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Laurence Sterne Writing Styles in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy

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Point of View

Sterne tells the story from the point of view of the narrator, Tristram Shandy. Tristram begins by claiming the story is about his life, but then rarely mentions himself in the narrative. Most of the stories are about his family and often he tells them before his life had actually begun. For example, Toby passes over the anecdote about his conception, immediately rendering the story unreliable. In fact, most of the stories are second hand, coming from when he was either very young or yet to be born.

The only story he tells which has any semblance to reality is when he writes of his travels in France. It is here the reader can see that some of what he said in earlier volumes was merely symbolic. For example, in the third volume, his brother Bobby dies just before he goes on his travels to Europe. By going on a similar trip himself while he is ill, it is plausible that he was just talking about his own illness.

Such confusion about what is real and what is unreal comes from a narrative that attempts to defy time. Throughout the book, the narrative follows no logical sequence, prompting the reader to wonder how much of what Tristram says is true.

Setting

The novel is set in a village in England in the eighteenth century. Most of the scenes take place in Shandy Hall, the estate of the Shandy family. Within this setting, the action mostly takes place in the parlor, where the men argue and philosophize about life. The other main setting is Toby's country house. At this house Toby and Trim build their fortifications on the bowling green outside. Widow Wadham lives next door to Toby, and in the final volume, Toby goes to her house to propose marriage. The main characters rarely move away from these settings—the only exception being in the third volume when Trim, Yorick, Walter and Toby visit the church lawyer. Consequently, the settings work to keep all the characters in their own world. Many of the things they do within this space are highly eccentric, and people are unlikely to tolerate their behavior outside of Shandy Hall. Tristram accentuates this point when Toby goes to propose to Widow Wadham, and she asks if he is impotent. Toby's reaction shows both his naivety and eccentricity, which, outside his own world, only serve only to make him the gossip of the village.

Tristram uses France as another setting. He travels there alone to get away from death. He travels through Lyon, Paris, Bologne and Montreal. This is the only chapter where Tristram is the main character; the French setting allows Tristram's character to blossom. Up until his travels, the other characters' lives had kept Tristram's life in the shadows.

The novel is very opinionated and its self-reflexive style aims to break down barriers in the world of 18th century literature. Previously, novels kept more or less to conventional storytelling, so its placement in the 18th century is important in understanding how different and fresh Sterne's work is in comparison. Often Tristram moves away from the narrative, explaining he will write what he wants, critical of anyone that disagrees with his avant garde approach. Interestingly Sterne dedicates the novel to the Right Honorable William Pitt, asking him to protect his work. This shows a conscious intent to change the formal approach of 18th century literature.

Language and Meaning

Sterne wrote The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy in 18th-century English. Consequently, the book is occasionally difficult to understand—such words as betwixt, for example, are rarely used in contemporary English. However to take away such language would lose the book its meaning, simply because the novel is truly unique for its time. Its thoroughly-modern narrative experiments, later picked up by the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, make it an exciting and refreshing period piece.

Sterne often uses academic language to communicate his philosophical ideas. In particular, he references work from John Locke and Socrates. These opinions are usually digressions from the main narrative, and Sterne uses the opinions to defend the unusual style of his book. Other times, he inserts documents into the narrative written in a formal style. For example, the legal document detailing Walter's marriage rights, and the sermon he reads in the parlor, which is actually one of Sterne's own sermons. This language gives seriousness to the novel, adding a satirical edge to some of the more bawdy wit.

In comparison, he tells anecdotal stories with the informal language this implies. Unlike his philosophical discourses that tend to ramble, the anecdotes are easy to read and do not strive to communicate any great ideas. Again, Sterne uses the comparison as a humorous devise. The stories stand at odds with Sterne's serious discourses.

Structure

The structure of the novel is highly unconventional and like so many of the techniques in the book, Sterne uses it as a source of humor. For example, in the final volume, he leaves a scene between the Widow Wadham and Toby just as the Widow asks to see his groin injury, following it with two blank chapters. He returns to the content of these chapters, but not until he has already told the reader what happens in the aftermath of the Widow's question. Even then, Toby's reaction (to use a map to point at where his injury was sustained) is so unexpected, it acts as a parody of structure itself.

This passage is also an example of Sterne using structure to play with time and reality. The novel's narrative never runs in a logical sequence. Even from the beginning, he starts the novel about Tristram's (the narrator) life from his conception. The reader then has to wait two more volumes, almost a quarter of the novel, before Tristram is born. In the following volumes, Tristram again defies expectation by dedicating the remainder of his novel to his Uncle Toby. The reason it takes him so long tell the story is because of Sterne's use of meta narrative. He shows this best in the first volume when Tristram introduces a variety of narratives, leaving and returning to them at his whim. The first narrative tells the story of his mother and father and the arguments that take place between then. The second narrative involves the Parson, his wife and the mid-wife. The third narrative is the scene surrounding Tristram's birth, the fourth narrative is the story about Uncle Toby and finally the fifth narrative is Tristram's digressions about writing. Sometimes these narratives cross over. For example, Walter's writing parallels Tristram's own writing.

By the end of the novel, though, the joke is that even though Tristram takes an inordinate amount of time to get to the point, he does complete all the main narratives. He tells the story of his birth in the first three volumes; he covers his opinions and himself as a person through his travels in the seventh volume; he discusses his mother and father's relationship and completes the story of his Uncle Toby relationship with the Widow Wadham in the last volume, and neatly rounds off his father and his own opinions with a final sentence that claims the book was all cock and bull.

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