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Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

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Summary

Laurence Sterne was born in 1713 in Ireland, the son of an army officer. After graduating from Cambridge University, Sterne settled in Yorkshire and remained in England for the remainder of his life. He became a clergyman there, and then married a woman with whom he did not get along. His two major novels, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman and A Sentimental Journey, were written near the end of his life. He died in March, 1768, at the age of 55.

Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy between 1759 and 1767. The book was published in five separate installments, each containing two volumes except the last, which included only the final Volume 9. The numerous cliffhangers and anticipations Sterne put in the closing chapters of each installment are conventional features of serially published works, meant to arouse curiosity and maintain interest in the volumes to come. Tristram Shandy was enthusiastically received from the beginning, though it was also criticized for being bawdy and indecent in its frank treatment of sexual themes.

For its time, the novel is highly unconventional in its narrative technique--even though it also incorporates a vast number of references and allusions to more traditional works. The title itself is a play on a novelistic formula that would have been familiar to Sterne's contemporary readers; instead of giving us the "life and adventures" of his hero, Sterne promises us his "life and opinions." What sounds like a minor difference actually unfolds into a radically new kind of narrative. Tristram Shandy bears little resemblance to the orderly and structurally unified novels (of which Fielding's Tom Jones was considered to be the model) that were popular in Sterne's day. The questions Sterne's novel raises about the nature of fiction and of reading have given Tristram Shandy a particular relevance for twentieth century writers like Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce.

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