L. Sterne’s revolutionary Novel

L. Sterne’s revolutionary Novel. A precedent of postmodern literature

This course focusses on L.Sterne’s experiments with the novelistic form. In his main work,

Tristram Shandy, the main interaction seems to be between the narrator and the readers, rather

than among the characters in the book, while the disruption of chronological time, plot and of

the narrative conventions make it an interesting early commentary on 656b13g the strategies of writing.

It has become a significant precedent for later 20th century writers and literary critics


By the time Sterne (1713-1768) started writing, the psychological elements began to be

perceived as more important both in art and in philosophy. The individuality of the writers

impressed itself more and more unreservedly upon the development of this aspect which, in the

days of Defoe and even Richardson, had been dealt with primarily from outside. Sterne’s work

will bear the mark of this new tendency in British thought and aesthetics.


Tristram Shandy is an unusual creation that mocks all the conventions of the new genre

of the novel. Its importance for contemporary literary criticism lies in the fact that it is a

precursor of a very modern phenomenon, the anti-novel with an anti-hero, with ‘failure’ as one

of its major themes. This is due to its original structure that does not respect the conventions of

story-telling, as well as to the special relationship between author and reader that it proposes.

By manipulating the idea of readership as he pleases, Sterne shows us that a book is first and

foremost an object directed to an audience, and at the same time, Tristram Shandy is also a

reminder that a novel is a material object, not just a transparent story. It is no accident, then,

that Sterne’s creation should have exerted a profound influence on the fiction of James Joyce,

because both Sterne and Joyce liked to use the possibilities of prose fiction and mould it into

something very different from the ordinary novel. We can therefore say that by using caricature,

digressions, by employing sometimes absurd language to describe the most ordinary things,

tricks, and by his rich distribution of strange, eccentric characters, Laurence Sterne’s play with

conventions announces modernist strategies and explains why Tristram Shandy enjoys critical

attention even today.

This nine-volume-comic meta-novel remains one of the most interesting reflections on

the nature of the novel. Tristram Shandy is a metanovel because ultimately it is an extended

meditation on story-telling, having as central premise the idea that what the story is about is of

secondary importance to how it is told. As a result, digression is central to the author’s narrative

logic and it is the central narrative strategy of the book, thus giving it an unusual structure. The

so-called narrative intrusions and comments actually form a linear narrative whose subject is

the composing of a narrative. The text intends to be an autobiography of Tristram, but instead

ends up to be a long digression that never manages to tell the story it sets out to tell. The birth

of the hero, which the author sets about to discuss on the first page, does not finally occur until

volume four, and instead the novel largely deals with events and characters from before the

hero’s birth. Tristram’s biography was never finished, as the story of Tristram’s life is not told

by the end of the ninth volume.

In their own ways, the previous authors, from Defoe to Fielding or Richardson, had all

followed the realist trend. Sterne however rejects the temptation of mimesis (imitation of

reality), and in Tristram Shandy he sets out to undermine all the subgenres that had become

established as part of the novelistic tradition. This new trend is visible from the title; The Life


and Opinions: it was not merely a story of the life of Tristram Shandy, but of the extraneous

elements that constituted his ‘opinions.’ One interesting characteristic of Tristram Shandy is

its use of heterogeneous materials, which force the reader to become involved in the act of

reading and ‘re-writing’ of the text in fashions the usual prose of Sterne’s contemporaries do

not. For instance, a black page is supposed to signify the mourning caused by the death of

Yorick, blank pages appear to represent pages torn out while an empty page is offered to the

reader who is asked to write his own description of Widow Wadman’s beauty, since Sterne

acknowledges the subjectivity of ideal beauty, and wants each of his readers to use their own

ideal of such beauty. Moreover, apparently misplaced chapters suddenly appear out of

sequence, thus maintaining constant the connection between the author and his reader and

drawing attention on the fact that the text is not transparent, but opaque and needing

interpretation. As a result of this original technique, Sterne’s book is particularly useful for a

clear understanding of such narratological concepts as the distinction between story and plot,

the narrative time, the chronological time, or the speed of the narrative. Story is a

chronologically-ordered representation of all the primary and essential information concerning

characters, events and settings. It is an abstract version of events (the historical truth, so to

speak), but it can be structured into the matter of the novel, namely into the plot. One can say

that the story is the rough material awaiting the organizing hand of the writer that will transform

it into plot. As distinct from the story, that respects the main chronological assumptions of a

narrative, the plot is subject to the transformations that the author chooses to make to the

structure, sequence of description of the events. Thus the events can be arranged in a sequence

which can differ from the strict chronological sequence; the amount of time which is allotted in

the novel (the plot) to the various elements of the story is determined with respect to the amount

of time which these elements take in the story; when presenting the events, a choice is made

from among the multiple points of view from which they can be narrated. As far as the

relationship between text and time in the plot is concerned, we can identify three major aspects

of temporal manipulation in the movements from story to plot: the order, which represents is

the relation between the assumed sequence of events in the story and their actual order of

presentation in the novel; the duration, which is the relation between the extent of time that

events are supposed to have actually taken up; and the frequency, which refers to the relation


between the number of times an event happened in the story, and the number of times it is

narrated in the plot.

From this narratological perspective it is easy to see that Sterne uses many techniques that

contradict the apparent naturalness of its conversational tone and expose the distinction between

the story he is trying to tell (the life of Tristram Shandy) and the plot he constructs (the ninevolume

digression that hardly tells us ‘what happened’ to Tristram). In his construction of the

plot, Sterne manipulates time, playing with order, duration and frequency (a surprising timescheme).

From Locke, Sterne learned that the true life is lived in the mind, and each mind has

its own private sense of time, so that he understands time not as an objective, external element,

but rather as a private, subjective element. The writer is able to manipulate it, twisting the story

into plot, inserting digressions, moving ahead of the story, anticipating events that are going to

happen, and thus drawing the reader’s attention to the text, which refuses to be transparent, in

the realist fashion. As pointed out earlier, Sterne’s attention to subjectivism, psychological time,

and the perpetual present make him the ancestor of the thought of Henri Bergson, Andre Gide,

Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and of course James Joyce. Thus, Laurence Sterne remains a

clear innovator and an original precursor of the modern novel, in his attempt to reproduce the

flow of time in unusual patterns of narrative, memory, and thought, as well as in his emphasis

on the constructedness of the plot, on the relationship between author and reader, and on the

direct involvement of the reader in the process of imaginatively constructing the text.


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