Autor: Eva G.
Laurence Sterne was born in 1713 in Ireland, the son of an armyofficer. After graduating from Cambridge University, Sterne settled inYorkshire and remained in England for the remainder of his life. He became a clergyman there, and then married a woman with whom he did not getalong. His two major novels, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy,Gentleman and A Sentimental Journey, were written near the end of hislife. He died in March, 1768, at the age of 55.
Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy between 1759 and 1767. The bookwas published in five separate installments, each containing two volumes except the last, which included only the final Volume 9. The numerouscliffhangers and anticipations Sterne put in the closing chapters of each installment are conventional features of serially published works, meant to arouse curiosity and maintain interest in the volumes to come. Tristram Shandy was enthusiastically received from the beginning, though it was also criticized for being bawdy and indecent in its frank treatment of sexual themes.
For its time, the novel is highly unconventional in its narrative
technique--even though it also incorporates a vast number of references and allusions
to more traditional works. The title itself is a play on a novelistic formula
that would have been familiar to Sterne\'s contemporary readers; instead of giving
us the \"life and adventures\" of his hero, Sterne promises us his \"life
and opinions.\" What sounds like a minor difference actually unfolds into
a radically new kind of narrative. Tristram Shandy bears little resemblance to
the orderly and structurally unified novels (of which Fielding\'s Tom Jones was
considered to be the model) that were popular in Sterne\'s day. The questions
Sterne\'s novel raises about the nature of fiction and of reading have given Tristram
Shandy a particular
relevance for twentieth century writers like Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce.
Tristram Shandy - Tristram is both the fictionalized author
of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy and the child whose conception, birth,
christening, and circumcision form one major sequence of the narrative. The
adult Tristram Shandy relates certain aspects of his family history, including many that took place before his own birth, drawing from stories and hearsay as much as from his own memories. His opinions we get in abundance; of the actual details of his life the author furnishes only traces, and the child Tristram turns out to be a minor character.
Walter Shandy - Tristram\'s philosophically-minded father. Walter Shandy\'s love for abstruse and convoluted intellectual argumentation and his readiness to embrace any tantalizing hypothesis lead him to propound a great number of absurd pseudo-scientific theories.
Elizabeth Shandy (Mrs. Shandy) - Tristram\'s mother. Mrs. Shandy insists on having the midwife attend her labor rather than Dr. Slop, out of resentment at not being allowed to bear the child in London. On all other points, Mrs. Shandy is singularly passive and uncontentious, which makes her a dull conversational partner for her argumentative husband.
Captain Toby Shandy (Uncle Toby) - Tristram\'s uncle, and brother
to Walter Shandy. After sustaining a groin-wound in battle, he retires to a life
of obsessive attention to the history and science of military fortifications.
temperament is gentle and sentimental: Tristram tells us he wouldn\'t harm a fly.
Corporal Trim - Manservant and sidekick to Uncle Toby. His real name is James Butler; he received the nickname \"Trim\" while in the military. Trim colludes with Captain Toby in his military shenanigans, but his own favorite hobby is advising people, especially if it allows him to make eloquent speeches.
Dr. Slop - The local male midwife, who, at Walter\'s insistence, acts as a back-up at Tristram\'s birth. A \"scientifick operator,\" Dr. Slop has written a book expressing his disdain for the practice of midwifery. He is interested in surgical instrument and medical advances, and prides himself on having invented a new pair of delivery forceps.
Parson Yorick - The village parson, and a close friend of the Shandy family. Yorick is lighthearted and straight-talking; he detests gravity and pretension. As a witty and misunderstood clergyman, he has often been taken as a representation of the writer, Sterne, himself.
Susannah - Chambermaid to Mrs. Shandy. She is present at Tristram\'s birth, complicit in his mis-christening, and partly to blame for his accidental circumcision by the fallen window shade.
Obadiah - Servant to Walter Shandy.
Bobby Shandy - Tristram\'s older brother, who dies in London while away at school.
Widow Wadman - A neighbor who has marital designs on Captain Toby Shandy, and with whom he has a brief and abortive courtship.
Bridget - Maidservant to Widow Wadman. Corporal Trim courts Bridget at the same time that Toby courts Widow Wadman, and Trim and Bridget\'s relationship continues for five years thereafter.
The midwife - The local delivery-nurse who is commissioned to assist at Mrs. Shandy\'s labor.
Eugenius - Friend and advisor to Parson Yorick. His name means \"well-born,\" and he is often the voice of discretion.
Didius - A pedantic church lawyer, and the author of the midwife\'s license.
Kysarcius, Phutatorius, Triptolemus, and Gastripheres - Along with Didius, they form the colloquy of learned men whom Walter, Toby, and Parson Yorick consult about the possibility of changing Tristram\'s name.
The curate - The local church official, also named Tristram, who misnames the baby when Susannah fails to pronounce the chosen name \"Trismegistus.\"
Aunt Dinah - Tristram\'s great aunt and, in Tristram\'s estimation, the only woman in the Shandy family with any character at all. She created a family scandal by marrying the coachman and having a child late in her life.
Lieutenant Le Fever - A favorite sentimental charity case of Uncle Toby\'s and Corporal Trim\'s. Le Fever died under their care, leaving an orphan son.
Billy Le Fever - The son of Lieutenant Le Fever. Uncle Toby becomes Billy\'s guardian, supervises his education, and eventually recommends him to be Tristram\'s governor.
The action covered in Tristram Shandy spans the years 1680-1766. Sterne obscures the story\'s underlying chronology, however, by rearranging the order of the various pieces of his tale. He also subordinates the basic plot framework by weaving together a number of different stories, as well as such disparate materials as essays, sermons, and legal documents. There are, nevertheless, two clearly discernible narrative lines in the book.
The first is the plot sequence that includes Tristram\'s conception,
birth, christening, and accidental circumcision. (This sequence extends somewhat
further in Tristram\'s treatment of his \"breeching,\" the problem of
his education, and his first and second tours of France, but these events are
handled less extensively and are not as central to the text.) It takes six volumes
to cover this chain of events, although comparatively few pages are
spent in actually advancing such a simple plot. The story occurs as a series of accidents, all of which seem calculated to confound Walter Shandy\'s hopes and expectations for his son. The manner of his conception is the first disaster, followed by the flattening of his nose at birth, a misunderstanding in which he is given the wrong name, and an accidental run-in with a falling window-sash. The catastrophes that befall Tristram are actually relatively trivial; only in the context of Walter Shandy\'s eccentric, pseudo-scientific theories do they become calamities.
The second major plot consists of the fortunes of Tristram\'s
Uncle Toby. Most of the details of this story are concentrated in the final third
of the novel, although they are alluded to and developed in piecemeal fashion
from the very beginning. Toby receives a wound to the groin while in the army, and it takes him four years to recover. When he is able to move around again, he retires to the country with the idea of constructing a scaled
replica of the scene of the battle in which he was injured. He becomes obsessed with re-enacting those battles, as well as with the whole history and theory of fortification and defense. The Peace of Utrecht slows him
down in these \"hobby-horsical\" activities, however, and it is during this lull that he falls under the spell of Widow Wadman. The novel ends with the long-promised account of their unfortunate affair.
Overall Analysis and /Themes
The most striking formal and technical characteristics of Tristram
Shandy are its unconventional time scheme and its self-declared
digressive-progressive style. Sterne, through his fictional author-character
Tristram, defiantly refuses to present events in their proper chronological
order. Again and again in the course of the novel Tristram defends his
authorial right to move backward and forward in time as he chooses. He
also relies so heavily on digressions that plot elements recede into the
background; the novel is full of long essayistic passages remarking on what
has transpired or, often, on something else altogether. Tristram claims that
his narrative is both digressive and progressive, calling our attention to the
way in which his authorial project is being advanced at the very moments
when he seems to have wandered farthest afield.
By fracturing the sequence of the stories he tells and interjecting
them with chains of associated ideas, memories, and anecdotes, Tristram
allows thematic significance to emerge out of surprising juxtapositions
between seemingly unrelated events. The association of ideas is a major
theme of the work, however, and not just a structural principle. Part of the
novel\'s self-critique stems from the way the author often mocks the
perverseness by which individuals associate and interpret events based on
their own private mental preoccupations. The author\'s own ideas and
interpretations are presumably just as singular, and so the novel remains
above all a catalogue of the \"opinions\" of Tristram Shandy.
Much of the subtlety of the novel comes from the layering of
authorial voice that Sterne achieves by making his protagonist the author of
his own life story, and then presenting that story as the novel itself. The
fictional author\'s consciousness is the filter through which everything in the
book passes. Yet Sterne sometimes invites the reader to question the
opinions and assumptions that Tristram expresses, reminding us that Shandy
is not a simple substitute for Sterne. One of the effects of this technique is to
draw the reader into an unusually active and participatory role. Tristram
counts on his audience to indulge his idiosyncrasies and verify his opinions;
Sterne asks the reader to approach the unfolding narrative with a more
discriminating and critical judgment.