The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (or, more briefly, Tristram Shandy) is a novel by Laurence Sterne. It was published in nine volumes, the first two appearing in 1760, and seven others following over the next ten years. It was not always highly thought of by other writers, but its bawdy humour was popular with London society.
Sterne's text is filled with allusions and references to the leading thinkers and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Pope, Locke, and Swift were all major influences on Sterne and Tristram Shandy. It's easy to see that the satires of Pope and Swift formed much of the humor of Tristram Shandy, but Swift's sermons and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding contributed ideas and frameworks that Sterne explored throughout his novel. Sterne's engagement with the science and philosophy of his day was extensive, however, and the sections on obstetrics and fortifications, for instance, indicate that he had a grasp of the main issues then current in those fields.
There are two influences on Tristram Shandy that overshadow all others: Rabelais and Cervantes. Sterne had written an earlier piece called A Rabelaisian Fragment, which indicates his familiarity with the work of the French monk. But the earlier work is not needed to see the influence of Rabelais on Tristram Shandy, which is evident in multiple allusions, as well as in the overall tone of bawdy humor centered on the body. The first scene in Tristram Shandy, where Tristram's mother interrupts his father during the sex that leads to Tristram's conception, testifies to Sterne's debt to Rabelais. The shade of Cervantes is similarly present throughout Sterne's novel. The frequent references to Rosinante, the character of Uncle Toby (who resembles Don Quixote in many ways) and Sterne's own description of his characters' 'Cervantic humour', along with the genre defying structure of Tristram Shandy, which owes much to the second part of Cervantes novel, all demonstrate the influence of Cervantes.
Today, it is seen as a forerunner of later stream of consciousness writing.
The novel, as it stands, is seen by some as an elaborate and ingeniously-executed pun. Given that it took a decade and hundreds of pages of text to complete, it is likely that the famous pun that concludes the novel is not the sole reason that Sterne penned the work.
The Skull and Bones secret society is rumoured (http://www.nyobserver.com/pages/story.asp?ID=4136) to use characters from Tristram Shandy in its rituals.
- HTML text of Tristram Shandy (http://www.gifu-u.ac.jp/~masaru/TS/contents.html#start)
- Free eBook of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1079) at Project Gutenberg
- Hypertext Tristram Shandy Web Project (http://www.tristramshandyweb.it/home.htm)