The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen is more than just a novel, so much so that classifying it as a novel seems dubious, considering the reasons behind why it was written the way it was written. At first glance, it seems strange and jagged, but venturing further into the book reveals it to be unreadable at best.
When Laurence Sterne wrote this monstrous ‘anti-novel’, the novel as a genre was at its inception, in a nascent form. Realist writers like Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson were codifying the guidelines for this literary category. Their writings attempted to provide a portrayal of reality as accurately as possible, but the irony lies in the aim of the movement itself. Their characters were one-dimensional. One event followed another, neatly compartmentalized into chapters with the narrative unfolding with sequential linearity. This was far from the reality they had attempted to portray, which obviously does not unfold in an orderly fashion and hence, Realism as a project was a failed one.
Tristram Shandy is idiosyncratic to say the least. There is no linearity in time or structure. The protagonist Tristram claims to start his autobiography at “ab ovo”, from the very beginning at his conception, but the reader soon realizes that this claim is abandoned as soon as the second chapter itself. Six volumes of the book pass before Tristram’s birth is mentioned again. As a narrator and an author, Tristram has no control over his narrative. Most of his stories are renditions of second hand accounts he has collected from his uncle, and very little of the content speaks of Tristram’s creativity as a writer. His narrative spins out of his authorship and he grapples to hold on to it, and throughout the narrative the readers are constantly reminded of the presence of the narrator and author, which is a stark deviation from the Realist trope of a meta-narrator being invisible and at the same time, responsible for his story. Tristram is not only irresponsible but also unreliable as he declares clearly that he can exercise no control over his pen.
The novel can be characterized completely and wholly by its digressive tendencies. The readers are constantly made privy to information about some thing or the other, before the narrator drops the topic while half way through it and starts to talk about something else. This is frustrating to say the least. The progress of the novel depends on digressions and we get the sense that there is no progression in the novel without digression. It is also worth questioning that since the novel does not even have a stable center to begin with, what is the narrator digressing from? A few chapters into the novel and the readers are made to feel like victims of a really cruel joke.
The novel was written and assembled over a period of eight years, and the sections were not written in order. Perhaps the reason Sterne could experiment so boldly and vastly with the novel form was because it was still in its formative stage. The novel has always been the most versatile and adaptable form of writing, what Terry Eagleton would call an “anti-genre”. The starkest irony of the convolutions of Tristram Shandy is that it comes across as much more realistic than the Realist novels it aims to dissect and critique, because it becomes the closest portrayal of reality that a writer can achieve- chaotic, tortuous, confusing and arbitrary. Realism as a movement defeated its own purpose, because the attempt to portray the larger-than-life all-encompassing reality is a very ambitious and unachievable one, and the compacting of the fragments of reality takes it far away from its founding essence.
For prospective readers who might want to venture into this literary monstrosity, it would be helpful to read the narrative with a light mind, and keep the purpose and background of the novel in mind. The overall effect that Tristram Shandy creates is not one of a novel that tells a story, but of a novel that makes a statement. But what is left behind with the reader, after all the complications and cruelties of the narrative is a deep appreciation for the genius of Laurence Sterne. To have created something so unconventional and idiosyncratic is the hallmark of a genius, and unlike the readability of the novel, the brilliance of Laurence Sterne is not up for debate.