The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767)

© Copyright Penguin Books
© Copyright Penguin Books

Time is a perpetual movement, that of space itself. Like every movement, time has a direction, a focal point toward which every element of existence is brought: death. Because all things exist within the boundaries of time, all things must end. An extremely ill man, Laurence Sterne spent most of his adult life haunted by this notion:

“I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life.”

Originally published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767, the comic novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (hereafter referred to as Tristram Shandy) is Sterne’s attempt to beat death by overcoming the restrictions of time.

As is the case in all “autobiographical” novels of the time, the narrator of Tristram Shandy cannot die in the story for the obvious reason that if he were dead, he would be unable to tell the tale. However, unlike other “autobiographies”, Sterne’s novel presents a narration that is subject to temporality. In most books of the genre, the narrator always tells the story from the same point in time, therefore standing outside the movement of time and becoming immortal. That is not the case in Tristram Shandy:

“I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of my fourth volume—and no farther than to my first day’s life—‘tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it—on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back.”

Tristram as narrator gets older as the novel progresses. Every chapter is a step toward his death. Readers are reminded that, though the author promises to continue writing the novel for as long as he lives, his life and therefore the novel may end at any moment, leaving many elements without closure. This, in fact, is exactly what happened: Sterne died soon after writing the ninth volume. The Cock and Bull story as well as other tales was never completed.

However, this narrative temporality has an adverse effect on the narrated Tristram. Because his life continues as he writes, Tristram as narrator will never run out of material and the narrated Tristram’s tale will never come to an end (with the exception, of course, of a physical end as previously mentioned).

Tristram’s moment of conception seems as elusive as his death. As Jo Alyson Parker points out in her essay Spiraling Down “the Gutter of Time”, the narrator “emphasizes the impossibility of pinpointing […] the initial conditions that would account for Tristram’s subsequent history.” It is hinted that the interrupted intercourse of Tristram’s parents may not actually be the moment of his conception. He may, in fact, be an illegitimate child, but that is indeterminable.

Regardless, Tristram, as Parker puts it, “discovers that he must go further back than the conception to account for himself.” Too many factors are involved. It becomes impossible to locate his exact point of origin. Because everything that exists is defined by two points in time, its conception and its death, Sterne goes to great lengths to avoid clearly defining what these notions are in Tristram’s existence:

“To sum up all; there are archives at every stage to be look’d into, and rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:—In short, there is no end of it.”

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line: something the novel also avoids. It constantly jumps from the narrating present to the narrated past and wildly moves back and forth from one story to the other, delaying their climaxes through the narrator’s constant digressions: in the first volume, the novel moves from Tristram’s birth to the story of the midwife to the death of Yorick; the eighth volume describes Tristram’s aimless travels across Europe; and the next tells of Toby’s emotional tribulations when in love. The narrative strand avoids the novel’s death the same way Tristram tries to escape his “through his wild zigzag across Europe”.

Even the order of the chapters is jumbled: in the ninth volume, chapters 18 and 19 are situated after chapter 25. In chapter 40 of the sixth volume, Tristram uses curls and zigzags to represent the narrative movement of the first five volumes. He then teases that he may be able to continue the novel in a straight line:

“I may arrive hereafter at the excellency of going on even thus; —————————————— which is a line drawn straight as I could draw it, by a writing-master’s ruler, (borrowed for that purpose) turning neither to the right or to the left.”

This, of course, never occurs: the narrative strand continues to sway back and forth, generating numerous new subplots as old ones approach their endings.

With the significant exception of the black surface following the announcement of Yorick’s death, all the graphics in the novel are dynamic, including the marbled surface representing Tristram’s work, the five squiggly lines at the end of the sixth volume, and the Corporal’s flourish symbolizing an unmarried man’s freedom. These images, filled with twists and spirals, are full of senseless movement. They represent chaos. Everything about them contradicts the focused straight line of time.

Only one picture seems to lie still: the imposing black surface at the end of chapter 7. The image is calm and empty, immobile. It is grim, almost sinister. Halting the novel and breaking the reader’s momentum, it characterizes everything Tristram Shandy opposes: it is a representation of death.

Sterne created a novel that could well have lasted forever. Set in a world of Newtonian order, his chaotic narrative contradicts every constraint of time: it has no clear beginning and no true end in sight. Because the novel’s narrative moves considerably slower than real life, Tristram would never have overtaken himself: “At this rate I should just live three hundred and sixty-four times faster than I should write.” Unfortunately, while his novel might have constituted a victory over time and death, Sterne himself was still subject to his own mortality. Thus Tristram Shandy came to an end.

At the time, many believed Sterne’s novel would not last, claiming like Dr Samuel Johnson that “nothing odd will do long”, but The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman has lasted: it’s endured over two centuries. Will it survive more? It seems Laurence Sterne may have the last laugh yet, but, if you can forgive the horrible cliché, only time will tell.

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Editor in Chief / Movie Critic: When he started this site, Dimitri never thought he'd be writing blurbs about himself in the third person. In his other life, he works as a writer, translator, and editor for various publications in print and online. His motto is, "Have pen, will travel."