From the publication of the first two volumes, Tristram Shandy was a success, and a success not only in England but also in France, Italy, and Germany. The characters of Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim and the Widow Wadman episode were particularly admired, and Sterne's humor was generally appreciated. Sterne regarded humor as "the gift of God," and he used it to achieve satiric ends. He acknowledged following Cervantes's lead in "describing silly and trifling Events, with the Circumstantial Pomp of Great Ones." Writing a comic novel with serious goals presented difficulties for Sterne, "I am going down to write a world of Nonsense–if possible like a man of Sense–but there is the Rub." The "rub" or the potential incompatibility which Sterne anticipated may apply to the reader as well. Do we read seriously, looking for meaning(s) and enjoying the humor as we go, or do we read as game players, having fun and taking serious meanings as they reveal themselves? or is there some other way to read this novel? Is Ian Watt right that "through imaginative play we learn about ourselves"?

One of Sterne's goals in writing Tristram Shandy "was the hopes of doing the world good by ridiculing what I thought deserving of it–or of disservice to sound learning." Sterne's satire of faulty scientific reasoning or misuse of knowledge is, I suspect, the part of the novel that is most difficult for most of us to understand. If this is the case, I suggest that, as you read passages which are laden with footnotes explaining Sterne's allusions, you keep in mind his purpose, even if you don't understand all the details or follow his argument completely. For example, Sterne explained that in his chapter on noses, "the principal satire throughout that part is levelled at those learned blockheads who, in all ages, have wasted their time and much learning upon points as foolish"; in other words, their learned theories are as ridiculous as Mr. Shandy's theories about noses.

The greatest objections which Sterne's contemporaries had to the novel stemmed from his sexual references and innuendos, which, coming from a clergyman, shocked many. Samuel Richardson wrote that Sterne's "character as a clergyman seems much impeached by printing such gross and vulgar tales, as no decent mind can endure without extreme disgust!" It is a criticism that has continued. Sir Walter Scott, writing half a century later, voiced the same basic objection, though more temperately,

... it cannot be said that the licentious humour of Tristram Shandy is of the kind which applies itself to the passions, or is calculated to corrupt society. But it is a sin against taste, if allowed to be harmless as to morals. A handful of mud is neither a firebrand nor a stone; but to fling it about in sport, argues coarseness of mind, and want of common manners.
For Scott, however, the delightful Uncle Toby and Trim more than compensated for Sterne's faulty practices, including his "indecorum."



Sterne has been called a modern novelist because of his novelistic practices and themes:

  • He is concerned with the nature of time and plays with its various forms, e.g., chronological time, the reader's time.
  • He uses the association of ideas to portray how his characters' (and our) minds work and to organize his novel.
  • He challenges the conventions of the novel, e.g., chronological development and the use of dedications and prefaces, and explores the relationship between reality and the illusion of fiction.
  • He upsets the reader's comfortable expectations and unthinking assumptions.
  • He makes the reader part of the process of writing a novel by sharing creative decisions as Tristram writes the novel.
  • He presents the essential aloneness of human beings, with each of his characters being the center of his own world.
  • He shows the chaotic nature of life by presenting effects or consequences before their causes, by showing trivial causes having momentous consequences, and by showing momentous causes having trivial consequences.
  • He reveals the unreliable nature of language and verbal communication.
  • As a result of the above, reality and character become fluid, i.e., are constantly changing, and thus unpredictable; and the truth becomes difficult, if not impossible, to determine.
 In considering whether Tristram Shandy is a modern novel in any way,  you might compare Tristram Shandy to the other eighteenth century novels you have read and/or novels which you consider modern.  


Day 1
Sterne, Tristram Shandy
   Books I and II
   A Few General Remarks
Day 2
Sterne, Tristram Shandy;
  &nbspBook III,
   Book IV, Chapters 10-14, 31
   The Organization of Tristram Shandy
   Major Themes in Tristram Shandy
Day 3
Sterne, Tristram Shandy
   BookV, Chapters 2- 14, 31
   Book IX, Chapters 18-33
   Time in Tristram Shandy

October 13, 2004