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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (or, more briefly, Tristram Shandy) is a novel by Laurence Sterne. It was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next 10 years. It was not always held in high esteem by other writers (Samuel Johnson responded that, "Nothing odd can last"), but its bawdy humour was popular with London society, and it has come to be seen as one of the greatest comic novels in English, as well as a forerunner for many modern narrative devices.

Synopsis and style

As its title suggests, the book is ostensibly Tristram's narration of his life story. But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that we do not even reach Tristram's own birth until Volume III. Consequently, apart from Tristram as narrator, the most familiar and important characters in the book are his father Walter, his mother, his Uncle Toby, Toby's servant Trim, and a supporting cast of popular minor characters including Doctor Slop and the parson Yorick. Most of the action is concerned with domestic upsets or misunderstandings, which find humour in the opposing temperaments of Walter – splenetic, rational and somewhat sarcastic – and Uncle Toby, who is gentle, uncomplicated and a lover of his fellow man.

In between such events, Tristram as narrator finds himself discoursing at length on sexual practices, insults, the influence of one's name, noses, as well as explorations of obstetrics, siege warfare and philosophy, as he struggles to marshal his material and finish the story of his life.

Techniques and influences

Sterne's text is filled with allusions and references to the leading thinkers and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Pope, Locke, and Swift were all major influences on Sterne and Tristram Shandy. Satires of Pope and Swift formed much of the humour of Tristram Shandy, but Swift's sermons and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding contributed ideas and frameworks that Sterne explored throughout his novel. Sterne's engagement with the science and philosophy of his day was extensive, however, and the sections on obstetrics and fortifications, for instance, indicate that he had a grasp of the main issues then current in those fields.

Four influences on Tristram Shandy overshadow all others: Rabelais, Cervantes, Montaigne's Essays, and John Locke. Sterne had written an earlier piece called A Rabelaisian Fragment, which indicates his familiarity with the work of the French monk. But the earlier work is not needed to see the influence of Rabelais on Tristram Shandy, which is evident in multiple allusions, as well as in the overall tone of bawdy humor centered on the body. The first scene in Tristram Shandy, where Tristram's mother interrupts his father during the sex that leads to Tristram's conception, testifies to Sterne's debt to Rabelais.

The shade of Cervantes is similarly present throughout Sterne's novel. The frequent references to Rocinante, the character of Uncle Toby (who resembles Don Quixote in many ways) and Sterne's own description of his characters' "Cervantic humour," along with the genre-defying structure of Tristram Shandy, which owes much to the second part of Cervantes' novel, all demonstrate the influence of Cervantes.

The novel also makes use of John Locke's theories of empiricism, or the way we assemble what we know of ourselves and our world from the "association of ideas" that come to us from our five senses. Sterne is by turns respectful and satirical of Locke's theories, using the association of ideas to construct characters' "hobby-horses," or whimsical obsessions, that both order and disorder their lives in different ways. It also owes a significant inter-textual debt to Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Swift's Battle of the Books, and the Scriblerian collaborative work, The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus.

Today, the novel is commonly seen as a forerunner of later novels' use of stream of consciousness and self-reflexive writing. However, current critical opinion is divided on this question. There is a significant body of critical opinion that argues that Tristram Shandy is better understood as an example of an obsolescent literary tradition of "Learned Wit", partly following the contribution of D.W. Jefferson.

A historic site in Geneva, Ohio, called Shandy Hall, is part of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The home was named after the house described in Tristram Shandy.

Literary influence

A number of later works seem to owe a significant debt to Tristram Shandy, among them:

Thomas Jefferson's personal correspondence was influenced by Tristram Shandy. Mainly his letter while serving as the United States Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the French court before the French Revolution. Numerous letters Jefferson wrote at the time to Maria Cosway cite Shandy.


Tristram Shandy has been adapted as a graphic novel by cartoonist Martin Rowson.

Michael Nyman has been working off and on Tristram Shandy as an opera since 1981. At least five portions of the opera have been publicly performed and one, "Nose-List Song," was recorded in 1985 on the album, The Kiss and Other Movements.

The book was adapted on film in 2006 as A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom, written by Frank Cottrell Boyce (credited as Martin Hardy, in a complicated metafictional twist), and starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Keeley Hawes, Kelly Macdonald, Naomie Harris, and Gillian Anderson. The movie plays with metatextual levels, being a movie pretending to be a documentary about a movie adaptation of the book, with various actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves.



  • Frank Brady, Tristram Shandy: Sexuality, Morality, and Sensibility, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Autumn, 1970), pp. 41-56 doi:10.2307/2737612
  • A.R. Towers, "Sterne's Cock and Bull Story", ELH, 25 (1957) 12-29
  • Robert Alter, "Tristram Shandy and the Game of Love", American Scholar, 37 (1968) 316-323
  • D. W. Jefferson, "Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit" in Essays in Criticism, 1(1951), 225-48
  • E.M. Halliday Understanding Thomas Jefferson
  • René Bosch, Labyrinth of Digressions, Tristram Shandy as Perceived and Influenced by Sterne's Early Imitators

External links

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