Notes on Tristram Shandy

Tristram Shandy

Of the English novels of the 18th century, Sterne's Tristram Shandy enjoys much eminence. Although it was published long after the masterpieces of Richardson and Fielding, it remains an innovation in some way in the history of the English novel.

The first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were published in 1760, when Sterne was forty-seven. The last volume came some seven years after in 1767. The novel, however won for Sterne an immediate fame.

As a novel, Tristram Shandy is found rather queer in comparison with its predecessors, like Pamela, Clarissa Harlowe, Tom Jones and Amelia. The novel has no set plot of the previous novels. It is a sort of reflection on an ambiguous nature, that of is a man, weak, unsteady, lacking in firmness of character or moral strength. There is hardly a proper plot here and the story may seem a sort of fantasy to many.

In fact, Tristram Shandy has not pleased all. Dr. Johnson is quite categorical in his condemnation of the work-"Nothing odd will do long: "Tristram Shandy' did not last". Another critic characterizes the work as irresponsible and trifling. Yet, Tristram Shandy is a novel, and nothing else but a novel, and it is highly improper to interpret it from a too narrow and conventional angle.

Indeed, in Tristram Shandy, Sterne creates a new world, a new fictional technique. This is quite solid and extends the scope of working of a fictional author. His characters, like Mr. Shandy and Uncle Toby, may seem odd by the side of the conventional characters of Richardson and Fielding, but they suggest the immensity of the human nature and have much universality in them. What is more, Sterne's characters, like those master authors, have the enduring quality to remain memorable for their behavior, inclination, temperament, and so on.

Sterne's writing is nothing trifling or irresponsible. It is rather a fine antithetical combination of weakness and strength, default and merit, tears and laughter. The  elementof humour is strongly present, but this is also not conventional. Humour in  Sterne is expressed not merely in literary and artistic conventions, but also in the representation of fantastical or whimsical personalities. In fact, humour in Tristram Shandy is based on the varied shades of life.

With Sterne, the novel is found transformed. Tristram Shandy is no tale of adventures or tense situations, as found in Tom Jones or Clarissa Harlowe. It is a representation of human nature from diverse angles and Shandy senior, Tristram's father, with his pedantic ideas, uncle Toby, with his soft sentiment, his devoted follower, Corporal Trim, with a kind and generous heart, the novel parson, Yorick, and the idealized self of Shandy himself, are all the interesting personalities which are delineated in Sterne's novel. In fact, Tristram Shandy seems to be the first great novel of characters as opposed to the novel of incidents, like Tom Jones and Roderick Random.

Sterne's technique is also queer. The book which is titled as The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy is half way through before the birth of its hero. This is somewhat novel for the world of fiction. Again, anything is found to have served as an excuse for the author to introduce parenthesis, asterics and blank pages and similar other mannerisms. All these are the strong marks, both of the originality and of the strangeness of Sterne's novel, which is rather formless and expressionist in nature.