The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman  

From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

"The Plan, as you will perceive, is a most extensive one - taking in, not only, the Weak part of the Sciences, in which the true point of Ridicule lies – but every thing else, which I find Laugh-at-able in my way." --Sterne offering Tristram Shandy in a letter to publisher Robert Dodsley, who rejected the manuscript.


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 humours necessary to conceive a well-favoured child.

Related e

Google
Wikipedia
Wiktionary
Wiki Commons
Wikisource
YouTube
Shop


Featured:
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Enlarge
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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 will do long"), 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 such as digressions, metafiction and nonlinearity. The book was adapted for film by Michael Winterbottom as A Cock and Bull Story in 2006.

The novel itself is difficult to describe. The story starts with the narration, by Tristram, of his own conception. It proceeds by fits and starts, but mostly by what Sterne calls "progressive digressions" so that we do not reach Tristram's birth before the third volume. The novel is rich in characters and humor, and the influences of Rabelais and Cervantes are present throughout. The novel ends after 9 volumes, published over a decade, but without anything that might be considered a traditional conclusion. Sterne inserts sermons, essays and legal documents into the pages of his novel; and he explores the limits of typography and print design by including marbled pages and, most famously, an entirely black page (for mourning) within the narrative. Many of the innovations that Sterne introduced, adaptations in form that should be understood as an exploration of what constitutes the novel, were highly influential to Modernist writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, and more contemporary writers such as Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Italo Calvino referred to Tristram Shandy as the "undoubted progenitor of all avant-garde novels of our century." The Russian Formalist writer Viktor Shklovsky regarded Tristram Shandy as the archetypal, quintessential novel, of which all other novels are mere subsets: "Tristram Shandy is the most typical novel of world literature."

Contents

Epigraph

A line from the Enchiridion of Epictetus is used as a title quotation:

"Ταρασσει τοὐϚ Ἀνϑρώπους οὐ τὰ Πράγματα, αλλα τὰ περι τῶν Πραγμάτων, Δογματα"

This translates to, "Not things, but opinions about things, trouble men." The quotation alludes to a theme of the novel about how the suffering of many of its characters (above all Walter Shandy) is the result of the opinions and assumptions they make about reality.

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 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.

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.

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-favored 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.
  • 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. 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:

"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. Scholar Graham Petrie closely analysed 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 from purely mechanical, and that his rearrangements go far beyond what would be necessary for merely stylistic ends".

Rabelais

A major influence on Tristram Shandy is Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais was by far Sterne's favourite author, and in his correspondence he made clear that he considered himself Rabelais's successor in humorous writing. One passage Sterne incorporated pertains to "the length and goodness of the nose". Sterne had written an earlier piece called A Rabelaisian Fragment that indicates his familiarity with the work of the French monk and practising Doctor.

Ridiculing solemnity

Sterne was no friend of gravitas, 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.

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.

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. The first four chapters of Tristram Shandy are also founded on some passages in Burton.

In Chapter 3, Volume 5, Sterne makes a parody of the genre of consolatio, 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.

Other techniques and influences

His 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. Other major influences are Cervantes, and Montaigne's Essays. 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.

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. Sterne borrows from and argues against Locke's language theories (on the imprecision and arbitrariness of words and usage), and consequently spends much time discussing the very words he uses in his own narrative—with "digressions, gestures, piling up of apparent trivia in the effort to get at the truth".

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.

Reception and influence

Some of Sterne's contemporaries did not hold it in high esteem, but its bawdy humour was popular with London society. 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.

Samuel Johnson famously commented, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." Schopenhauer privately rebutted Samuel Johnson saying "The man Sterne is worth 1000 Pedants and commonplace-fellows like Dr.J." The 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. Goethe praised Sterne in Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years, which in turn influenced Nietzsche.

Tristram Shandy has also been seen by formalists and other literary critics as a forerunner of many narrative devices and styles used by modernist and postmodernist authors, such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Carlos Fuentes, Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie.

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.

Abolitionists

In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Ignatius Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade.

"That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many – but if only one – Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!"

In July 1766 Sancho's letter was received by Reverend Laurence Sterne shortly after he had just finished writing a conversation between his fictional characters Corporal Trim and his brother Tom in Tristram Shandy wherein Tom described the oppression of a black servant in a sausage shop in Lisbon which he had visited. Laurence Sterne's widely publicised 27 July 1766 response to Sancho's letter became an integral part of 18th century abolitionist literature.

"There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me — but why her brethren? — or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St. James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ere mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so."

References to Tristram Shandy

In the 1946 film noir classic The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart chats up a bookshop owner (Dorothy Malone) and pretends to be interested in a vintage copy of Tristram Shandy.

In Anthony Trollope's novel Barchester Towers, the narrator speculates that the scheming clergyman, Mr Slope, is descended from Dr Slop in Tristram Shandy (the extra letter having been being added for the sake of appearances). Slope is also called "Obadiah," a reference to another character in Sterne's novel.

In Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis refers to Tristram Shandy in the context of trying to describe his interactions with his own father.

My father - but these words, at the head of a paragraph, will carry the reader's mind inevitably to Tristram Shandy. On second thoughts I am content that they should. It is only in a Shandean spirit that my matter can be approached. I have to describe something as odd and whimsical as ever entered the brain of Sterne; and if I could, I would gladly lead you to the same affection for my father as you have for Tristram's.

The text of Tristram Shandy in fact uses "my father" at the head of a paragraph fifty-one times.

Trivia

  • Virginia Woolf hailed the book as "The Greatest of all Novels."
  • The novel has been cited by John Updike as the one novel he wants to read before he dies.
  • According to John Hodgman in his satirical book The Areas of My Expertise, Tristram Shandy was the hobos' favorite novel, and on some alley walls in Depression-era whistle-stop towns you might find a cryptic translation of the complete text.
  • The German writer Ernst Jünger, who was a great admirer of Tristram Shandy, first read the book in the trenches before an attack in The First World War. During the attack he was wounded, and when he later woke up in a field hospital heavily drugged by morphine, he took up the reading again. He later stated that he was unable to distinguish the book, the battle and the morphine from each other, but rather saw this as an essential approach to a work that he loved ever after. See Jünger's In Stahlgewittern (1920).

Adaptations

Tristram Shandy has been adapted as a graphic novel by cartoonist Martin Rowson. Michael Nyman has worked sporadically 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 fictionalised behind-the-scenes footage of the adaptation process, even employing some of the actors to play themselves. It is often labelled as a mockumentary.

Tristram Shandy has been translated into many languages, including German (repeatedly, beginning in 1769), Hungarian (by Győző Határ, 1956), Italian (by Antonio Meo, 1958), Czech (by Aloys Skoumal, 1963), Spanish (by Javier Marías, 1978; Ana María Aznar, 1984; José Antonio López de Letona, 1985), Norwegian (by Bjørn Herrman, 1995–96), Finnish (by Kersti Juva, 1998), and French (by Guy Jouvet, 2004).

See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

Personal tools