The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman  
George Cruikshank - Tristram Shandy, Plate VIII. The Smoking Batteries.jpg
"The Smoking Batteries": Trim, Toby's corporal invents a device for firing multiple miniature cannons at once, based on a hookah. Unfortunately, he and Toby find the puffing on the hookah pipe so enjoyable that they keep setting the cannons off. Illustration by George Cruikshank.
Author(s) Laurence Sterne
Country Ireland
Language English
Publisher Ann Ward (vol. 1–2), Dodsley (vol. 3–4), Becket & DeHondt (5–9)
Publication date December 1759 (vol. 1, 2) – January 1767 (vol 9)
Pages 9 vol.

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.


Synopsis and style

"The Jack-boots Transformed into Mortars": Trim has found an old pair of jack-boots useful as mortars. Unfortunately, they turn out to have been Walter's great-grandfather's. (Book III, Chapters XXII and XXIII)

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 the chambermaid, Susannah, 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.

"The long-nosed Stranger of Strasburg": Book IV opens with a story from one of Walter's favourite books, a collection of stories in Latin about noses.

In between such events, Tristram as narrator finds himself discoursing at length on sexual practices, insults, the influence of one's name, and 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.

Though Tristram is always present as narrator and commentator, the book contains surprisingly little of his life, only the story of a trip through France and accounts of the four comical mishaps which shaped the course of his life from an early age:

  • While still only a homunculus, Tristram's implantation within his mother's womb was disturbed. At the very moment of procreation, his mother asked his father if he had remembered to wind the clock. The distraction and annoyance led to the disruption of the proper balance of humors necessary to conceive a well-favoured child.
  • One of his father's pet theories was that a large and attractive nose was important to a man making his way in life. In a difficult birth, Tristram's nose was crushed by Dr. Slop's forceps.
  • A second theory of his father was that a person's name exerted enormous influence over that person's nature and fortunes, with the worst possible name being Tristram. In view of the previous accidents, Tristram's father decreed that the boy would receive an especially auspicious name, Trismegistus. Susannah mangled the name in conveying it to the curate, and the child was christened Tristram. According to his father's theory, his name, being a portmanteau-like conflation of "Trismegistus" (after the esoteric mystic Hermes Trismegistus) and "Tristan" (whose connotation bore the influence through folk etymology of Latin tristis, "sorrowful"), both doomed him to a life of woe and cursed him with the inability to comprehend the causes of his misfortune.
  • As a toddler, Tristram suffered an accidental circumcision when Susannah let a window sash fall as he urinated out of the window because his chamberpot was missing.

Techniques and influences

Artistic incorporation and accusations of plagiarism

Sterne incorporated into Tristram Shandy many passages taken almost word for word from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Francis Bacon's Of Death, Rabelais and many more, and rearranged them to serve the new meaning intended in Tristram Shandy.[1] Tristram Shandy was highly praised for its originality, and nobody noticed until years after Sterne's death. The first to note them was physician and poet John Ferriar, who did not see them negatively and commented:[1][2]

If [the reader's] opinion of Sterne's learning and originality be lessened by the perusal, he must, at least, admire the dexterity and the good taste with which he has incorporated in his work so many passages, written with very different views by their respective authors.

Critics of the 19th century, who were hostile to Sterne for other reasons, used Ferriar's findings to defame Sterne, claim that he was artistically dishonest, and almost unanimously accuse him of mindless plagiarism.[1] Scholar Graham Petrie closely analyzed the alleged passages in 1970; he observed that while more recent commentators now agree that Sterne "rearranged what he took to make it more humorous, or more sentimental, or more rhythmical," none of them "seems to have wondered whether Sterne had any further, more purely artistic, purpose." Studying a passage in Volume V, chapter 3, Petrie observes: "such passage... reveals that Sterne's copying was far more from purely mechanical, and that his rearrangements go far beyond what would be necessary for merely stylistic ends."[1]


A major influence on Tristram Shandy is Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel.[1][3] Rabelais was by far Sterne's favourite author, and in his correspondence he made clear that he considered himself Rabelais's successor in humour writing. One passage Sterne incorporated pertains to "the length and goodness of the nose".[4][5][6] 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.[citation needed]

Sterne had written an earlier piece called A Rabelaisian Fragment that indicates his familiarity with the work of the French Monk and practicing Doctor. But the earlier work is not needed to see the influence of Rabelais on Tristram Shandy, which is evident by the generally implausible story line and pervasive satirical, comedic portrayals of everyday life.

Ridiculing solemnity

Sterne was no friend of gravity, a quality which excited his disgust; Tristram Shandy gave a ludicrous turn to solemn passages from respected authors that it incorporated, as well as to the Consolatio Literary Genre.[1][7]

One of the subjects of such ridicule were some of the opinions contained in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, a book that mentioned sermons as the most respectable type of writing, and that was favoured by the learned; Burton's attitude was to try to prove indisputable facts by weighty quotations; his book consisted mostly of a collection of the opinions of a multitude of writers, to which Burton often modestly refrained to add his own, divided into quaint and old-fashioned categories; it discussed and determined everything from the doctrines of religion to military discipline, from inland navigation to the morality of dancing-schools.[7]

Much of the singularity of Tristram Shandy's characters is drawn from Burton. Burton's introductory address to the reader, where he indulges himself in a Utopian sketch of a perfect government, form the basis of Tristram Shandy's notions on the subject. Burton's quaint and old fashioned categories inspired many of Sterne's ludicrous chapter titles. And Sterne parodies Burton's use of weighty quotations.[7] The first four chapters of Tristram Shandy are also founded on some passages in Burton.[7]

In Chapter 3, Volume 5, Sterne makes a parody of the Consolatio Literary Genre, mixing and reworking passages from three "widely separated sections" of Burton's Anatomy, including a parody of Burton's "grave and sober account" of Cicero's grief for the death of his daughter Tullia.[1]

Other techniques and influences

His text is filled with allusions and references to the leading thinkers and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries.[citation needed] 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. Other major influences are Cervantes, Montaigne's Essays, and John Locke.[citation needed] It also owes a significant inter-textual debt to Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy,[1] Swift's Battle of the Books, and the Scriblerian collaborative work, The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus.[citation needed]

"My Uncle Toby on his Hobby-horse": Toby's hobby-horse is the military, and in this scene, he gets himself and Trim so excited by his discussion of military matters that they begin acting them out. George Cruikshank's illustration of Book IV, Chapter XVIII.

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.[8]

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.

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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.[9][Need quotation to verify]

Reception and influence

Some of Sterne contemporaries did not hold it in high esteem, but its bawdy humour was popular with London society.[citation needed] Through time, it has come to be seen as one of the greatest comic novels in English. Schopenhauer in particular, considered it the acme and crowning of the novel form, one of the "four novels at the top of their class," along with Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse, and Cervantes' Don Quixote.[10][11]

Samuel Johnson famously commented, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last."[12][13] Schopenhauer privately rebutted to Samuel Johnson saying "The man Sterne is worth 1000 Pedants and commonplace-fellows like Dr.J."[14] A young Karl Marx was a devotee of Tristram Shandy, and wrote a short humorous novel, Scorpion and Felix, which remained unpublished, that was obviously influenced by it.[11][15] Goethe praised Sterne in Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years, which in turn influenced Nietzsche.[11]

Tristram Shandy has also been seen as a forerunner for many modern narrative devices and styles, such as visual writing.[citation needed]

For the novel wit on the bigotry of the clergy, in his two longest chapters Slawkenbergius's Tale and Trim's Sermon, as well as in the book as a whole, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg condemned Sterne as a scandalum ecclesiae (a scandal for the Church).[14]

The success of Sterne's novel got him an appointment as curate of St. Michael's Church by Lord Fauconberg in Coxwold, Yorkshire, which included the living at (what Sterne called) Shandy Hall. The medieval structure still stands today under the care of the Laurence Sterne Trust [1] after its acquisition in the 1960s. The gardens, which Sterne tended to during his time there, are daily open to visitors.


"The Quarrel of Slop and Susannah": Book VI, Chapter III: While trying to give the young Tristram medicine, Susannah and Dr. Slop get into a fight, and attack each other with the weapon most readily at hand: The medicine. Chapter IV sends them back to the kitchen to prepare another treatment.

Tristram Shandy has been adapted as a graphic novel by cartoonist Martin Rowson.[16] 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, showing both scenes from the novel itself and fictionalized behind-the-scenes footage of the adaptation process, even employing some of the actors to play themselves. It is often mislabeled as a mockumentary, when in fact there are no documentary elements at play, mocking or otherwise.

Spanish writer Javier Marías translated the novel into Spanish. In the prologue he stated his enthusiasm for the novel and deemed his translation "my best novel, by far". It was translated into Italian in 1958 by Antonio Meo, under the title of "La vita e le opinioni di Tristram Shandy, gentiluomo", with a foreword by Carlo Levi. It was translated into Hungarian in 1956 by Győző Határ under the title of "Tristram Shandy úr élete és gondolatai".

References to Tristram Shandy

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.[17]

The Perry Mason (TV series) episode "The Case of the Bogus Books" involves a bookseller selling forgeries of rare books, in particular a first edition of Tristram Shandy. The book is mentioned many times throughout the episode.

Waverhouse, a character in Natsume Soseki's novel I Am a Cat, laments that Sterne died before he saw Miss Conk's gigantic nose, because Waverhouse thinks Sterne would have made much of it.


See also

  • Hafen Slawkenbergius, a fictional character in Tristram Shandy



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Petrie (1970) pp.261–6
  2. ^ Ferriar (1798), chapter 6, p.181
  3. ^ see Gargantua: Chap 2.XIX: Trismigistus was to be Tristram's name but Susannah couldn't remember it long enough
  4. ^ Ferriar (1798), chapter 2, pp.24, 28–31
  5. ^ Tristram Shandy, Book 3, chapters 38 and 41
  6. ^ Rabelais, Book 1, ch. 40 Pourquoi les moines sont rejetés du monde et pourquoi certains ont le nez plus grand que les autres
  7. ^ a b c d Ferriar (1798), chapter 3, pp.55–9, 64
  8. ^ Chapter 1.X: Rosinante, "Hero's Horse" and "Don Quixote's horse"
  9. ^ Jefferson (1951)[Need quotation to verify]
  10. ^ Cartwright, David (2005) E. Historical dictionary of Schopenhauer's philosophy p.162
  11. ^ a b c Peter Jan de Voogd, John Neubauer (2004) The reception of Laurence Sterne in Europe pp.80-1
  12. ^ "Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved on 20 October 2007.
  13. ^ Random House Author Spotlight – Laurence Sterne
  14. ^ a b Bridgwater, Patrick (1988) Arthur Schopenhauer's English schooling, pp.352-3 quotation:

    In 'On the Metaphysics of the Beautiful' (P&P) he implies that Tristram Shandy is the acme of the novel; but what appeals to hum is not Sterne's technical originality so much as the originality of his mind and attitudes. He was given to quoting Sterne's 'an ounce of a man's own wit is worth a ton of other people's', [...] he also wrote -- in English, in the margin of his copy of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson -- that 'The man Sterne is worth 1000 Pedants and commonplace-fellows like Dr.J.'
    [...] Not only are the two longest chapters in the novel (Trim's sermon and Slawkenbergius's tale) concerned with the bigotry of the orthodox clergy, but, even more significantly, the whole novel, which breathes tolerance, is implicitly concerned with the same thing. And the bigotry of the orthodox (Anglican) clergy was as much Schopenhauer's hobby-horse as the arts of fortification were Uncle Toby's. He was obsessed by it, as his vitriolic comments on Samuel Johnson -- and on the Anglican clergy -- show. Lichtenberg condemned Sterne as a 'scandalum ecclesiae'; no doubt it was precisely this that Schopenhauer appreciated. He also shared, to a marked degree, Sterne's delight in ridiculing pedantry.

  15. ^ Francis Wheen (July 2001). Karl Marx: A Life. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 25–. ISBN 9780393321579. Retrieved 8 March 2011. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ Harper Family Papers, The Western Reserve Historical Society


Further reading

  • Alter, Robert (1968). "Tristram Shandy and the Game of Love". American Scholar 37: 316–323. 
  • Bosch, René; Piet Verhoeff (translator) (2007), "Labyrinth of Digressions: Tristram Shandy As Perceived and Influenced by Sterne's Early Imitators", Costerus, new series (Amsterdam: Rodopi) 172, ISBN 9042022914 
  • Brady, Frank (1970). "Tristram Shandy: Sexuality, Morality, and Sensibility". Eighteenth-Century Studies 4 (1): 41–56. doi:10.2307/2737612. JSTOR 2737612. 
  • Green, Peter (2010). "All Job's Stock of Asses": The Fiction of Laurence Sterne and the Theodicy Debate. Open University (Open Research Online Repository). 
  • Halliday, E. M. (2001). Understanding Thomas Jefferson. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0060197935. 
  • New, Melvyn (1992). The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 0395051452.  Collects Brady and Jefferson's essays.
  • Norton, Brian Michael (2006). "The Moral in Phutatorius's Breeches: Tristram Shandy and the Limits of Stoic Ethics". Eighteenth Century Fiction 18 (4): 405–423. doi:10.1353/ecf.2006.0064. ISSN 0840-6286. 
  • Towers, A. R. (1957). "Sterne's Cock and Bull Story". ELH 25 (1): 12–29. JSTOR 2871984. 

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