Archive: November 22nd, 2008

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

[Readings] (11.22.08, 1:07 pm)

The title is a bit misleading, it is actually “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”

Sterne’s work is important in understanding one of the borderline cases of narrative. Despite being published six decades before Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, it is a work that seems deceptively modern, or even postmodern. It would be very easy to draw comparisons between Sterne’s writing and the “lines of flight” described by Deleuze and Guattari.

As a work, Tristram Shandy is erratic and nonlinear, circular even. The premise is that the book documents the life of the eponymous subject, who is the narrator, but the main subjects of the book are his father, Walter Shandy, and his uncle Toby. There are a number of other characters who come into play, as well, but the focus is on those two. In the first volume, the narrator is trying to tell the story of his life, but really, he can’t begin to do that before accounting for his birth, and then his conception, and then the life of his parents before hand. The narrative is endlessly digressive, and draws connections between all manner of works of philosophy, science (of the time, of course), and history. Essentially, as the narrator is trying to tell a complete story of his life, he cannot do so without expanding to include more than could ever be written within his lifetime.

One of the reasons for this is that philosophy and science, especially the eclectic, have an essential role in making sense of everyday life. The living world connects to many disparate systems of meaning. Thus, there is a sort of art of connecting, in drawing allusions between everyday life and works of science and philosophy. This idea of naturalism works in contrast to the literary movement of realism (which in itself was a very particular type of narrative), which focused on life alone without connections to other realms. Sterne was interested in parodying this, and exposing a paradox of literary fiction: To capture anything in its true depth will exceed the time of the thing being described. Eventually, when all approaches are exhausted, time changes from exposition, to instead moment by moment direct communication.

The reading of the book seems like it might be well equated with hypertext. Wikipedia is an invaluable aid of making sense of the many connections and allusions drawn within the writing, and with all of his analogies, Sterne is drawing the reader through what really feels like a hypertext experience. The connections are not directed, but demonstrative. The characters are not really driven to achieve specific goals, but rather, understand themselves and the world around them. Most other novels are framed by some sort of goal or obstacle, especially in the bildungsroman tradition. The result of this shift in emphasis is that Tristram Shany has a ludic quality. I mentioned the term “ludic” in reference to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and the essence of that comparison is that both the reader’s engagement as well as the characters’ activities are playful.

In Tristram Shandy, the reader must be active. The reader is required to make creative interpretation in order to get meaning out of the text. Because the experience is nonlinear, cut up, even, the reader is responsible for gathering the pieces and putting them together into a coherent whole. Sterne’s writing illustrates the connections to many parts of his world, and these connections must be brought and woven together to put that world together.

Some final notes from Ian Watt’s introduction: The book is not a novel. It fails at that because it is incomplete. Similarly, its system, and there certainly is one, must come off as playful, rather than gamelike explicitly. There are virtues of exploration and balance. It connects the deepness of nature and philosophy to the triviality of life.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorSterne, Laurence
TitleThe Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Tagsfiction, media traditions, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon