Tristram Shandy is a novel about novel-writing—and that was pretty novel. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, the "novel" was starting to be recognized as a new form of writing, thanks to Samuel Richardson, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding—and good old Sterne. Of those four, Sterne is the most self-conscious about his writing. Throughout Tristram Shandy, you see Tristram struggling to get the words to behave. It's never clear who has the upper hand—Tristram, or the text. He not only writes and writes about writing, he takes on other writers by referencing, parodying, and even plain stealing their work. In some ways, Tristram Shandy looks forward to a later genre of novel, the Kunstlerroman: novels about the education of an artist. In others, it riffs on Keeping Up With the Kardashians: a reality show that's only half reality.
Writing allows Tristram to cope with the trauma of his early childhood.
Tristram's intention in Tristram Shandy is to develop a new style of writing.
In Tristram Shandy, fate rules your… fate. Everything happens by design, and no individual is master of his own destiny. At the same time, maybe Tristram has it wrong. He also claims that the reason for his bad luck comes from his father's interrupted ejaculation, which is his mother's fault, or, if you want to really trace it back, maybe put it all on Mr. Shandy. In any case, it's certainly not Tristram's fault. There's no such thing as free will in Tristram Shandy. If you think about it, a novel in which no one can make choices is duller than dishwater. If everything is pre-determined, then there's no suspense. In fact, moving away from "fate" as an answer for why things happen is a hallmark of novels, so it's telling that Tristram Shandy insists on fate. Sterne, are you messing with our heads again?
Tristram does not really believe in fate. The way he discusses his accidents—for example, by calling his circumcision "Susannah's accident"—suggests that he blames individuals for what goes wrong.
Tristram Shandy suggests that the only choice an individual can make is how to approach life.
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.
The main antagonist in Tristram Shandy is time.
Tristram Shandy suggests that storytelling is a way of beating time at its own game.
Tristram is the guy you'd never want to play at Scrabulous. He likes to mess with the meaning of words, make jokes and puns, and suggest words that he doesn't actually mean. He also gives each of his characters specific types of language (see "Speech and Dialogue" for more about this). A literary critic named Mikhail Bakhtin argued that one of the key features of a novel as opposed to other types of writing is that novels contain lots of different types of language, which he called "discourse." Prime example: Tristram Shandy. It's not just that Tristram's friends and family all have different types of language, but he uses ways of speaking from lots of different areas of life: religious, legal, medical, folk tales, travel narratives, and more. It's like being in the monkey cages at the zoo.
All the characters in Tristram Shandy use such different types of language that they cannot truly communicate with each other.
Language provides a key to character. In Tristram Shandy, you can tell who a person is by how he or she speaks.
Tristram Shandy wants to know which came first: the chicken or the egg? It might be a tired question, but Tristram treats it in a brand new way. Can education and knowledge change identity, or is it fixed from birth? And how do you figure out who somebody is? If Tristram is right, identity seems to form in your relations to other people. There's no individual identity outside of family, just as there's no individual identity outside of the place you belong. Looks like we'll be eating scrambled eggs.
In Tristram Shandy, identity is fixed before a person is born, and it never changes.
Tristram suggests that nature rather than education or experience is responsible for a person's identity.
What do we know, how do we know it, and how do we know that we know it? The big word for that is "epistemology," and Tristram Shandy is getting down with all the epistemological questions. At some points, Tristram Shandy seems to be suggesting that knowledge is ultimately hopeless—that the more we try to understand, the more confused we'll be, and that other people are doomed to be eternally mysterious. But it's clear that Tristram knows a lot. He throws around references and quotations like so many Lady Gaga lyrics. What's clear is that pursuing knowledge is a tricky business—you're always one reference away from absurdity.
Tristram Shandy suggests that true knowledge comes from experience, not from books.
Tristram Shandy suggests that people need a combination of book-learning and life experience to make their way through the world successfully.
In Tristram Shandy, everyone—including Tristram—is one step away from joining the Mad Hatter's tea party. Serious subjects are always one step away from being the subject of ridicule, and Tristram ridicules just about everything. But he's not unkind. Foolishness is a prerogative of being human. It's one of the things that everyone, from servant to master, has in common. Everyone has a subject they're foolish about, and foolishness let people laugh. Mirth, according to Yorick and one of the novel's epigraphs, is one of the main reasons to get out of bed in the morning. If you can't make or take a joke, you're not much good as a person.
In Tristram Shandy, knowledge leads to foolishness rather than wisdom.
Yorick's attitude toward foolishness is evidence that there's something holy about fools.
Like knowledge, education is a little suspect. The most highly educated people in Tristram Shandy are also the stupidest: the scholars who endlessly debate pointless questions; Walter Shandy, who's so busy reading books that he forgets about common sense; and even Tristram, who has a hard time getting out from the shadow of all the books he's read. But Tristram's way too cool for school. Everyone in Tristram Shandy is self-educated, and it doesn't seem like the best choice. We might romanticize the idea of the self-educated man, but education needs to be tempered with a solid dose of good sense.
Tristram Shandy is Tristram's Trista-paedia—his book written for the education of his readers.
In Tristram Shandy, public school seems to produce better people because it exposes you to different ways of thinking.
Let's just say that no one adheres to the scientific process in Tristram Shandy. Knowledge is one thing—it can be good or bad—but Shandy-style science is guaranteed to be useless. Reason and empiricism (think the scientific method) were super important, and Tristram cites a number of famous scientists and up-to-date discoveries, as well as some outdated theories. It's almost as though Tristram is setting up his novel against science: both offer ways of understanding the world, and it's pretty clear which one is winning.
Dr. Slop's portrayal in the novel is evidence that Tristram Shandy disapproves of science.
In Tristram Shandy, science is not just something to be mocked—it's actively dangerous.
Sex is everywhere in Tristram Shandy, but it's constantly being pushed aside, interrupted, and deferred. You could even say that Tristram Shandy doesn't contain one completed sex act—like the novel itself, sex never quite reaches its goal. In fact, the novel is one big literary coitus interruptus—or maybe all the representations of coitus interruptus are metaphors for Tristram's inability to finish the novel. Whatever the answer, writing and sex clearly have a lot to do with each other. They're both kinds of creation: the result of sex is a child, and the result of writing is a novel. Both offer a kind of immortality and, in Tristram Shandy, the immortality that's produced is wounded and incomplete.
In Tristram Shandy, friendship is a better way of being close to someone than sex is.
Tristram's inadequacy at sex, or his perceived inadequacy, is responsible for his digressive writing style.