“L—d! said my mother, what is this story about? –
A Cock and a Bull, said Yorick – And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.”
Sterne’s idiosyncratic novel was written at a time when more traditional novels, such as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, were just starting to come into their own. Novels at this time tended to be about the life history of its protagonist, following a linear plot where the main character learns and grows over an adventure, usually offering some theme about the advantages of moral behavior. Tristram Shandy is less his life story and more his opinions on all sorts of random stuff. Sterne’s novel challenges our idea of what a novel is supposed to look like, eschewing a straight-forward plot for random digressions, and abandoning chronological order for the narrator’s fancy. So what makes up the pages of this work then? Tristram narrates random events, anecdotes, observations about aspects of his society, philosophical musings, and sometimes just spends a chapter or two defending his unusual authorial style or telling us what he plans to write about in future chapters. Often the narrator will stop in the middle of an event, ending the chapter, to begin a new chapter that offers a clarification about a word or idea or metaphor that came up while relating the event, which then spawns more chapters that further clarify an idea that appears during the first clarification, only to return back to the original event five or six chapters later. Sometimes we get completely blank pages or squiggly lines.
It might be said the novel replaces plot with narrative. It is a forerunner of modernist stream-of-conscious novels and experimental works. However, the influence of Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Johnathan Swift’s work can also be felt in the novel as well, with their strong emphasis on the comical and satire. While the work can be difficult and frustrating, especially if you’re used to more traditional novels, there really are many funny parts.
Even though the story is supposed to be about the life of Tristram Shandy who serves as the work’s narrator, he rarely appears in the story. It is really about his family: his father, Walter Shandy, an over-educated know-it-all who has bizarre theories about how the length of noses and the choice of Christian names controls the destinies of people, and Tristram’s uncle, Toby, a former soldier suffering from a groin injury who obsesses about military craft and reenacts battles with his valet, Trim, on exact models of battlefields they design together. Tristram isn’t even born until late in the book, the first half talking about the circumstances leading up to his birth and relating opinions about other characters, and all sorts of random digressions. In fact, only one section features him as an active character in which Tristram relates his adventures as he travels abroad in France.
The Romantic writer Goethe considered it a novel that pokes fun at pedantry. This is especially apparent in Tristram’s father who quotes all sorts of obscure scholars, being well-educated in the traditional sense, but lacking any common sense and spends a large part of his time engaging in pointless scholarly debates. Even the language Tristram employs to write his narrative is overly scholarly and formal at times. Likewise, many of the chapters take the form of dedications, prefaces, and long-winded discussions about scholarly choices about what is included in the work and what is not, poking fun at all this scholarly detritus.
All this commentary on his father’s and uncle’s idiosyncrasies can make a reader lose sight of the most important idiosyncratic character of all: Tristram Shandy, our narrator, who thinks it’s a good idea to tell his story with no chronology (jumping forward and backwards in time) and to do so with no plot. In this sense, it is a novel about writing novels, calling into question our assumptions about how a novel ought to be written. Why write a novel that reinvents the novel and calls into question explicitly, when Tristram defends his methods, how stories ought to be told? Many readers approach novels wanting to discover the point. By writing the work as a series of random digressions and observations without any linear structure, Sterne tries to get us to rethink what we should be doing when we read a novel. If there is a point it is that reading a novel shouldn’t be about discovering the point or message. It is the experience itself that the reader should enjoy, the strange observations about the world, the intimacy with unique and bizarre characters, and all the little nuances and private jokes.