Laurence Sterne’s “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy” as a forerunner to the (post)modernist novels of the 20th century. Although Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy was published between 1759-67 and therefore belongs to the Age of Reason and Sensibility, it reveals a lot of unconventional, literary constructions that can be later noticed as typical features within works of modernist literature.
As David Pierce clearly points out in his introduction to Laurence Sterne in Modernism and Postmodernism, “Sterne’s work crisscrosses the whole field of” (8) classical literature.
Not only his “deliberate refusal to construct a goahead plot? “ ( Pierce 8 ), or the visual effects he plays with concerning blank pages, his unusual use of asterisks or dashes and other graphical figures, but also his uncommon way of dealing with time and reality contrast him from authors of his own time.
Standard works of the eighteenth century, represented by master novelists like Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson fictionally attempt to give the effect of realism ( cf.
Abrams 228 ). Either by writing epistolary novels1, or such novels which give a realistic description of the values and experiences of the rising Middle Class, authors tried to hide their imaginary origin. This might have been influenced by the Puritan rejection of any invented world that coexisted besides God’s own world.
The question of reality plays an important role, since Sterne? play with time is evident in the chronological order of the various stories. The book begins with the protagonist? s conception, who is not born until the third volume, but finally baptized in the fourth volume. Furthermore 5-year-old Tristram is circumcised by a falling sash window in the fifth volume. In the following sixth, eighth and ninth volumes, several of uncle Toby’s tales are told, while Tristram has become a grown-up in the meantime of the seventh book, being on a scholary journey in France. At many text passages Tristram directly interferes the story world in an ironic way, blends different narrative levels as the diegesis and extradiegesis and therefore “obscures the fine line between autobiography 1 novel that is written as a series of documents like letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings et cetera, (cf. Abrams 228) in order to create a stronger impression of reality 2 terms used by Gerard Genette to describe on the one hand the narrative level on which the actual narrative activity happens, called the extradiegesis, and on the other hand the actual story world, called the diegesis, imparting all characters and their reality ( cf. ,Nunning 122 ).
The narrating I in Tristram Shandy is Tristram Shandy, who consciously transgresses the the boundaries between the different levels in order to produce an either comical,or strange effect. This narrative technique is called metalepses (cf. Kearns 119 ) and fiction”( Pierce 8), exposing a distinctive feature of modernist writers like James Joyce. Tristram often leaves stories unfinished, or even skips whole chapters like the 18th and 19th chapter of the ninth volume, which are continued later in chapter twenty-five ( cf. Sterne 575 ).
Sometimes the choice of content seems to be just as trivial as his play with time, since chapters might deal with topics about noses or other curious subjects that are normally not to be found in common literature. A contemporary disorder can be perceived within many modernist works, as for example T. S. Eliot in The Waste Land “ replaced the standard syntactic flow of poetic language by fragmented utterances, and substituted for the traditional type of coherent poetic structure a deliberate dislocation of parts (… ) that are left to the reader to discover” ( Abrams 202 ).
At the same time Tristram reveals that he is deliberately aware of his narrative process, which can also be related to a certain self-reflexivity about the creation of a work ( cf. Klages ). By stating that “there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are not 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” ( Sterne 8 ), Tristram Shandy admits his knowledge about the problems of reading and thus smashes not only reading expectations of a former readership, but also contemporary presumptions.
He is not particularly interested in reading and exploring a plot the traditional way, but tries to make the readership aware of their own reading expectations which are overwhelmed by his remarkable art of narrative style. As Abrams points out, modernism is marked by breaking up the narrative continuity, ”departing from standard ways of representing characters” ( Abrams 202 ), distinctive features that found their predecessors in Tristram Shandy.
This can also be described as a form of fragmentation which can be perceived, not only in (post)modernist literature, but also in works of famous artists of Cubism, Futurism or Abstract Expressionism ( cf Abrams 203) , like in paintings of Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock. Playing with religious, social and cultural conventions, but also with reading expectations that are not fulfilled, Tristram Shandy uncovers similarities to postmodernist writings like the literature of absurd, which “subverts the foundations of our accepted modes of thought and experience so as to reveal the meaningless of existence and the underlying ? abyss? (… ) or nothingness? on which any supposed 3 security is conceived to be precariously suspended” (Abrams 203). Maybe Tristram Shandy can be discerned even better as a postmodernist work, since the disorder is not presented as tragical and lamentable, but Tristram “rather celebrates that (… ) and just plays with nonsense” ( Klages ). To close this short analysis of Tristram Shandy as a forerunner to modernist, or even to postmodernist literature, one can truly say that Tristram deliberately created his own world with his own rules and therefore created himself by “deconstructing the identity imposed on him by others. (cf. Pierce 15). Tristram Shandy can be seen as a pioneer to modernist and postmodernist writers who tried get rid of Victorian conventions by searching for a new reality, new writings and new forms in order to form a new literary identity.
- Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ed. Melvyn New. London: Penguin Classics, 2003.
- Abrams, M. H. , and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 9th ed. Boston:Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2009.
- Kearns, Micheal. Rethorical Narratology. Lincoln: the University of Nebraska Press, 1999.
- Klages, Mary. Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed.. New York and London: Continuum, 2007.
- Nunning, Vera and Ansgar. Grundkurs anglistisch- amerikanistische Literaturwissenschaft. Uni-Wissen. Stuttgart: Klett, 2007.
- Pierce, David. “ Introduction”. Laurence Sterne in Modernism and Postmodernism. David Pierce and Peter de Voogd, eds. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi, 1996.
Cite this essay
“Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/tristram-shandy-new-essay