Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Literature and Writing

By Laurence Sterne

Literature and Writing

As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship.—O diem praeclarum!—then nothing which has touched me will be thought trifling in its nature, or tedious in its telling. (1.6.1)

As we read Tristram Shandy, we're going to get to know Tristram and even come to like him (surprise, surprise). Reading a book is like making friends with the author, and, just like you want to stay up until four in the morning sharing secrets with your friends, you're going to find yourself interested in the little details of Tristram's life. Tristram's bringing the popcorn.

—Every author has a way of his own in bringing his points to bear. (1.9.1)

Writing is individual. It's an expression of a person's identity, so you can't use absolute rules to judge it. Every book has to be judged on its own merits and on the plan of its particular author—or so insists our very individual and idiosyncratic author.

[W]holly intent are we upon satisfying the impatience of our concupiscence that way,—that nothing but the gross and more carnal parts of a composition will go down:—The subtle hints and sly communications of science fly off, like spirits, upwards;—the heavy moral escapes downwards. (1.20.5)

Tristram is worried that, without instruction, his reader's going to miss the point of the story. We get so interested in the sexy bits that we forget to pay attention to the serious part of the novel. No, seriously, we're reading it for the articles.

"'Tis for an episode hereafter; and every circumstance relating to it in its proper place, shall be faithfully laid before you." (1.21.9)

By this point in the book, it seems like narrator-Tristram has absolutely no idea how to write a novel—he can hardly finish a sentence, let alone a book. This claim sets us up for a big laugh at his expense. But it does turn out that Tristram fulfills his promises. He writes about everything he says he'll discuss, even if it's a few chapter or a few hundred pages later. Nice follow-through, buddy.

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading; (1.22.8)

Here, Tristram suggests that the digressions are the whole point of the novel. It's not that the digressions get in the way of the story so much as the story gets in the way of the digressions. Who needs plot when you can listen to Tristram go on and on about noses?

"---Writers of my stamp have one principle in common with painters. Where an exact copying makes our pictures less striking, we choose the less evil; deeming it even more pardonable to trespass against truth, than beauty" (2.4.2)

Truth, Tristram says, ain't always pretty (listen up, Mr. John Keats). He doesn't claim to be presenting an absolutely correct representation of events, and he's perfectly happy to fancy up a scene or manipulate the story in order to produce something more aesthetically pleasing. More proof that Tristram really does have a plan in mind.

Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation: (2.11.1)

Tristram sees his book as a conversation with his readers. He might be sitting alone in a room, but he imagines that he's directly communicating with others—and this was 250 years before Facebook.

O ye POWERS! (for powers ye are, and great ones too)—which enable mortal man to tell a story worth the hearing,—that kindly show him where he is to begin it,—and where he is to end it,—what he is to put into it,—and what he is to leave out,—how much of it he is to cast into shade,—and whereabouts he is to throw his light!—Ye, who preside over this vast empire of biographical freebooters, and see how many scrapes and plunges your subjects hourly fall into;—will you do one thing? (3.23.5)

Poets traditionally began a long work by politely requesting help from any available god or goddess, usually a muse, and here Tristram is doing the same thing. Not only is he following in a long tradition, he's suggesting again that he's not really in control. Tristram, take the wheel!

Ask my pen,—it governs me,—I govern not it. (6.6.1)

So, is anyone in charge here? Tristram claims again that he doesn't have control over the story, even though he seems to say at other points that he does. Is he being disingenuous? Or does he really mean it?

'Twas an eye full of gentle salutations—and soft responses—speaking—not like the trumpet stop of some ill-made organ, in which many an eye I talk to, holds coarse converse—but whispering soft—like the last low accent of an expiring saint—'How can you live comfortless, captain Shandy, and alone, without a bosom to lean your head on—or trust your cares to?'

It was an eye—

But I shall be in love with it myself, if I say another word about it. (8.25.4-5)

Tristram is so good at writing, if he does say so himself, that he actually writes himself into love with Widow Wadman (almost). Writing is powerful, or performative—it makes things happen.