The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Questions
Bring on the tough stuff - there’s not just one right answer.
What's up with time? A stopped clock starts off the whole novel, and Tristram often talks about running out of time to write or trying to catch up with himself. He exists in both the past (the story he's telling) and the present (the story he's telling about telling his story). What does the treatment of time in the novel have to do with the act of writing? The act of writing an autobiography?
Tristram Shandy is funny. Maybe not laugh-out-loud funny, but some of his dirty jokes and misunderstandings are definitely worth a chuckle. Is the humor random? Would you call the novel a comedy, or is it just incidentally funny?
S-E-X. Tristram's characters talk about sex a lot, but they do it in an almost clinical way. Walter Shandy schedules it; Uncle Toby's afraid of it; Widow Wadman's desperate for it; Walter Shandy's bull can't do it. What's the relationship between sex, pleasure, and procreation? In a book that celebrates life in all its messy variety, why does everyone get so worked up about sex?
Penises! Does Tristram just have a dirty mind, or is there something more to all the penis talk? What do penises stand for in the novel, and why is everyone so concerned with them?
You could say that Tristram Shandy has three major elements: plot, characters, and digressions. How do all three work together? Is one more important than the other?
Digressions are obviously important to the novel—they're the "sunshine" of reading (1.22.8). How do they fit in with the plot as a whole? How honest is Tristram being about his desire to avoid digressions? Why do digressions matter?
Hey, you. Tristram likes to talk right at his readers and critics. Think about some modern TV shows, like Lost or Glee, that respond directly to what viewers and critics say. Is Tristram Shandy responding to its readers in the same way? (Remember that the novel was published in parts over a few years—plenty of time for Sterne to read his critics.) What's the relationship between Tristram and his readers?
At several moments in the novel, Tristram plays with the way that the text looks on the page. He includes a black page when Yorick dies, a blank page for the reader to draw a portrait of his mistress on, diagrams of his story's narrative, and even little hands to point out bits he thinks are particularly important. Are these crucial to the story? Would an audiobook of Tristram Shandy really be Tristram Shandy? How about a film?
For all the fancy philosophical talk, Tristram Shandy also cares a lot about people's bodies. Tristram spends a lot of time and effort describing exactly how people look, like Walter Shandy's position on the bed after he learns about Tristram's misnaming (2.22.2). What's the relationship between the body and the mind in Tristram Shandy? How does the body affect the mind, and how does the mind affect the body?
Here's one that scholars like to argue about: did Sterne mean to end the book where he did, or did he just die? We chat about that in "What's Up With the Ending?" but it's definitely a question that's up for debate.