Friday, July 21, 2017

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (84 down 16 to go)

…there never was a great or heroic action performed since the world began by one called Tristram ~ Walter Shandy, Tristram's father

This is the first time I’ve read Tristram Shandy (though I started it and did not finish years ago) and the only work I’ve read by Laurence Sterne.  The novel was originally published under the longer title: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, but most modern editions go by the shorter version. Tristram Shandy is a first-person narrative, though it is difficult to categorize it further, using the common fiction genres. I call it a comic novel, and satire, of the Enlightenment era.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge category #5 – A classic published before 1800.

In spite of the original title, the novel is not much about Tristram’s life though it is certainly about his opinions. Most of the book is Tristram relating comic settings and conversations between his father and uncle: Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby. Nearly half the book takes place before Tristram’s birth; he narrates earlier events that were presumably passed down to him. It takes place in early to mid-18th century England.

Walter Shandy intended his son to be named Trismegistus, but the chambermaid sent to relay the message can only remember it begins “TRIS”. The officiating parson, concludes it must be Tristram – a name Walter Shandy thought was unison to Nincompoop.  Walter also believed, for he’d read numerous books on the subject, that large noses were a sign of intelligence and nobility. He was therefore again disappointed at Tristram’s birth, when the Doctor permanently crushes Tristram’s nose by use of forceps.

As I said it is a comic novel – one of the earliest and considered one of the best. Hmmm, for me, not so much. There is no doubt much of the humor was lost on me owing to a quarter millennium separating the author’s day and my own. I know the book is filled with double entendre and subtle allusions relevant in Sterne’s day. I caught some of them, but I’m sure I missed more.

Sterne, via Tristram, makes many allusions to other writers and books, and I’m sure I missed many of these for the same reason. His favorite was Don Quixote. Sterne makes repeated explicit references to writings and characters from Don Quixote as well as many subtle allusions. Tristram’s Uncle Toby and his aide Corporal Trim are very reminiscent of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Sterne makes other allusions to:  Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Locke, John Bunyan, Rabelais, and more.

Another comic device Sterne used was digression – in fact, it was his main gag. He seldom finishes a chapter without chasing some digression and promising to return to the previous subject in some future chapter. Then he often digressed from the digression, and often yet again, and etc. Often, he does not get back to the original point for many chapters – if at all – though he occasionally reminds the reader that he has not forgotten and intends to return to unfinished portions. I know it was intentional, but for me it bordered on absurd. I’m convinced Sterne was intelligent, witty, very well read, and used clever word play, but for me, it just didn’t work well.

The book concludes with a very clever double entendre though – really more of a quadruple entendre. After one character relates an amusing story, a listener concludes:
A Cock and Bull, said Yorick – And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.
As I’ve suggested, the reader can take that statement one of at least four ways: one quite literally, a second figuratively, a third rather bawdily, and a fourth – that may just be the author’s self-effacing commentary on the entire book.

I’m glad I read Tristram Shandy. It has been on my TBR for a long time and I think it is historically significant, but I didn’t really enjoy it – so, I’m also glad to be DONE reading it.

Have you read Tristram Shandy? Did you like it any better than I did?

Other excerpts:

I have but half a score things to do in the time – I have a thing to name – a thing to lament – a thing to hope – a thing to promise, and a thing to threaten – I have a thing to suppose – a thing to declare – a thing to conceal – a thing to choose, and a thing to pray for – This chapter, therefore, I name the chapter of Things – and my next chapter to it, that is, the first chapter of my next volume, if I live, shall be my chapter upon Whiskers, in order to keep up some sort of connection in my works.

Sciences May Be Learned Rote But Wisdom Not

Let love therefore be what it will, - my uncle Toby fell into it.

Then he will never, quoth my father, be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives. ~ Walter Shandy upon learning his brother Toby was to be married

It was a consuming vexation to my father, that my mother never asked the meaning of a thing she did not understand. ~ narrative regarding Tristram’s mother

The French have a gay way of treating every thing that is Great; and that is all can be said upon it. ~ Tristram

I’m persuaded there is not any one prince, prelate, pope, or potentate, great or small upon earth, more desirous in his heart of keeping straight with the world than I am – or who take more likely means for it. ~ Tristram



  1. This is a book I wanted to read. I would like to read some of the old classics as a sort of opposite to modern literature. I am not sure about it now, but may try it out anyway. The old classics can sometime be a mouthful to read.

    1. It's a bit of a challenge, but I'm still glad I read it. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. I have been meaning to read this book. Your review makes it sound very interesting. I like books that satirizes their contemporary society. It makes for interesting observation.

    1. Sterne is a little like Jonathan Swift...though I found Swift much easier to read. This one takes a little work. Sounds like you might like it though.

  3. Never read this! And we are using the same theme :D I was drawn to it because it very much mirrors the weather in Scotland :D


    1. Thanks Lainy...I thought it was a good staying indoors and reading theme. :)

  4. It's good to read your review, because I put this book aside, unsure of whether I'd ever get back to it. I kept wondering when Tristram was going to show his face :) From the bit I did read, I did get the feeling there was probably quite a bit that might soar over our 21st century heads. I'm sure it would have been a great, satirical and topical read for the 18th century readers of the time. Congrats for making it through to the end.

    1. Yeah...I'd hate to ever discourage anyone for reading this, but for me it's more of a trophy on the shelf. Glad to have read it, but I didn't particularly enjoy reading it.

  5. I've had a copy of Tristram Shandy for decades--I barely escaped reading it in college, and always meant to...but that day has not yet arrived, and most likely won't. I'm sure I would feel the same as you--willing to appreciate its historical significance, frustrated at not getting the references, and glad to be done with it.


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