Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne in Formalism

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy tells the story of a guy called—you guessed it—Tristram Shandy. It's written in the first person and presented as a kind of autobiography, even though Shandy wasn't supposed to be Sterne. And it's a really important work in the history of the novel because in it Sterne does all kinds of crazy things with plot. Remember the difference there?

So, the story of the novel, which is the day-by-day progression of Tristram's life, is pretty simple. But the plot is crazy complicated. That's mainly because Tristram, the narrator of the novel, loves not sticking to the point. This guy seriously cannot talk straight—it takes him ages to make a point. Need an example? It takes him over a hundred pages even to get to his own birth! Now there's a real sizzlin' siuzhet for ya.

Our friend Viktor Shklovsky really liked Tristram Shandy. And the reason he did is that it demonstrates so clearly the distinction between "story" and "plot." Let's face it, you can't get much clearer than opening the book with the narrator's folks getting it on between the covers and then waiting so long for the actual birth part.

So let's join mom and pops at the key moment. In the midst of the hanky-panky, momma-to-be asks daddy-to-be a question, and big daddy's a tad miffed. Tristram, writing many a year later, is certain that the reason he turned out so strange is that the moment of his conception wasn't, let's say, harmonious between his parents.