Summer Read: Tristram Shandy

Each summer we try to do a special writing project or read a work that we consider to be too long or ambitious to tackle in a single month. This summer we are going to read a book selected by David Gilmour:

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
by Laurence Sterne.

It was originally published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1759, and seven others following over the next seven years.


About Ron Boothe

I am a retired professor of psychology living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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4 Responses to Summer Read: Tristram Shandy

  1. Ron Boothe says:

    One aspect of Tristram Shandy that I particularly enjoyed was the very moving and sentimental tribute Tristram pays to his Uncle Toby. I did not anticipate this emotional reaction. There is so much astounding technical virtuosity in the writing to focus on that it took me a while to become fully cognizant of the fact that underlying all of the digressions, double entendres, puns, and other forms of risque humor, etc., is a sentimental story of events that take place in the lives of Tristram’s family. Furthermore, the characters are such an eccentric lot that it took me a few hundred pages to begin to relate to them emotionally. I initially took them to be cartoonish buffoons along the lines of the characters in Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. However, by the end of the book, I felt a strong affection and empathy for the family, and particularly for Uncle Toby.

    Indulge me in a brief (“Shandyan”?) personal digression. Back before I retired, I would sometimes experience technical difficulties with computer equipment I needed for my work. I would go visit a consultant, who I will call Bruce, at the computer help desk in the IT department. Bruce was one of the smartest people I ever met. I would describe technical problems that none of my colleagues had a clue about how to fix, and Bruce would quickly, and seemingly effortlessly, diagnose the problem and tell me how to fix it. And Bruce spoke with such authority and had such a commanding presence from behind his desk that I sometimes felt almost in awe of him, as a pupil to his master. One day I was walking down the street in a location downtown far away from my workplace. I saw this shy, timid looking person shuffling down the street, the opposite of the stereotype of someone commanding respect, more like someone I would typically feel sorry for. As the person got closer I saw it was Bruce. So momentarily I saw him diplopically, the way he probably appeared to most who observed him walking down the street and, simultaneously, the way I saw him when he was sitting behind his desk at work.

    This example serves as an analogy to how I viewed Uncle Toby in the final chapters of the book. From the perspective of someone who did not know Toby personally, his wanderings around the yard of the Widow Wadman, trying to get up the courage to propose, would most likely be viewed as comic, but also somewhat pathetic and subject to ridicule. But to me, after getting to know Toby for 500 pages of immersion in the book, he was an admirable figure, deserving of both my respect and warm regard. I sat reading the last chapters sitting on the edge of my seat, hoping against all hope that all was going to turn out well for him and that he and the Widow Wadman would be able to live a long, happy, fulfilling life.

    And I felt this way because the narrator Tristram obviously felt the same way about his Uncle Tobey. All of the humorous events Toby engaged in were described in a tone in which the narrator invites us to laugh with, not at, Toby, and the book as a whole stands as a beautiful tribute by a nephew to his uncle.

    Here is a sample passage that I found particularly moving:

    …my heart stops me to pay to thee, my dear uncle Toby, once for all, the tribute I owe thy goodness;—here let me thrust my chair aside, and kneel down upon the ground, whilst I am pouring forth the warmest sentiments of love for thee, and veneration for the excellency of thy character, that ever virtue and nature kindled in a nephew’s bosom.—Peace and comfort rest for evermore upon thy head!—Thou enviedst no man’s comforts,—insultedst no man’s opinions.—Thou blackenedst no man’s character,—devouredst no man’s bread: gently, with faithful Trim behind thee, didst thou amble round the little circle of thy pleasures, jostling no creature in thy way:—for each one’s service thou hadst a tear,—for each man’s need, thou hadst a shilling. Whilst I am worth one, to pay a weeder,—thy path from thy door to thy bowling green shall never be grown up.—Whilst there is a rood and a half of land in the Shandy family, thy fortifications, my dear uncle Toby, shall never be demolish’d.

    [page 178 in the Oxford World Classics Paperback Revised Edition]

    Oh, to be remembered that way by a nephew (or a niece)!

  2. Ron Boothe says:

    In a previous post I described in some detail how “self-reference” can lead to what Douglas Hofstadter in his book, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), called “strange-loops.” A formal (mathematical) proof demonstrating the implications of “self-reference” for epistemology did not come until 1931 when Gödel published his incompleteness theorem. However, some writers of fiction had discovered how to create “strange-loops” much earlier. My previous post illustrated how Melville had created several of these in his novel Mobey Dick, published in 1851.

    I was surprised while reading The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman to discover that Sterne had also created sophisticated examples of strange loops a century earlier than Moby Dick. He accomplished this mostly by creative use of references to passages of time. While we are reading a passage describing events in the life of Tristam’s family that are happening at a particular time (time frame 1), the narrator will interject with a self-referencing statement about the time period in his own lifetime during which he wrote that passage (time frame 2), or about how long it has taken him to write this passage relative to some other passage elsewhere in the book (time frame 3), or about how much time has elapsed (or will elapse) for us readers from when we read this passage compared to when we have read (or will read) some other passage in the book (time frame 4). And behind all of this is the historical time frame of when Sterne wrote and published his book (time frame 5) about a fictional narrator named Tristram Shandy who not only tells us the story about his family, but also frequently interjects to tell us about a book that he supposedly wrote that we are now reading. Multiple levels of digression that jump within and between these various time frames create the “strange-loops”.

    I will try to illustrate this by detailing one example.

    In Chapter XIX of Volume 1, the narrator, Tristram, tells us that his father disliked the name “Tristram”. Several examples that happened at various times in his father’s life are described to illustrate this fact.

    “…I well remember, when he went up along with me to enter my name at Jesus College in ****”. (p. 45 — all page references are from the Oxford World’s Classics Paperback Revised Edition, 2009)

    The astericks here serve as a disguised self-reference to the author because Sterne himself attended Jesus College starting in 1733.

    A few pages later Tristram gives us another example, this time from an earlier period, “in the year sixteen, which was two years before I was born…” (p. 47)

    In the next paragraph,Tristram interjects, “When this story is compared with the title page,–Will not the gentle reader pity my father from his soul?”

    The “gentle reader” right now happens to be me so the time period when this story is being compared to the title page of the book I am reading would seem to be the year 2016, but of course the book I am reading that has the name “Tristram Shandy” written on the title page is a book that was written in the 1700s by Sterne, not by Tristram. So, it is already getting a little bit complicated to figure out, for example, what book “the title page” belongs to.

    Then Tristram informs us that he would tell us more about this topic in this chapter we are currently reading “if it was not necessary I should be born before I was christened.” In other words, in the chronology of events that happen in Tristram’s life, the book has not yet described his birth, even though in this very chapter we have heard about events that happened before he was born as well as many years later when he went off to college. So in the time frame of us, the readers of this chapter, we are going to have to wait until a later chapter to learn about Tristram’s christening — in the meantime we are presumably going to be reading chapters that will first describe his birth.

    Next, in reading time, we readers proceed to the start of the following chapter, XX. The opening sentence references a reader of this chapter, referred to as “Madam”. The narrator admonishes “Madam” that she has not been paying close enough attention while reading the previous chapter, and has misinterpreted a main point. Madam is told, “the very fault I lay at your charge; and as a punishment for it, I do insist upon it, that you immediately turn back, that is as soon as you get to the next full stop, and read the whole chapter over again.” (p. 48). Meanwhile, I keep reading Chapter XX. I note on my watch that it is 8:39 pm, July 20, 2016, and I guess Madam is meanwhile re-reading Chapter XIX. A couple minutes later after I have finished reading the next paragraph, I note that my watch now registers 8:41 pm, July 20, 2016 as “–But here comes my fair lady. Have you read over again the chapter, Madam, as I desired you?” (p. 48)

    If this does not seem strange to you, try diagramming the existence of these events on a timeline. When you have accomplished this to your satisfaction, post it here. I wish you lots of luck!

  3. vanperdue says:

    From The New York Times:

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