Time, a major theme in Tristram Shandy, takes many forms. Sterne deals with time as duration, both chronological and psychological; the time it takes a reader to actually read and the time that the reader feels or accepts has passed; the time events take; and time as an organizational device. Time is also a subject both Tristram (aka Sterne?) and the characters speculate about.

Time and the way the writer handles time.
Tristram Shandy opens in 1718 and ends in 1713 and ranges from Henry VIII's time to 1766. Mrs. Shandy's labor begins in Volume I (xx, 51), but Tristram is not born until Volume III (xxiii, 163); thus, though Tristram is an eight-month baby, it takes him a year to be born, since that is the amount of time that elapsed between the publication of Volume II and Volume III.

Time as a structural device.
Sterne uses not only flashbacks, which you are familiar with, but even a flashforward, i.e., he refers to an event which has not yet happened: "a cow broke in (tomorrow morning) to my uncle Toby's fortifications" (III, xxxviii, 187). The flashbacks often take the form of digressions, which Tristram claims are in actuality relevant and further the story: "In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too–and at the same time.... I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going..." (I, xxii, 58-9).

Suspended time.
Sterne sometimes inserts his digressions and flashbacks into a moment of the characters' time, stopping their time while, theoretically at least, providing information which furthers the "main story" of the novel. (An aside: just what is the main story?) In Volume I, Uncle Toby's reply to his brother is interrupted: "I think, replied my uncle Toby, taking his pipe from his mouth, and striking the head of it two or three times upon the nail of his left thumb, as he began his sentence,–I think, says he" (xxi, 51). Two pages later, Tristram returns to Toby without any time having passed in Toby's world, "But I forget my uncle Toby, whom all this while we have left knocking the ashes out of his tobacco pipe" (53). In Volume II, time is briefly reversed, and the reader is returned to my father's question, "What can they be doing, brother?" Only then does the reader learn what Toby has to say, and what he has to say, after all this delay, is not an explanation or a theory about the noise but the pedestrian suggestion that they ask a servant (vi, 80).

The reader's time and the characters' time.
Tristram notes that it has taken the reader about ninety minutes to read what happened since uncle Toby rang the bell and Obadiah left for Dr. Slop, "so that no one can say, with reason, that I have not allowed Obadiah time enough, poetically speaking, and considering the emergency too, both to go and come" (II, viii, 83). Here he is dealing with two kinds of time: the literal time of the reader, measurable by the clock, and the reader's sense of how much (fictional) time has elapsed in the lives of the characters; in the fictional time, they have performed actions requiring more than the mere ninety minutes of the reader's real time. Tristram goes onto acknowledge that no real or chronological time may have elapsed: "tho', morally and truly speaking, the man, perhaps, has scarce had time to get on his boots." He then addresses a literal-minded reader, whose objections he sets forth, in order to demolish their irrelevance to fictional time.

The writer's time.
Tristram refers to the time in which he is writing the novel, placing us in the room where he is writing, telling us about the weather as he writes, describing his activities or what he is wearing as he writes. A particular thought which he has just written down came to him "this very rainy day, March 26, 1759, and between the hours of nine and ten in the morning" (I, xx, 53). The year is, of course, the actual time when Sterne was writing this volume. Or, the narrator tells us, "And here am I sitting, this 12th day of August, 1766, in a purple jerkin and yellow pair of slippers, without either wig or cap on, a most tragicomical completion of his prediction, ‘That I should neither think, nor act like any other man's child, upon that very account'" (IX, i, 486). Such intrusions of the narrator's (and Sterne's?) time calls attention to the artificiality of the novel and the fictionality of his characters, who yet are convincingly alive for the reader. They also raise the question of the relationship of the actual writer (not the fictional persona) to his novel.

Time as duration.
My father looks at his watch, announces that two hours and ten minutes have passed, "but to my imagination it seems almost an age" (III, xviii, 149). The distinction is between chronological, measurable time whose units never change (a minute is never more nor less than 60 seconds) and time as experienced by human beings (it seems to pass slowly or to pass quickly, its duration changing according to circumstances). Of course, Walter is not interested in clarifying the issue for uncle Toby, but merely to have his ear so that he can expound his theory of time (introducing thereby the theme of communication or, it would be more accurate to say, the lack of communication). To his astonishment and the reader's amusement, Toby knows the reason, "‘Tis owing, entirely, quoth my uncle Toby, to the succession of our ideas" (149). A further twist to the comedy is Toby's admission that he does not at all understand what he just said; his brother responds, "there is a worth in thy honest ignorance, brother Toby–‘twere almost a pity to exchange it for a knowledge.–But I'll tell thee" (150). Walter is on his hobby horse and so cannot stop; he goes on to expound the theory of duration of time, which in this case is a valid contemporary theory. Toby cries out, "You puzzle me to death" (151). In this passage about time, Sterne presents simultaneously the brothers' lack of communication on the level of language but their loving communication at the level of emotional empathy and response.

Time and writing a novel.
The digressive-progressive technique presents problems to the narrator in telling the story of his life and propounding his opinions (the full title is, after all, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy). In following the associations that cross his mind, providing background, and giving his opinions and his father's opinions, the narrator is accumulating material faster than he can write about it:

          I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got, as you perceive, almost into the middle of the fourth volume–and no farther than to my first day's day–‘tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four more days to write just now, than when I first set out; so that instead of advancing, as a common writer, in my work with what I have been doing at it–on the contrary, I am just thrown so many volumes back–was every day of my life to be as busy as this–And why not?–and the transactions and opinions of it to take up as much description–And for what reason should they be cut short? at this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write–It must follow, an' please your worships, that the more I write, the more I shall have to write–and consequently, the more your worships read, the more your worships will have to read (IV, xiii, 228).
He laments, "I shall never overtake myself." Another issue that this passage raises is what the writer should include in his novel and how the content of the novel may be affected by the passage of time in the novelist's life while writing the novel.

The relationship of writing and time takes a different twist with the Trista-paedia that Walter is writing to provide a guide in raising Tristram; he hopes to overcome the crippling disadvantages of Tristram's unfortunate conception, his flattened nose, and his ill-omened name. As Walter writes, he discovers more and more that has to be said, so that the work gets longer and longer. After three years, he has written only half the Trista-paedia . The consequence is that Tristram himself "was all that time totally neglected and abandoned to my mother; and what was almost as bad, by the very delay, the first part of the work, upon which my father had spent the most of his pains, was rendered entirely useless,–every day a page or two became of no consequence" (V, xvii, 300). Walter, on his hobby horse again, loses sight of his purpose; even worse, instead of contributing to Tristram's education, he is relegating it to a woman whose understanding he holds in contempt. In addition, this is an example of a cause with ridiculous, unexpected consequences.


Day 11 (W, Oct. 9) Sterne, Tristram Shandy
   Books I and II
   A Few General Remarks
Day 12 (W, Oct. 16) Sterne, Tristram Shandy;
  &nbspBook III,
   Book IV, Chapters 10-14, 31
   The Organization of Tristram Shandy
   Major Themes in Tristram Shandy
Day 13 (M, Oct. 21) Sterne, Tristram Shandy
   BookV, Chapters 2- 14, 31
   Book IX, Chapters 18-33
   Time in Tristram Shandy

Revised: October 13, 2004