Tristram Shandy

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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is a novel by Laurence Sterne which says very little about the subject's life, since he is born about halfway through the book and not put into breeches till near the end; and which contains a great deal of opinion, not much of it Tristram's. It was published in nine volumes between 1759 and 1767. It amused and delighted many, scandalised some (like Samuel Johnson)[1], and was found incomprehensible by others. It has continued to delight and amuse, or baffle.

The novel is written as a first-person relation, so that the two main characters, Walter Shandy of Shandy Hall and his brother, are referred to as "my father" and "my uncle Toby" respectively. Around these are other distinctive characters: Mrs Shandy, the parson Yorick (to a certain extent identified with Sterne himself), Corporal Trim who is uncle Toby's devoted and ingenious servant, Walter Shandy's servant Obadiah, and the widow Wadman. Uncle Toby was described by William Hazlitt as "one of the finest compliments ever paid to human nature"[2], a man with a peculiar hobby-horse (fortifications), nevertheless capable of abandoning it to respond to a person in need.

The style is like the plot, digressive and (apparently) impulsive.

Right glad I am, that I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on, tracing everything in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo. Horace, I know does not recommend this fashion altogether: But that gentleman is speaking only of an epic poem or a tragedy; - (I forget which,) - besides, if it was not so, I should beg Mr Horace's pardon; - for in writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived.[3]

  1. Drabble, M, ed. The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Oxford University Press. 1995
  2. Drabble, M
  3. Tristram Shandy ch 4