The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gent

by Laurence Sterne
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In The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent, the narrator frequently makes references to his writing goals, his writing process, his source of information about what he is writing about, and his bookseller. What is the purpose of this self-reference?

The purpose of the self-referential narrator in Tristram Shandy is to allow author Thomas Sterne to use modern structural techniques to illustrate contemporary mid-eighteenth century ideas about the limits of knowledge and language in the rollicking popular comic form of the "picaresque" novel. For example, the narrator's extreme self-consciousness and spontaneous thought let Sterne emphasize the process of artistic or intellectual creation and privilege this aspect over any traditional concerns for a coherent narrative plotting.

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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.

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