Thoughts on Tristram Shandy

by ttucker23 on March 30, 2011

The Damnation of Obadiah,  from Tristram Shandy Book 3.11, 1773

The Damnation of Obadiah, from Tristram Shandy, hand-coloured etching by James Bretherton, 1773

I have been reading and studying Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman for the past couple of months. It’s been a laborious task, and I’m afraid not a happy one.

I’ve read around it and I understand the reasons why Tristram Shandy is considered a classic, but my problems with the book are based entirely on the experience of reading it. Even the book’s admirers admit that it is ‘frustrating’ for the reader.

I’d go further and say that it is literally ‘pointless’. It commits the worst crime that literature is capable of, in that it fails to provide adequate motivation for the reader to turn the page.

Admirers will say that Sterne intended it to be frustrating, as if this makes the frustration acceptable. They will then tell you that Sterne’s achievement with Tristram Shandy represents a revolutionary new approach to fiction and narrative, parodying and satirising the realistic prose style that had come to typify the genre up to that point in history.

But as Thomas Keymer points out in his essay ‘Sterne and the “new species of writing”‘, collected in Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy: A Casebook (Amazon affiliate link), this adopts a view of the history of the novel that post-dates Sterne’s time of writing. The contemporary situation was not so straight forward, as Keymer explains:

Sterne writes at a time when the conventions of fictional representation, such as they were, remained fluid, ill-defined, and keenly contested. Witness the Richardson-Fielding dispute of the 1740s, which was as much about competing narrative strategies as it was about religion and ethics, or ideologies of gender and class.

The genre of prose fiction was itself still ‘novel’ (hence the name), and to see Tristram Shandy as a satire or comment on the ‘novel’ as genre is a total misunderstanding of its place in literary history. In fact the ‘new species of writing’ referred to is borrowed from an essay written in 1751 about Fielding, not Sterne.

Keymer goes on to question whether Sterne is satirising the modern novel at all in Tristram Shandy:

Why, in this most allusive of works does Sterne never refer explicitly to Richardson or Fielding and why has no modern editor of Tristram Shandy caught Sterne reworking any specific passage from their fiction?

Another critic, J.T. Parnell, points out that ‘he (Sterne) may never have read the ‘novelists’, let alone contemplated a devastating critique of the shortcomings of the emerging genre.’

And Jonathan Lamb chimes in on the debate too:

Such stabilising of Sterne’s text depends on an improbable estimate of the dominance of the novel’s realism, as if it were well enough established by the 1750s for its parody readily to be undertaken and appreciated.

All this undermines the commonly held view today that Sterne is some kind of protomodernist whose work was centuries ahead of its time. It seems clear that this was a time of great experimentation in prose writing, and that Sterne was only one of the experimenters. As it turns out he was the least successful, because the eventual direction that the novel followed was that of Richardson, Fielding and the realists. Sterne himself was harking back, rather than looking forward, his style being a later reinvention of the so-called learned wit of Rabelais, Cervantes and Montaigne.

It is equally misleading to say that Sterne preempted the modern age of literature, influencing Woolf, Joyce and Beckett. While these writers pointed to Sterne as an influence, this was without regard to his true position in the history of literature, but rather to further their own agenda, as Keymer explains:

Woolf was mainly concerned with an ulterior motive in the present: that of coopting Sterne for her ongoing campaign against the bricks-and-mortar realism typified by Galsworthy and Bennett.

Tristram Shandy was an experiment, no doubt, and a radical one. It is essentially an attempt at creating a new kind of prose genre outside of, or parallel to, the emerging genre of the novel. But it is an experiment that ultimately fails.

At least it does for me. I’m sure that Sterne fans will be keen to contend this point of view, so please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.


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