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Tristram Shandy | Context


Predecessors: Rabelais and Cervantes

Tristram Shandy makes reference to an encyclopedic array of earlier literary works, from ancient Greek and Roman philosophical tracts to the writings of Sterne's contemporaries. Two authors, however, had an especially pervasive influence on Shandy's storytelling style: 16th-century French satirist François Rabelais and Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes. Rabelais is best known for his Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–64), a series of five novels whose protagonists are a family of giants. The works are notable for their bizarre humor, which is sometimes crude, sometimes highly learned, and—like Shandy's most sophisticated jokes—often a bit of both. The narrator of Rabelais's novels also anticipates Shandy in his fondness for digressions and anecdotes, though Shandy takes this tendency even further than Rabelais. Altogether, there is a decided family resemblance between the French novels and their English descendant, especially in the third Gargantua book (entitled simply Le Tiers Livre or The Third Book), where Rabelais manufactures opportunities for satire and philosophizing by sending his protagonists on a quest for wisdom.

In a concession to the tastes of his era, Shandy pretends to be prudishly unwilling to discuss such allegedly vulgar topics as sex and the various bodily functions. The narrator of the Gargantua novels, in contrast, has no compunction about doing so. This gave Rabelais's works a reputation for naughtiness among early modern readers, including those who encountered them in English translation. Thus, it is not surprising to find that the characters of Sterne's novel, mostly educated 18th-century Englishmen, are familiar with Rabelais's writings, or at least know of them. Walter Shandy (Tristram's father), for example, is well aware of the ribald nature of these novels and regards them as a frivolous, even dangerous, distraction. When Uncle Toby begins courting the Widow Wadman in Volume 8, Walter—a constant and eager giver of advice—counsels him to "suffer her not to look into Rabelais."

Cervantes is best-known worldwide as the author of the episodic novel Don Quixote (1605 and 1615), whose titular character is an aging Spanish knight with delusions of grandeur. Having read about the bygone days of chivalry and romance, Don Quixote sets out to relive them among his more modest, more modern surroundings. Whether Cervantes invented the novel or merely popularized it is a matter of critical opinion, but in either case, Don Quixote was an extremely influential work whose structure was widely imitated by 17th- and 18th-century authors. Works in the Spanish picaresque tradition, which related the adventures of fictional rogues, or pícaros, provided Sterne with further precedents for the narrative structure of his first novel. Like Tristram Shandy, picaresque works—including the many French and English adaptations of the style—tend to comprise a series of vivid but largely independent episodes, told in the first person, and only loosely connected to a central plot.

In modern English to describe someone as quixotic is to call them idealistic and impractical, or to suggest they are preoccupied with a foolish, romantic quest. Both labels surely apply to Tristram Shandy in his vain attempt to write his entire life story. Tristram, however, takes full ownership of this identity and imagines himself as a spiritual descendant of Don Quixote. Toby Shandy, the narrator's eccentric uncle, is quixotic in a more immediate sense: like Cervantes's old knight, he has addled his brains somewhat by reading too much on a single subject. Immersed in his library of military works, Toby develops a kind of tunnel vision, seeing his quiet countryside life in terms of sieges and skirmishes.

Sterne, Shandy, and Enlightenment England

Sterne's novel is also, in part, a comical counterpunch to some of the prevailing habits of thought in Enlightenment Europe (1685–1815). During the Enlightenment reason was valued as a means to understanding God, nature, and humanity. Sterne mocks this tendency to account for life via overarching systems and theories, as Walter Shandy repeatedly tries to do. "[Walter's] way," notes Tristram, is to "force every event in nature into an hypothesis," a habit that leads him away from the truth rather than closer to it. Other inveterate system-builders include the theologians in Vol. 4, Chapter 26 and many of the learned authors in Walter Shandy's library. Throughout the novel Tristram jokingly adopts the language of scientific inquiry and then laughs at the way it is over-applied to trivial subjects. People who pretend to think scientifically, he says, often suffer from unconscious prejudices, which today would be called confirmation bias: "It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimilates every thing to itself, as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you see, hear, read, or understand. This is of great use." Tristram is not, however, anti-intellectual.

As narrator, Tristram does not critique major Enlightenment authors directly; rather, his interest is in the way their ideas have been popularized, oversimplified, and misapplied. Often, he finds, people claim to be conversant with these thinkers without having read them at all. This is the case with English philosopher John Locke, whose Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) was arguably the foundational work of Enlightenment philosophy in Britain. In this treatise Locke sought to define the limits of human knowledge, challenging the notion that such knowledge could ever be perfect or boundless. Shandy, accordingly, praises Locke as one who is careful not to jump to conclusions in his attempts to arrive at the truth. This trait, for Shandy, makes Locke the virtual opposite of the typical literary critic, whose judgments are overconfident and incurably biased. Sterne would, no doubt, be amused to discover that in the 21st century his work has become a classic in just the same way as Locke's Essay was in the 18th century: many more people talk about it than have actually read it. "Most people of taste and a vague pretension to learning," wrote Telegraph columnist Martin Rowson in 2006, "will, of course, have heard of [Tristram Shandy]; will have every intention one day of reading it, ... but will admit, under gentle pressure, to be waiting for the ... TV adaptation."

The structure of Tristram Shandy likewise sets it apart from the other English novels of its time—so far apart, in fact, that Sterne's book is sometimes described as an anti-novel. For one thing Tristram Shandy rejects the tightly controlled plotting that other early novelists seem to have upheld as an ideal, and which Western literature in general has revered since Greek philosopher Aristotle. Rowson, who in 1996 produced a graphic-novel adaptation of Tristram Shandy, describes Sterne's work as "a direct satire on the whole idea of The Novel As It Was Then Developing." Unlike the highly selective narrative offered in, say, English writer Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), Tristram Shandy pretends to include every stray whim that has popped into the narrator's head. Moreover, Tristram takes a bold but not unheard-of step in addressing the reader directly, often stopping to joke with the "Sir" or "Madam" he imagines is reading his life story. The choice to address a novel to someone was not, in itself, unusual: in epistolary works, including the bestselling Pamela, the narrator reveals the plot by writing letters to other characters in the book. Tristram Shandy, however, flips this model on its head: rather than supplying a fictional character to serve as the reader, Sterne's anti-novel invites the reader—whoever he or she might be—to participate as a kind of honorary character.

Critical Reception

The first few volumes of Tristram Shandy, though published anonymously, made Sterne an almost overnight celebrity, praised for his wit by some and ridiculed or even condemned by others. Sterne's detractors, as Guardian literary correspondent Robert McCrum (2013) notes, described his work as "obscene, preposterous and infuriating, the opposite of what a novel should be." Pamphleteers of the day, themselves often writing anonymously, mocked almost every distinguishing feature of the work, from the narrator's fondness for pseudonyms to the extensive use of asterisks and dashes. Sterne acknowledges this harsh reaction in a series of rebuttals from Vol. 3 onward, assuring the English literary world of his intention to keep tabs on his critics—and to go on ignoring them.

Despite its many detractors the work was widely popular from the first volumes onward, prompting widespread speculation as to the author's identity. When Sterne finally traveled to London in March 1760, he was welcomed and heralded a literary phenomenon. Moreover, like many popular works then and since, Tristram Shandy soon became the subject of a thriving fanfiction industry: unofficial sequels and other Shandy-themed literature crowded London bookshops from 1760 onward. First to appear was Explanatory Remarks upon the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy offered in April 1760 under the pseudonym "Jeremiah Kunastrokius," a name itself borrowed from an extremely minor figure in Sterne's book. Other authors, bolder or perhaps just less scrupulous, came forward with works purportedly written or approved by Sterne, including unauthorized Shandy tributes and sequels. In 1766, with eight authentic volumes of Tristram Shandy already published, a book purporting to be "Vol. IX" began to circulate in London. When Sterne's own Vol. 9 was published in 1767, the spurious Vol. IX was re-titled "Vol. X" and continued to sell.

By the mid-1770s the "Shandy-mania" had cooled somewhat. Nearly a decade after the last installment of Tristram Shandy appeared, the eminent literary critic Samuel Johnson finally pronounced Sterne's novel dead. "Nothing odd will do long," he declared in 1776; "Tristram Shandy did not last." Modern critics are apt to disagree with Johnson on both points: Tristram Shandy has since taken its place among the classics of English literature, not despite its eccentric style but because of it. Instead of being seen as a mere curiosity—an anomaly in an otherwise serious and dignified literary culture—Tristram Shandy is now regarded as a trailblazing work, a precursor to the many subsequent forms of "experimental" fiction. Its relentless punning, typographical and visual playfulness, and refusal to stick to a single straightforward narrative are all characteristics alive and well in the postmodern novel, readily seen in the works of American novelist Thomas Pynchon, British novelist Salman Rushdie, American writer David Foster Wallace, and others. Tristram Shandy, it seems, was not so much "odd" as ahead of its time.

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