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.
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.
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.
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.
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.