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Themes

In Tristram Shandy, Tristram is in a race against time: although he's writing as fast as he can, he can't write fast enough to keep up with his life. But unlike life, which can only be lived in one direction, writing moves backwards and forwards in time and so it actually can create time where time didn't exist.

That's the thing about writing: it's never quite up-to-the-moment. There's always a lag between event and record, so it turns out that these two themes—writing and time—are interconnected. Writing allows Tristram to play with time; but time means that Tristram will always be enslaved to his writing.

Questions About Time

  1. There are two clocks in Tristram Shandy, the clock that Tristram's father winds up and the stopped clock that Tristram tries to visit in Lyons. What do these clocks suggest about the way Tristram Shandy deals with time?
  2. Tristram Shandy ends before Tristram is born. At what other moments does time seem to run backwards? How do these moments matter to the story?
  3. Certain events—Mrs. Shandy's labor, for example—take up extraordinary amounts of time, while others, like Tristram's journey through Europe, take up relative little space in the narrative. What is the book suggesting about the relationship between life-time and story-time?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The main antagonist in Tristram Shandy is time.

Tristram Shandy suggests that storytelling is a way of beating time at its own game.

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