Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Tone

By Laurence Sterne


Playful, Witty, Mournful

Tristram Shandy takes the tone of a golden retriever puppy: boisterous, full of life, and a little bit out of control. Tristram talks to his readers as though they're right beside him, reminding them about something that happened in the last book or sharply telling them to get their minds out of the gutter. Above all, Sterne seems to celebrate language, capitalizing on the double meaning of words and playing around with the way his book looks on the page. Even when he's writing about death, it's hard to take Tristram too seriously. Consider the way he talks about his brother Bobby's death: "My father had certainly sunk under this evil [of deciding how to spend his money] … had he not been rescued out of it as he was out of that, by a fresh evil—the misfortune of my brother Bobby's death" (4.31.17).

Here, Tristram compares the evil of not knowing how to spend money to the evil of Bobby's death, as if they're just two misfortunes of about the same weight—and he even makes Bobby's death "rescue" Mr. Shandy. And he takes it even further. He continues: "What is the life of man! Is it not to shift from side to side?—from sorrow to sorrow?—to button up one cause of vexation!—and unbutton another!" (4.31.18) Up and down and all around—someone needs to get a leash on this puppy.

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