Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Time

By Laurence Sterne

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He had made it a rule for many years of his life,—on the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year,—as certain as ever the Sunday night came,—to wind up a large house clock which we had standing upon the backstairs head, with his own hands:— (1.4.6)

Mr. Shandy lives by the clock, doing everything according to a schedule that he imposes on himself. (Parents are so uncool.) Naturally, Tristram rebels by playing fast and loose with time. He's a regular James Dean.

I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—and am not yet born:—I have just been able, and that's all, to tell you when it happened" (1.14.2)

Writing stretches out time in a way that living doesn't. As anyone who's ever read a trashy book on a plane knows, reading (and writing) let us experience time in different ways—short, long, and—so much for time machines—even backwards.

"Pray what was the man's name,--for I write in such a hurry, I have no time to recollect or look for it" (1.21.3)

Writing is as a race against time. He's in such a hurry that he can't even be bothered to check Wikipedia and get his facts straight. How much do facts matter, anyway? (Don't bother asking a history teacher.)

"It is about an hour and a half's tolerable good reading since my uncle Toby rung (sic) the bell, when Obadiah was ordered to saddle a horse … so that no one can say, with reason, that I have not allowed Obadiah time enough, poetically speaking, and considering the emergency too, both to go and come" (2.8.1)

Tristram mixes up story-time and real-time by imagining that he's writing live: things are happening at the same time that he's jotting them down, and there's no five-second FCC delay to keep people from exposing themselves.

Being premised, I take the benefit of the act of going backwards myself. (5.25.3)

Sometimes a story is more clear when it's told out of order than if it's told with strict attention to chronology. And sometimes, as the makers of LOST know, it's just more muddled.

Susannah was informed by an express from Mrs. Bridget, of my uncle Toby's falling in love with her mistress, fifteen days before it happened (6.39.1)

Mrs. Bridget manages something that's usually reserved for writers. She can manipulate time to make things happen out of order—and, like a writer, she can actually make the things she writes about happen. Powerful stuff.

That Lippius's great clock was all out of joints, and had not gone for some years. (7.39.2)

Of course one of the only things Tristram really cares about seeing in Europe is broken, and of course it's a clock. When timekeeping is this unreliable, he might as well write forward and backward; no one's going to know the difference.

—Leave out the date entirely, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby, leaning forwards, and laying his hand gently upon the corporal's shoulder to temper the interruption—leave it out entirely, Trim; a story passes very well without these niceties, unless one is pretty sure of 'em—(8.19.34)

Again, exact time—contrary to Mr. Shandy's beliefs—just doesn't seem to matter. It's how the story is told, not when it's set, that makes a good tale. Today, we call it creative license.

I call all the powers of time and chance, which severally check us in our careers in this world, to bear me witness, that I could never yet get fairly to my uncle Toby's amours, till this very moment, that my mother's curiosity, as she stated the affair,—or a different impulse in her, as my father would have it—wished her to take a peep at them through the key-hole. (9.1.1)

Tristram is practically panting to get to this part of the story, but time doesn't run smoothly in the narrative. He has to tell some parts before he can tell other parts, so, again, chronology isn't the determining factor of how a story's told—and neither, apparently, is the author. The story tells itself—kinda like a clock that goes once it's been wound?

I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads. (9.8.8)

Tristram uses a figure of speech, imaging that Life is chasing his pen and possibly borrowing from a famous poem by seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell, whose work was popular in Sterne's political circles. Here, it sounds like his writing is actually making time go faster, speeded up by "every letter I trace."

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