By the time Thomas Sterne was publishing Tristram Shandy (1759–1767), there had been an established tradition in European literature of employing the technique of a self-referential and therefore self-conscious narrator going back through Cervantes's Don Quixote in the previous century to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the fourteenth. Referred to by scholars as "metafiction," works like Sterne's continously draw attention to their own fictional status by having the narrator interrupt himself with multiple digressions away from the ostensible main story and also by his addressing the reader directly. Sterne's purpose in utilizing this central structural device was to take the modern novel further than it had previously gone in terms of how its formal attributes, such as its self-consciousness, were able to convey meaning on multiple, textured levels.
For example, one chief effect of having the roguish Shandy narrate his own "cock and bull story" is to make the book's plot subordinate to the psychological traits Shandy reveals about himself in his obsessive attempt to revise the true circumstances of his life and recast himself as a hero of good fortune and merit. This allows Sterne to apply Enlightenment-era ideas about how environment and learned experience create social and political identities that, as variable constructs, are fragile and fluid. Shandy's clear unreliability as an objective chronicler of his own life and times furthermore allows Sterne to explore the corresponding limitations of language and self-reflection as reliable means of establishing what can truly be known, highlighting a fundamental philosophical dilemma.