule lies, but everything else which I find laugh-at-able.” The reader soon discovers that Sterne finds everything laughable, his comic vision as universal and as detailed as that of François Rabelais and Miguel de Cervantes, whose works strongly influenced Sterne. Like Rabelais’s Gargantua et Pantagruel (1567; Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1653-1694), moreover, Sterne’s is a work held together only by the unswerving and exuberant force of the author’s own personality. “’Tis a picture of myself,” he admitted; indeed, it is impossible to distinguish the profane minister from the alleged narrator, young Tristram—just as Rabelais makes his narrator, Alcofibras, tangible only when it suits him.
Tristram Shandy also has been called “a prolonged conversation” between Sterne and his reader, a conversation in which acquaintance becomes familiarity and then an enduring friendship. For this friendship to occur, however, readers must accept certain ground rules and must be willing to adapt to conventions rarely embraced willingly. In his endless comments to the reader (who is sometimes addressed in the plural, sometimes in the singular, sometimes as “your worship,” sometimes as “Madam”), Sterne scolds the reader for wanting to know everything at once (book 1, chapter 4), asks the reader to help him sell his “dedication,” assures the reader that the company of the book’s readers will swell to include all the world and all time, and dismisses...
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