A review of Tristram Shandy by Lawrence Sterne

Reviewed by Tom Frenkel


In 1850, a work came out which is still very familiar today: Dickens’ David Copperfield. Perhaps the beginning of this novel is the most familiar part of all:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

Ninety years earlier, in 1760, appeared the first volume of a slightly less familiar novel: Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. That novel begins thusly:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; …

Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?–

It is hard to believe that Dickens was not thinking of Sterne’s novel when he began his own. Even the tie-in with the future fate of the main character is similar: Tristram Shandy laments that if his parents had considered how much depended upon their attentiveness to their task, at the moment of his conception, his life would have turned out much better. David Copperfield notes that considering the day and time he was born, he was “destined to be unlucky in life”.

But the differences between the two novels go much further than their similarities. As you have seen, there is a raunchiness in TS (very typical of the novel as a whole), that is definitely off-limits for Dickens’ Victorian era! Then, consider that TS begins, not with the title character’s birth, but with his conception. This relates to the notion that, while David Copperfield does (I would say) turn out to be the “hero of his own life”, Tristram Shandy is, instead, the chronicler of his family and its close acquaintances. He does include himself, but often, unfortunately, as the victim of a cruel fate … as when he is (no lie) accidentally circumcised by a falling window.


Tristram Shandy is famous (and justly so) for being perhaps the most unconventional novel ever written … at least before the postmodern literary era. We can start by looking at how LS treats time. Just as there is a question at TS’s beginning as to whether the clock is properly wound, one could say that the novel’s own “clock” acts in a highly unconventional manner. Consider that more than halfway through the book (Chap. 3, XVI) [1] , TS, the ostensible main character, is only five years old! To take another example, we see (Chap. 1, XXI) TS’s uncle Toby knocking ashes from his pipe. In Chap. 1, XXXI, ten chapters later, he is still knocking out those ashes! In between is perhaps what one might call a long digression … except that digressions are so much the norm in this novel that it perhaps it is wrong to think of them as such. LS himself comments on his view of Time in this passage:

the idea of duration, and of its simple modes, is got merely from the train and succession of our ideas–and is the true scholastic pendulum,–and by which, as a scholar, I will be tried in this matter,–abjuring and detesting the jurisdiction of all other pendulums whatever. [Chap. 1, XXXIII]

There are other ways in which LS deliberately flouts novelistic conventions:

(1) In Chap. 1, VIII (not at the beginning where one would of course expect it) appears the novel’s Dedication. But so far the actual “Dedicatee” is absent; in the following chapter LS offers, for the proper sum, to attach the donor’s name (whoever he or she may be) to the Dedication, “expunging” this chapter hawking the book in the next edition. Other chapters start in mid-sentence, or consist of only one sentence; there is even a “Chapter upon Chapters” where LS expounds upon his methods.

(2) TS incorporates graphics, but not in the conventional sense of book illustrations. In one place, where a character dies, a completely black page is inserted. (We may not, however, be totally finished with this character … but that’s another story.) Elsewhere, LS adds other kinds of graphics:

Whilst a man is free,–cried the corporal, giving a flourish with his stick thus–

(squiggly line diagonally across the page) [Chap. 4, LXIII]

It should be noted that I did not see these graphics upon first reading, since I read TS in a text-only edition on my Palm handheld. [2] But (as you can see just above) the editor of my text-only edition clues you in on where these graphics occur.

(3) Although a reader always participates in creating a world when s/he is reading, at one point (when discussing the “concupiscible” widow Wadman, LS invites the reader’s participation in a more literal way than usual:

–call for pen and ink–here’s paper ready to your hand.–Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind–as like your mistress as you can–as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you–’tis all one to me–please but your own fancy in it.

(blank page) [Chap. 3, LXXXI]


Though all of LS’s novelistic eccentricities are certainly fun, they are not what impressed me the most deeply about this novel. Rather, it was TS’s most affectionate (if satirical) portrait of his household, and close friends of the family. There is most notably his father and Uncle Toby, his father’s brother. Then there is Yorick, the local vicar; the physician with the flattering name of Dr. Slop; Toby’s servant Corporal Trim, and the family servant Susannah. (TS’s mother, who made that memorable opening statement about winding the clock, doesn’t fare much better later on; she rarely appears at all, but in one scene where she does, it is as a “yes woman”, meekly assenting to all of her husband’s pronouncements.)

If anyone in this book could be called a “hero” (to use Dickens’ term), it would be not TS, but the father … not for any particular practical accomplishments, but rather for his encyclopedic knowledge, along with a very distinctive approach to life. We see some of both in his advice to his brother Toby on how to manage his hoped-for bride the widow Wadman, whom he is courting:

Avoid all kinds of pleasantry and facetiousness in thy discourse with her, and do whatever lies in thy power at the same time, to keep her from all books and writings which tend thereto: there are some devotional tracts, which if thou canst entice her to read over–it will be well: but suffer her not to look into Rabelais, or Scarron, or Don Quixote–

–They are all books which excite laughter; and thou knowest, dear Toby, that there is no passion so serious as lust. [Chap. 4, LVIII]

This is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s depiction of sex as “the most fun you can have without laughing”.

That the father is more a man of ideas than of action comes across in how he dealt with (or rather did not deal with) a squeaky door-hinge:

… for the many years in which this hinge was suffered to be out of order, and amongst the hourly grievances my father submitted to upon its account–this was one; that he never folded his arms to take his nap after dinner, but the thoughts of being unavoidably awakened by the first person who should open the door, was always uppermost in his imagination, and so incessantly stepp’d in betwixt him and the first balmy presage of his repose, as to rob him, as he often declared, of the whole sweets of it. [Chap. 2, XV]

Then there is Uncle Toby, who was wounded in battle in his younger days (in the groin, as befits the general tenor of this novel!) and spends his time obsessed with his “hobby-horse” of re-creating battles on his front lawn, with his servant helping him construct the various props needed. Actually, it was the taking of a window’s counterweight for these simulation purposes that led to its so unfortunately crashing down on a certain part of TS’s anatomy, as previously mentioned…. Toby and TS’s father are quite different personalities, and the interaction between these two characters forms the core of this book.

As mentioned, the father seems to have a wide knowledge of “authorities”, and the book in general cites such writers often. This gives the book, so modern (actually postmodern) in many ways, also paradoxically a kind of medieval flavor. Here’s one thought-provoking example:

The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, ‘That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.’ [Chap. 1, XX]

And another:

The ancient Goths of Germany, who (the learned Cluverius is positive) were first seated in the country between the Vistula and the Oder, and who afterwards incorporated the Herculi, the Bugians, and some other Vandallick clans to ’em–had all of them a wise custom of debating every thing of importance to their state, twice, that is,–once drunk, and once sober:– Drunk–that their councils might not want vigour;–and sober–that they might not want discretion. [Chap. 3, LX] [3]

The familiar line from Aristotle (a line that Dickens would not quote, I’m sure): “Quod omne animal post coitum est triste” is cited. Whenever I see Aristotle referred to, I always feel a twinge of guilt that I’m not personally more acquainted with this writer. Or is he in fact obsolete, and a waste of time to read? (The same feeling goes for many other “authorities” who are so far just names to me.)

One must be careful, however! For example, one Gobesius who is cited as an authority on military matters, appears, after some Web research, to be spun out of whole cloth … along with his treatise (“translated from the Flemish”) on “Military Architecture and Pyroballogy”. But then there is the “authority” on baptism named Kysarcius, whose fictional status is easier to decide … just say the name out loud!

TS is also very much an homage to literary writers that LS admires. He loves Shakespeare (whom he quotes and paraphrases often) and Cervantes … but since I already feel I appreciate these writers, this was no revelation to me. His mention of Addison, however, does want me to look at this writer, whom I read, if at all, under compulsion in college. And even more, I want to get into some of Montaigne’s writing. I was tantalized by Montaigne’s ironic view of excessive success. As TS puts it:

As my life and opinions are likely to make some noise in the world, and, if I conjecture right, will take in all ranks, professions, and denominations of men whatever,–be no less read than the Pilgrim’s Progress itself–and in the end, prove the very thing which Montaigne dreaded his Essays should turn out, that is, a book for a parlour-window;– … [Chap. 1, IV]

And here again is Montaigne, this time on sleep (filtered, to be sure, through TS’s/LS’s recollection):

The world enjoys other pleasures, says he, as they do that of sleep, without tasting or feeling it as it slips and passes by.–We should study and ruminate upon it, in order to render proper thanks to him who grants it to us.–For this end I cause myself to be disturbed in my sleep, that I may the better and more sensibly relish it. [Chap. 2, L]

But again, as with those “authorities”, one must be leery of blindly accepting all of LS’s “writers”; take “Hafen Slawkenbergius”, whose long tale about noses [4] is reproduced (first in Latin then in English translation) in TS. All web searches for “Slawkenbergius” seem to end up with Mr. Sterne himself!

And then there are memorable passages that are simply the voice of Sterne (or of Shandy?) himself, e.g.:

–Pray how many [sacraments] have you in all, said my uncle Toby,–for I always forget?–Seven, answered Dr. Slop.–Humph!–said my uncle Toby; tho’ not accented as a note of acquiescence,–but as an interjection of that particular species of surprize, when a man in looking into a drawer, finds more of a thing than he expected.–Humph! replied my uncle Toby. [Chap. 1, XLII]

there is nothing of the colouring of Titian–the expression of Rubens–the grace of Raphael–the purity of Dominichino–the corregiescity of Corregio- [Chap. 2, V]

I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man. [Chap. 4, XXVI]


I did read all of TS, though truth be told, completing this long work was not all that easy. The “authorities” referred to above, though often informative and amusing, can be cited to tedious length at times. And — true to TS’s “anti-novel” nature — there is no overall plot to knit the whole work together. Further, at times LS seems perhaps just a bit too relentless in making his novel as “far out” as possible.

But if you do get a good way into the work, I would recommend that you finish it. If you don’t, you will miss two of the most interesting sections. First, after an infancy which as mentioned, takes up at least half of the book, we seem to skip over to where TS is travelling on the European continent. Perhaps here LS is more in the vein of his other well-known book, A Sentimental Journey (1768). In any event, there is some memorable writing here, e.g.:

There is nothing more pleasing to a traveller–or more terrible to travel- writers, than a large rich plain; especially if it is without great rivers or bridges; and presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty: for after they have once told you, that ’tis delicious! or delightful! (as the case happens)–that the soil was grateful, and that nature pours out all her abundance, &c. . .they have then a large plain upon their hands, which they know not what to do with–and which is of little or no use to them but to carry them to some town; and that town, perhaps of little more, but a new place to start from to the next plain– and so on. [Chap. 4, XXIII]

And then, toward the end of TS, there is the interesting section where the old military man Uncle Toby lays siege, as it were, to the widow Wadman. As you might imagine, LS’s penchant for raunchiness gets free play here.


Of the many famous pronouncements of Samuel Johnson, one that was not quite on target is his reply to Boswell concerning TS:

I censured some ludicrous fantastick dialogues between two coach-horses and other such stuff, which Baretti had lately published. He joined with me, and said, ‘Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.’ [5]

Of course, TS, while not as famous nowadays to all and sundry as David Copperfield, has lasted very well indeed. To literary scholars, TS might be most celebrated for being the first postmodern novel. But it can also be enjoyed as a witty and–despite the satire–an intimate and touching picture of family life.


[1] “Chap. 3, XVI”, for example, means Book 3, Chapter XVI.

[2] For information on how to use a Palm (or compatible) handheld to read texts, see my review of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers on my website (URL below). To learn how to download TS (and thousands of other public-domain works) see the Online Books Page: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/books/

[3] “Once drunk and once sober”: This practice seems to antedate the “ancient Goths”: Herodotus mentions it in “On the Customs of the Persians”, c. 430 BCE. See http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/herodotus-persians.html

[4] Noses are important in TS. One of TS’s woes was that, due to a mishap at birth, his nose was “squeez’d as flat to my face, as if the destinies had actually spun me without one”.

[5] Samuel Johnson on TS: from Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Abridged and Edited, at http://ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext98/ljnsn10.txt . I don’t see any chapter numbers, but with a text search, you should be able to quickly find my citation!

Tom Frenkel

email: frethoa AT aol DOT com