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An analysis of Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Essay

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In this essay my aim is to demonstrate how the author parodies the different narrative techniques, how he uses the “time-shift” device, how he introduces the relationship between the narrator and the reader, how he addresses the reader and how he makes use of the “hobby-horses”.

For an introduction I would like to mention some aspects of the novel and its reception. Sterne is best known for his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, for which he became famous not only in England, but throughout Europe as well. Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy between 1759 and 1767. It was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1760, and seven others following over the next ten years. According to a literary webpage it was not always thought as a masterpiece by other writers such as Samuel Johnson who said in a critique from 1776 that “nothing odd will do long.

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Tristram Shandy did not last”; but in opposition to that European critics such as Voltaire and later Goethe praised the book, “clearly superior”. (www.sparknotes.com/lit/sterne). “The novel may have been for Sterne and his contemporaries an excitingly new form, but Sterne manages to bring home to the reader what a novel could not do as well as what it could”. (Ricks,15). According to Andrew Sanders this novel is:

…” the one that is freest of insistent linearity, the one that makes the most daring bid to escape from the models established by the epic or by history. It glances back to the anecdotal learning of Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, to the bawdy ebullience of Rabelais, and to the experimental games of Swift and the Scriblerians, but it is ultimately an unprecedented, and still unrivalled, experiment with form”. (Sanders, 317).

In this novel, Sterne broadens the possibilities of the novel form, and yet …”unlike most novels, it is concerned explicitly with reminding us that there are things which you cannot expect a novel to do. The greatness of Sterne is that, with humour, and sensitivity, he insists all the time that novels cannot save us”. (Ricks, 13)

To begin my analysis, first I would like to look at how Sterne parodies the different narrative techniques. According to Jeffrey Williams the novel demonstrates an extraordinary form in novelistic sense due to the fact that the narrative of Tristram’s autobiography and the history of the Shandy family are incomplete and intermitted. The arrangement of the plot is quite exceptional concerning the conventional plot forms because it is disorganised and has a non- linear schema. (Williams, 1032) An essayist, namely Viktor Shklovsky, gives the answer to that unique form that “…the disorder is intentional; the work possesses its own poetics”. (Shklovsky, 66)

Following the previous statement from Jeffrey Williams, the narrated events are often interrupted by Tristram who calls for the importance of narration. He explains that Tristram Shandy is an embedded narration, which means that the interrupted parts and comments make a linear narrative. The main character is the narrator, Tristram Shandy, who tries to acquire the best he can when recounting the history of the Shandy family from 1695 till 1711. (Williams, 1033) As Shklovsky puts it, “Tristram Shandy is the most typical of novels because it so overtly inscribes its own narrative, its own act of narrating”. (Shklovsky, 66).

To continue with this theme, the time of narrating is worth mentioning. In an essay by Jeffrey Williams, Genette G�rard distinguishes four types of narration according to temporal position and places this novel into the simultaneous form, meaning narrative in the present contemporaneous with the action. (Williams, 1036) From this explanation it turns out that Tristram Shandy, as part of Tristram’s autobiography, is a narration in the past.

The other basic device Sterne uses is the “time-shift” technique “which brakes whatever action may seem to be developing” (Shklovsky, 67) To illustrate what Shklovsky means by the “time-shift” device, he takes an example from the book. In the first volume, Sterne tells us about the interruption of a sexual act (in which Tristram was begot) by Mrs Shandy’s question. The anecdote is figured out as the following: “Tristram’s father sleeps with his wife only on the first Sunday of each month; the same evening he winds up the clock in order to get “out of the way at one time all family concernments, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month”. As a conclusion, an irresistible association of ideas became established in his wife’s mind; as soon as she heard the clock being wound up, a totally different matter came to her mind, and the other way around. That is the reason for her question, “Pray, my dear, […]have you not forgot to wind up the clock?” (Shklovsky, 67; also qtd by TS., 35) and the interruption of Tristram’s father’s activity.”. (Shklovsky, 67).

He pointed out in his essay that this anecdote is presented into the book through different steps. The initial step is the comment about the irresponsibility of parents, then the mother’s question without a reason for its significance. The reader may think that the question interrupted what the father was saying but this is only Sterne’s trick which aims at our misconception: “- Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?” (T.S.; 36 also qtd. by Shklovsky). This device determines the novel from the beginning. Shklovsky states that Sterne mentions the purpose only after the actions, which is his constant device.

Following the “time-shift technique”, another device Shklovsky presents is the usage of sewing together the novel from different short stories. “Sterne seems to manipulate and expose the novel’s very structure: formal devices and structural relations made perceptible by violating their ordinary employment, which make up the very content of the novel. Sterne permitted actions to take place simultaneously, but he “parodied” the development of the subplot and the intrusion into it of new material.” The description of Tristram Shandy’s birth is the material developed in the first part, occupying many pages, almost none of which are devoted to the account of the birth itself. What is developed, in the main, is the hero’s conversation with Uncle Toby.” (Shklovsky, 68-69)

____” I wonder what’s all that noise, and running backwards and forwards for, above stairs, quoth my father, addressing himself, after an hour and a half’s silence, to my uncle Toby, ___ who you must know, was sitting on the opposite side of the fire, smoking his social pipe all the time, in mute contemplation of a new pair of black-push-breeches which he had got on;___ What can they be doing, brother?____ quoth my father, we can scarce hear ourselves talk. I think, replied my uncle Toby, taking his pipe from his mouth, and striking the head of it two or three times upon the nail of his left thumb, as he began his sentence,____ I think, says he: ____ But to enter rightly into my uncle Toby’s sentiments upon this matter, you must be made to enter a little into his character, the outlines of which I shall just give you, and then the dialogue between him and my father will go on as well again.” (TS., 87; also qtd. by Shklovsky, 69)

As the former example demonstrates, the technique of intrusion is used by Sterne constantly, and it is obvious in his funny remembrance of Uncle Toby. “He not only recognizes the hyperbolic elaborations of his development, but plays with that development. This method is for Sterne the canon.” (Shklovsky, 70).

The next topic relating to the novel is how the relationship of the narrator and the reader is presented. For this matter, I will use an Internet source, namely an essay by Aimed Ben-hellal. According to Aimed Ben-hellal, in the beginning of the novel Tristram Shandy declares that “Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for a conversation (…)” (T.S., 127, also qtd. by Ben-hellal). This statement will determine his writing all the way through the book. Tristram’s speech defines the continuous dialogue between narrator and reader. In the above example the reader is addressed in an informal and communicative way. Tristram tries to lure the reader from the beginning of the novel and tries to get as much of his attention as he can, which means that the reader is “brought on the stage to become the true character of the book” (Ben-hellal, 1).

In the opening chapter of the book, Tristram addresses the reader as the following: “___ Believe me good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it (…)” (T.S, 36, also qtd. by Ben-hellal). In this quotation, the narrator attempts to catch the attention of his reader to point out his understanding of the sad circumstances of his destiny. The hero’s life and his adventures are presented to the reader in order to get to know him. The narrator manages to establish the first contact. “The appellation “good folks” is usually indicative of the distance which initially separates the actor from his spectators. (Ben-hellal, 2). Three chapters later this distance lessens:

“I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are readers at all, __ who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of every thing which concerns you”. ( T.S, 37, also qtd. by Ben-hellal, 2).

Ben-hellal states that Tristram invites different kinds of people, occasional readers or literature addicts to try to deal with the unfolding of the narrative. “Tristram’s story begins ab Ovo (“from the egg”), in defiance of the Homeric epic tradition that begins stories in the middle of things and then allows the background to unfold along with the action. The alternative, seemingly, would be to begin with the beginning; Tristram takes the possibility to an almost ludicrous extreme by beginning from his conception rather than his birth”. (www.sparknotes.com/lit/sterne)

Tristram tries to select the kind of readers that will best understand him due to the fact that …”a novel crucially depends on a reader”. (Ben-hellal, 2) The following quotation clearly illustrates that:

“To such readers, however, as do not choose to go so far back into these things, I can give no better advice, than that they skip over the remaining part of this Chapter; for I declare before hand, ’tis wrote only for the curious and the inquisitive.” (T.S, 38; also qtd. by Ben-hellal,2)

As Ben-hellal pointed out in chapter six, volume one, the narrator and a reader become much closer to one another. In the novel this intimacy referred to as “you”, “Sir”, or “my dear friend and companion”. The personal pronouns, “I”, and “you”, emphasize the informality of the conversation.

“As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship.(…) then nothing which has touched me will be thought trifling in its nature, or tedious in its telling” (T.S, 41, also qtd. by Ben-hellal, 3).

This chapter turns out to be the beginning of intimacy and sociability. The narrator’s main concern is to be friendly with the reader, and to sympathise with the unfortunate hero. (Ben-hellal, 3) “Tristram’s frequent addresses to the reader draw us into the novel. From Tristram’s perspective, we are asked to be open-minded, and to follow his lead in an experimental kind of literary adventure. The gap between Tristram -the- author and Sterne-the-author, however, invites us not only to participate with Tristram, but also to assess his character and his narrative.” (www.sparknotes.com/lit/sterne) A quotation quoted by Ben-hellal illustrates the number and frequency of apostrophes, which indicates that Tristram’s relationship with his readership become quite intimate.

” Tristram addresses the reader approximately three hundred and fifty times during the course of the book as ‘My Lord’, ‘Jenny’, ‘Madam’, ‘your worship’, ‘Julia’, ‘your reverences’, ‘gentry’,(…). It is as though the reader has invaded the book and Tristam’s confidence in a single statement rest on determining the unknown readership”. (Ben-hellal,3)

“This considered, we might safely infer that the concept of readership is significantly manipulated in Tristram Shandy”. Tristram’s behaviour differs according to changes in the identity of his imaginary reader. From chapter six on, the type of reader identities becomes wider and more varied. ( Ben-hellal, 3). The following passage will best illustrate how the narrator addresses the reader:

“Your son! __ your dear son, ___ from whose sweet temper you have so much to expect. ___Your Billy, Sir! ___ would you, for the world, have called him Judas? ___ Would you, my dear Sir, he would say, laying his hand upon your breast, with the genteelest address (…) ___Would you, Sir, if a Jew of a godfather had proposed the name for your child, and offered you his purse along with it, would you have consented to such a desecration of him?” (TS, 78; also qtd. By Ben-hellal, 4).

“Pleading in favour of his father’s theory about the influence of names on the destiny of new-born children, Tristram addresses the reader in the liveliest manner. Exclamation and question marks punctuate the whole passage to convey an impression of lively exchanges. As he tries to demonstrate the validity of Walter Shandy’s viewpoint, Tristram humorously implicates the reader and the reader’s son “Billy”. To make his point the narrator stages a tailor-made reader (and his son), for the space of a single representation and asks him if he would have accepted to christen his hypothetical son with the name of Judas” (Ben-hellal, 4).

The most comical dialogues in the novel are when the imaginary female reader is addressed by Tristram.

“___How could you, Madam, be so inattentive in reading the last chapter? I told you in it, That my mother was not a papist. ___ Papist! You told me no such thing, Sir. Madam, I beg leave to repeat it over again, That I told you as plain, at least, as words, by direct inference, could tell you such a thing. ___ Then, Sir, I must have miss’d a page.___ No Madam, __ you have not miss’d a word. Then I was asleep, Sir.__ My pride, Madam, cannot allow you that refuge.___ Then I declare, I know nothing about the matter.___ That, Madam, is the very fault I lay to your charge; and as a punishment for it, I do insist upon it, that you immediately turn back, that is, as soon as you get to the next full stop, and read the whole chapter over again” (TS, 82; also qtd. By Ben-hellal, 4).

According to Ben-hellal, the female reader is introduced because the narrator wants to discipline her and the reason lies in the act of reading. Punctuation is again present, showing the concept of conversation. Reading through the quotation, Tristram resembles as an authoritarian narrator, who instructs the Madam what to do and how to do things. The narrator accuses her of not reading attentively. (Ben Hellal, 5) In Chapter twenty, Tristram says:

“I wish the male-reader has not passed by many a one, as quaint and curious as this one, in which the female-reader has been detected. I wish it may have its effects; __ and that all good people, both male and female, from her example, may be thought to think as well as read.” (TS, 84)

In the above quotation, the narrator tries to highlight the importance of thinking and reading. He points out the example of the Madam to others, in order to learn from it.

The last topic I would like to touch upon is how the reader is associated with the idea of the “hobby-horse”. “There is nothing inherently sinister about these hobby-horses; most people have them, and Tristram confesses readily to having a few of his own”. (www.sparknotes.com/lit/sterne) In an article about the idea of the hobby-horse, the writer, namely Helen Ostovich, deals with the reader-relationship between the narrator and a female reader, Madam. Tristram usually treats Sir ___ his male reader ___with casual indifference, and showers his mighty or fashionable readers , whether secular or clerical __ your worships and your reverences __ with genial contempt. He lumps the male readers together with other good, unlearned folks in his conception of the collective reader as recalcitrant hobby-horse”. (Ostovich, 156) The female reader represents a special kind of hobby-horse to Tristram. Madam is in comparison with the Spanish horse, Rosinante.

“She is, like Rosinante, ‘the HERO’s horse … a horse of chaste deportment, which may have given grounds for a contrary opinion (…) __ And let me tell you, Madam, there is a great deal of very good chastity in the world, in behalf of which you could not say more of your life”. (TS, 47-48; also qtd. by Ostovich, 156)

According to Ostovich, this quotation suggests that the horse’s physical appearance and the rider’s imagination are related. “Man and hobby-horse are, in Tristram’s opinion, are similar to body and soul: “long journeys and much friction” create electric charges between the two that redefine both, so that ultimately “a clear description of the nature of the one … may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other”. (T.S, 99; also qtd. by Ostovich, 156) By getting on a horse and riding it well means a good experience. This happens in the case of the writer; if he writes with pleasure, the reader will bear him so the experience provides its own answers. (Ostovich, 156)

To conclude my analysis of Tristram Shandy, one can say that this novel is not a conventional one due to its most noticeable characteristics; its time-scheme and its discursive style.

Works Cited

1. Ostovich, Helen. “Reader as Hobby-Horse in Tristram Shandy.” In: New, Melvyn, ed. Tristram Shandy. (Contemporary Critical Essays). London: Macmillan Education Ltd, 1992.

2. Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP Second Ed., 1994. pp. 317-318.

3. Shklovsky, Viktor. “A Parodying Novel: Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.” In: O Teorii Prozy. Moscow, 1929.

4. Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London: Penguin Group., 1967.

5. Williams, Jeffrey. “Narrative of Narrative.” (Tristram Shandy). Modern Language Notes. 105(1990): pp. 1032 – 1045.

6. www.sparknotes.com/lit/sterne

7. www.univ-mlv.fr/bibliotheque/presses/travaux/travaux2/benhellal.htm

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