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

Nothing odd will do long.” – Samuel Johnson on Tristram Shandy

This is an unfortunate quote from the author of the much less oft read The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia which came out the same year as the first volume of this novel. Still, Samuel Johnson is far more well known generally, than Laurence Stern, so perhaps he had his revenge in the end.

Tristram Shandy is odd. It must have seemed particularly odd when the first installment came out in 1759. The novel uses stream-of-consciousness and is very self-referential. It is an early example of a poioumenon. If you are neither as learned nor as curious as I am, here is the definition: “a novel that has a narrative that superficially is about the writing of a book.” If I must explain further, the narrator, Tristram Shandy, promises throughout to tell his story, but ends up telling far more about the events giving rise to his book, his literary theories, and many other topics even farther afield from his promised plot. The digressions are playful and comic. My recommendation is to read the book in small chunks. The book was originally published in nine volumes over the course of ten years, maybe eleven or maybe nine. The details are not important. My point is that too much of a good thing at one sitting is too much. While I do not necessarily recommend extending your reading over a decade, a few months to a year will likely keep the humor from wearing too thin.

I am not steeped in literature from this period and before, but Tristram Shandy seems to me quite modernist (almost post-modernist) for such a bygone era. In fact, the novel had a significant influence on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. It is one of the landmarks of literature and, for that reason alone, is a novel with which it is worth becoming acquainted. But do not think of it as duty, or only a duty. The book is exceedingly fun.

Laurence Sterne, according to his own dedication, was “persauded that every time a man smiles, – but much more so, when he laughs, it adds something to this Fragment of Life.” To that end, Sterne does his best to expand your fragment to a full portion. He succeeds often enough to make himself proud.

”That it is an abominable thing for a man to commend himself,” – and I really think it is so.

And yet, on the other hand, when a thing is executed in a masterly kind of a fashion, which thing is not likely to be found out; – I think it is full as abominable, that a man should lose the honour of it, and go out of the world with the conceit of it rotting in his head.

This is precisely my situation

As the narrator is too modest, I will tell you. The novel is a comic masterpiece.

The book is filled with digressions. In fact, the entire book is a digression. This is not a bad thing. As Tristram explains:

Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; – they are the life, the soul of reading! – take them out of this book, for instance, – you might as well take the book along with them; – one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it.

Tristram’s entertaining digressions touch on all manner of things, from love stories to adventures, from philosophy to politics, from war games to religion. On this last point, Tristram is startlingly irreverent for the time. Of course, he apologizes, in his way, for his more heathen outbursts.

I told the Christian reader – I say Christian – hoping he is one – and if he is not, I am sorry for it – and only beg he will consider the matter with himself, and not lay the blame entirely upon this book.

But really, the book is little threat to your religion, if you have one, so do not worry. It is, though, a threat to your decorum on the train as you will have difficulty stifling your laughter. The book is riotously funny. I will refrain from sharing the excellent quotes on marriage, military matters, courtship, philosophy, and hobby horses on the understanding between us that you will read this book and, so, discover the best bits yourself.

When you crack this one, you will have “the happiness of reading [one of] the oddest books in the universe.”

20 Responses to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne

  1. Sasha says:

    Almost every Literature/Creative Writing professor (and their mother) I’ve had has told me to read this book, because of its “postmodern-ness”–but I’ve never been inclined. I didn’t know before now that it was a poi-pu-poia–“a novel that has a narrative that superficially is about the writing of a book.” ;p [Ole, I learned a new word!]

    Amazing that one novel can be published over ten years. That’s baffling, haha.

  2. Kerry says:

    It would certainly be extraordinary in today’s publishing world to publish a novel in ten installments over a period of ten years. An interesting note: Tristram Shandy may be an unfinished work as Sterne died soon after publishing the installment which was chronologically, but perhaps not intended to be, the last. It is hard to tell from the book itself as it picks up and leaves off narratives (used loosely) almost at random.

    Poioumenon was new for me too.

  3. Sarah says:

    I’m trying to think of books I have read which are old; Defoe, Samuel Richardson and John Bunyan are probably quite dated; but I don’t know precisely how aged they are… I have to admit, this one sounds like more fun.

  4. Kerry says:


    It is a good book to read a bit of, then set aside. It is quite fun and easy to get through if read almost more like a collection of short stories (though it is very unlike a collection of short stories). No pain, plenty of gain.

  5. It is rather embarrassing for someone who studied quite a bit of 18th century literature at university (lots of Johnson!), but somehow I have always felt so intimidated by this book that it has been quietly gathering dust on my shelves for ages now. I did put it on my tbr-list for 2009, but nothing happened 😉
    You do make it sound less intimidating than I always thought it was, so who knows, I might get round to reading it one of these days (or years).

  6. Kerry says:


    I take that as a compliment, thank you. And it is not really intimidating. Think more Airplane! or Monty Python and the Holy Grail than Citizen Cane or Schindler’s List. The book is actually fun to read. And, again, I suggest just reading a chapter or so in between other readings, unless, of course, you find you can’t put it down.

    Thanks, as always, for your delightful comments.

  7. Kerry says:


    By the way, I don’t think I have mentioned, I love your front page picture (the dog looking over the valley). Is that your view (and/or your dog)? If so, I am very jealous.

    Plus, although I cannot read Dutch (or speak it or do anything else with it, unfortunately), you’ve put Stephen Zweig’s Chess on my TBR. It is one of those books always in the back of my mind, but seeing it on your sight with four stars, reminds me I must read it. Thanks.

  8. Actually, neither the dog nor the valley are mine. The valley was in Ecuador and the dog was a very friendly stray who accompanied us on a hike into the mountains. Where I live it’s flat as a pancake and my dearest cat would not tolerate a dog, I am afraid.
    Good to hear that you have put Chess on your TBR. I am sure you will like it.
    And by the way, I am about 50 pages into Coetzee’s Boyhood and am loving it. So thanks for the review. It worked!

  9. Kerry says:


    The picture is beautiful. Nice photography.

    That is excellent about Boyhood, that you tried it and, more so, that you are loving it. I have actually skipped Youth and gone straight to Summertime, but I will circle back quickly. But, if you love Boyhood, I am sure Summertime will be a treat.

    As Tristram Shandy is one long digression, I think these digressive comments are perfectly apropo.

  10. One of my wife’s favourite novels this one, her comments echoed yours as I recall, a massive shaggy dog tale of sorts and huge fun.

    I won’t be able to give it a try too soon, too much on my reading plate, but you do remind me how much she recommended it also and clearly I should bump it a bit up the queue.

  11. Kerry says:


    Your wife’s is a great description. I will be looking forward to your thoughts, once you find the time to get to it. Isn’t it great that there are more excellent books than you can reasonably read in lifetime?

  12. Judy says:

    I have fallen in love with Tristram Shandy, thanks to your review. Now I must get to know him. Looking forward to spending some hours together–months you say? Whatever it takes.

    Thanks for the exciting review.

  13. Kerry says:

    I come by my own tendency to digress honestly, so you probably will enjoy the book if you can find the time. In that sense, it is pretty good as you can squeeze it in when you have time without worrying too much about losing the narrative thread.

  14. Kerry,

    I find the fact there are more excellent books than one can read in a lifetime profoundly cheering, I’d hate to think I was at risk of running out.

    It’s why I don’t worry about the huge gaps in my reading, we all have huge gaps, how could we not? We could live a thousand years, and we’d still have hefty gaps at the end of all that time. With three score and ten or so, the fact is we’re only ever going to scrape the surface.

    Which is kind of a liberating thought. After all, if I feel like reading something lightweight one day, I don’t want to feel guilty because if I had read something serious I could have completed the canon but now I’ve read all the canon except that Roth which I missed because I was reading Ian Rankin instead…

  15. Kerry says:


    I agree completely. I like that: “I could have completed the canon but now I’ve read all the canon except that Roth which I missed…” Humor in service of a great point. It really does take the pressure off, doesn’t it? I know I feel better knowing there are so many great books.

  16. me says:

    thanks a lot

    I posted this good article on my blog.

  17. […] France and Italy by Laurence Sterne Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) followed up his excellent Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman with this slim volume. Unfortunately, its slimness is due primarily to Sterne’s premature […]

  18. “Nor does it much disturb my rest, when I see such great Lords and tall Personages as hereafter follow;—such, for instance, as my Lord A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, and so on, all of a row, mounted upon their several horses,—”

    I appear to be the only person to have noticed, in connection with the above ‘Tristram Shandy’ quote, that Mr Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’ always foundered on getting past Q in the alphabet!

    I have just started a review of Tristram Shandy here:

    • Kerry says:

      Brilliant. I had not made the connection myself, though I found both examples humorous. Woolf’s allusion is all the more interesting when connected this way.

      I read To the Lighthouse first, but I cannot see that the order would make it stick out more one way than the other. In fact, that should have helped, as I quite liked the Ramsay thing. It stuck out to me, so I should have noticed the connection.

      Thank you for taking the time to point it out. You’ve made my evening.

      Your close reading of books I love has, instantly, made me a follower of yours. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: