Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1278
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 any objections with a mad swirl of his pen. He says that he is quite aware that some readers will understand and others will not; indeed, the varying forms of address to the reader indicate his astute consciousness of the variety of his audience. He states that the “cholerick” reader will toss the book away, the “mercurial will laugh most heartily at it,” and the “saturnine” will condemn it as fanciful and extravagant.
Like Cervantes, Sterne is not interested (or so he claims) in apologizing for his work or for himself. Readers must either take him or leave him. At the very beginning, as he embarks on one of his great digressions, he warns readers that to continue may annoy them—only the curious need pass through the narrative line into this first of many excursions...
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with him. “Shut the door,” he directs the first kind of reader; if readers pass through it with him, they realize the door is never opened again. Only readers who are willing to let “anything go” will remain on speaking terms with this most quixotic, irrepressible author.
The work itself, alternately characterized by Tristram as “vile” and “rhapsodic,” defies structural analysis. Sterne makes his formal principles clear from the beginning: “not to be in a hurry” but to follow every new thought in whatever direction it may beckon until he loses track of his starting point and has to flip back the pages to find his place; “to spend two years discussing one,” just as Tristram’s mental and emotional autobiography reflects his father’s Tristrapaedia (the gargantuan work of pedagogy that takes so long in the writing that Tristram grows up before he can start following its directives); and “in writing what I have set about, shall confine myself neither to his [Horace’s] rules, nor to any man’s rules that ever lived.”
Sterne would have understood T. S. Eliot’s dictum, “Immature poets borrow, mature poets steal.” He not only steals—whether it is the actual music of Uncle Toby’s “Lillibullero” or a medieval French theological tract on baptism—but also openly admits and boasts of his thefts. The boasting, however, is itself misleading, because, as William Shakespeare did with Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, Sterne subtly but most effectively alters his thieveries to fit the chaotic image of his own work. At one point, in discussing the nature of digressions, Sterne characterizes that work as “digressive, and . . . progressive too—and at the same time.” Digressions, he continues, are “the sunshine” of a writer’s art, the very stuff of literary and fictional vitality. Life itself, in the ultimate reading, is nothing but a diverting digression for Sterne; the role of the author, as he embraces it, is to make that essential human digression as diverting, as complicated, and as emotionally and intellectually rich as possible.
The greatness of Sterne’s comic wit lies in its indefatigable mastery of making one detail relevant to another, a detail from Tristram’s unfortunate life immediately provoking in his father a pointed consideration of Saxo Grammaticus’s Danish history or causing Uncle Toby to expound its relationship to the siege of Navarre. Reading Tristram Shandy is an education in the esoteric and picayune minutiae of forgotten scholarship, yet at the same time the work shows through parody the irrelevance of scholarship (also following closely in the spirit of Rabelais). By the time readers close even the first volume, they are convinced of the validity of Sterne’s point of departure: Epictetus’s statement that “not actions but opinions of actions are the concern of men.” In other words, it is not what happens to a person that matters but what that individual thinks of what has happened.
The relationship between the Shandean world and the real world is a very close, in fact a promiscuous, one; it is defined by Sterne’s deliberate blurring of the line between fictional and real events and by his thematic insistence on the interdependence of thought, feeling, and action. Thought without emotion, Sterne would say, is futile, but feeling without reason is equally sterile. Tristram Shandy treats all the elements in human life—love, war, business, theology, religion, science, trade, medicine—with an epic comprehensiveness, and everything is shown to be related to everything else. The texture of the style, however, is not the reassuring predictability of epic; instead, the work is a formal collage of typographical caprice, gestures, dramatic devices, soliloquies, offhand obscenity, and serious and mock-serious treatises—all mixed together extemporaneously and punctuated orally. Sterne is like a magician juggling more balls than anyone can see, but he never loses control because his magic is as unflagging as it is electric. More than any other work of the eighteenth century, Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is a monument to the complexity, vitality, and sprezzatura of the human mind.