Study Guide

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

By Laurence Sterne

Literature and Writing

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.

Questions About Literature and Writing

  1. Does Tristram control the narrative, or is he controlled by it? How much is design and how much is digression?
  2. Tristram frequently talks about his critics; he calls them "Jack Asses" and asks "O ye critics! will nothing melt you?" (3.6.8). What is the relationship between critics and writers in Tristram? Does Tristram really hate them as much as he says he does?
  3. What is the relationship between writing and reading in Tristram Shandy? How much control does Tristram have over the way that his narrative is read? Who is Tristram's ideal reader?

Chew on This

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.

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