Tristram Shandy: An Anti-Novel
Laurence Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1766. The text is suggested to be the autobiography of Tristram Shandy, as the title proposes, but the most of the events of the book occur even before Tristram is born. In fact the event of Tristram’s birth, which is first introduced in the very first chapter does not finally occur until Volume IV. The novel largely concerns itself with events and personages from before the author’s birth. Sterne’s text is often called radical as it experiments with the novel form and deviates from the given norms, thus establishing itself as an anti-novel. Ian Watt, in his book The Rise of The Novel (1957) suggests that the novel came into being in the eighteenth century. Watt’s book focuses on three novelists of the eighteenth century, includes Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson and through their works he tries to establish how the novel as a form developed. Watt’s thesis is that rise of middle class, rise of literacy, rise of the novel were all are bound up together strongly, as to be inseparable and mutually inclusive. Watt’s argument is that the novel as a new form developed through the emphasis placed on realism by the eighteenth century novelists. However, other critics such as Margaret Anne Doody argue that the novel as a genre has a continuous and comprehensive history which is over two thousand years old. It has historical roots in Classical Greece and Rome, medieval, early modern romance, and in the tradition of the novella. Don Quixote, first published in 1605, written by Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes is considered the first significant European novel by most. Terry Eagleton, in his book, ‘The English Novel an Introduction’ disagrees to this and says Don Quixote is less about the origin of the genre than a novel about the origin of the novel. The eighteenth century novel is primarily characterized by realism, evident in the works of Defoe, Fielding and Richardson. Moving away from the Tradition of Romance, realism was a reaction to the change in the social structures of the eighteenth century. With the rise of the mercantile capitalist values came the rise of the middle class values. There was an exponential growth in the readership due to the growing literacy and this resulted in the rise of the realistic novel. The novelists of the time were more concerned with a realistic portrayal of the society, so that the readers could connect to their texts. In contrast to his contemporaries, Sterne did not follow the canons of realistic novel and hence has been called an anti-novelist. On its publication, Sterne’s text received a mixed reception. Since Sterne’s text defied the contemporary literary conventions, it cause abundant excitement. Some of Sterne’s contemporaries did not hold it in high esteem. However, the bawdy descriptions and the sexual humor made it popular with the society, and is till date considered one of the greatest comic novels. Samuel Johnson famously commented, ‘Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.’ After creating a great stir with its first issue, the novel was both praised and criticized; and in time became less and less read, and being incomprehensible as before, it gradually sank into oblivion. According to Oana Ivan, the reasons for this were the chaotic structure of the novel, the elaborated and willingly pretentious style, the graphic eccentricity, the obscure allusions and the tough humor. Sterne’s work was heavily influenced by the leading scholars and writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, Sterne took several passages word to word from the Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy, Francis Bacon’s Of Death and many more. Sterne’s satire is also influenced by the satires of Pope, Rabelais, Cervantes and Swift. John Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ and his theory of...
Cited: • Eagleton, Terry. The English Novel An Introduction. Australia: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
• Watt, Ian. The Rise of The Novel. University of California Press, 1957.
• Piper, William Bowman, ‘Tristram’s Digressive Artistry’. New York: Twayne, 1966.
• Olshin, Toby A. ‘Genre and Tristram Shandy: The Novel of Quickness’. Tristram Shandy Norton Critical Editions. Pennsylvania: W. W Norton, 1980.
• Mayoux, Jean Jacques, ‘Variations on the Time-Sense in Tristram Shandy’ The Winged Skull. London: Methuen, 1971.
• Price, Martin, ‘The Art of the Natural’. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1964
• Bell, Michael, ‘Laurence Sterne (1713-1768): The Fiction of Sentiment’ Cambridge University Press, 2009.
• Brînzeu, Pia, The Protean Novelists: The British Novel from Defoe to Scott. Timişoara: Tipografia Universitǎţii din Timişoara, 1995.
• Ivan, Oana, ‘Tristram Shandy an Original and Profound English Novel of the Eighteenth Century’
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