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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy Themes

This Study Guide consists of approximately 39 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
This section contains 760 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)

Themes

Time and Reality

In the first volume, Tristram gives a discourse about how digressions from the narrative are progressive. On the surface, this sounds like more rambling, but the author is actually saying that by having the story in a different order, he is giving the book a different meaning. There is no doubt Sterne could complete the novel in a few volumes, but by leaving and returning to scenes, the reader is coming back to a scene with a new perspective. Sterne highlights this point when he stops a scene between Widow Wadham and Toby and follows it with two blank chapters and immediately defends his right to do this. When Sterne returns to the content of the two missing chapters, they have to be read with the notion that the novel is breaking the barriers of conventional storytelling.

The author's play with time is evident in the chronological order of the stories. The narrator begins with the story of his conception, nine months before he was born. If this is not strange enough, Tristram then spends the remainder of the volume jumping from one narrative to the other, leaving each unfinished story with the promise he will return to them later. The narrator always returns, and in the end completes the narrative but leaves behind the question of the time frame in which the novel is being told—how much of the novel is actually from first-hand observations of the narrator. For example, it is impossible to tell whether the courtship between Widow Wadham and Toby takes place before or after Tristram's birth.

This leads to the question of reality. The reader is likely to ask how much of the story is a true representation of reality. By the end, it seems Tristram only tells the anecdotes to fit in with his opinions and it is his discourses that give the story meaning. In fact, the stories, though lacking in truth, serve to symbolize who Tristram is as a person. Tristram does not appear much in the story, but the characters increasingly feel like extensions of him, their humorous adventures just example of Tristram's imagination and wit.

Hobby Horses

Tristram mentions hobby horses at the beginning of the first volume, and it remains a constant thread throughout. Most notably his Uncle Toby rediscovers his health and love for life through his hobby of reenacting battle scenes. This proves the emphasis Tristram places on hobbies. In fact, without a hobby to occupy a person, Tristram suggests a person only spends their time thinking about the negative aspects of life. For example, Tristram's father only gets over his eldest son's death through his hobby of philosophizing and putting theories into a book that is intended to educate Tristram. Tristram claims his father neglected Tristram's early years because he spent so much time writing; however, within what looks to the reader a loveless marriage and the tragic early death of his son, Tristram's father probably uses writing as a form of escape. Moreover, the main characters do not appear to have jobs, so hobbies are the only of taking their minds away from the boredom of their lives. When the war finishes and Toby's hobby becomes pointless, his eyes open to Widow Wadham and the attention she has been giving him for eleven years. However, Tristram does not present this realization as a good thing for Toby because Toby now has to face up to losing his celibacy and the rumors going around the village that he is perhaps impotent.

Authorial Voice

Whereas in most novels an author communicates his opinion through the narrative and the characters, Laurence Sterne makes the reader not only aware of his opinions directly, but that he is writing the book. Many times, Tristram refers to what he is writing and what it means in context to the novel. This extends to Tristram's writing about himself at a desk in present time. Similarly, he explains his digressions as progressive and communicates this point directly to the reader, including explaining why he is using certain techniques in his book. There is rarely a time in the story that the author allows the readers to lose themselves in the narrative, even to the point that he pulls the reader away from an important part of a scene and then tells the reader why it thought it was necessary to do so. In many ways, this is part of the satire of the book, working to present the writer as both a performer and a highly-egotistical creature.

This section contains 760 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy from BookRags and Gale's For Students Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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