Tristram Shandy

Here’s a passage from Patricia Meyer Spacks’s discussion of Tristram Shandy in her book Novel Beginnings:

The narrator’s intense involvement with the workings of his own consciousness generates the novel’s unique enchantment. The leaps and sallies of his mind, the alternations of peevishness and jollity, the exuberance of wordplay, the excursions into bawdiness (with attendant rebukes to the reader for seeing it), the liveliness of imagination — such aspects of Tristram’s central subject create much of the intense enjoyment (and perhaps patches of irritation as well) that many readers experience with Tristram Shandy. Much of the enjoyment, but not quite all; some comes from the preposterous behavior of characters besides Tristram, as seen through his eyes. At the heart of the encounter with Sterne’s novel, though, lies the exploration of mind and sensibility, not by means of systematic introspection but by a precursor of stream of consciousness writing.

The passage makes me want to read Tristram Shandy again, although I’ve read it at least twice, maybe three times already. And I have to say, I never felt any “patches of irritation” that Spacks mentions. It was all pure pleasure. To give you a small taste of what it’s like, here’s the first chapter in its entirety, where Tristram complains about the circumstances of his conception and the scattering of the “animal spirits” that then took place, which, Tristram believes, is the cause of all his troubles in life:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were then doing; — that not only the production of a rational Being was concern’d in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; — and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: — Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, — I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me. — Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable a thing as many of you may think it; — you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, and how they are transfused from father to son &c. &c. — and a great deal to that purpose: — Well, you may take my word, that nine parts in ten of a man’s sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracts and trains you put them into, so that when they are once set a-going, whether right or wrong, ’tis not a halfpenny matter, — away they go cluttering like hey-go-mad; and by treading the same steps over and over again, they presently make a road of it, as plain and as smooth as a garden-walk, which, when they are once used to, the Devil himself sometimes shall not be able to drive them out of it.

Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? —– Good G–! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question?

Pray, what was your father saying? — Nothing.


Filed under Books, Fiction, Nonfiction

9 responses to “Tristram Shandy

  1. Oh this is wonderful! I must read this book! I love the “believe me, good folks” address to the reader. Why have I let this sit on my shelf unread for so long?


  2. It’s so funny that you write about Tristram Shandy. I had just decided to include it on my list of reading goals for 2008. It’s been sitting on my bedside table for a year now so it’s probably time to actually read it.

    Did you see the film adaptation- last year, I think? I thought it was excellent.


  3. verbivore

    This is wonderful – I have never read Tristam Shandy but you give an terrific introduction here. Perhaps in 2008….along with the other 5 million books I’d like to read 🙂


  4. Tristram Shandy is my absolute favourite book; as you say, it was pure pleasure to read – the only let down was that it ended.


  5. I am going to have to read that. My former boss urged me again and again to read Tristram Shandy. Now that he is not my boss anymore, I can pick up the book freely.


  6. Stefanie — do read it! You’ll love it, I’m sure. Sterne does a lot of interesting things with speaking to the reader.

    Jess — yes, I did see it, and I thought it was great too — very faithful to the spirit of the book. I look forward to your thoughts on the book.

    Verbivore — I’m convinced you will like it — when you get the time of course 🙂

    Eloise — there’s always Sentimental Journey if you want more! Have you read that one? I like it a lot.

    Mandarine — I wouldn’t want to read something because my boss told me to either, but now you can without any feeling of coercion.


  7. TS does sound like fun. I like a book that comes with the recommendation of “I never felt any patches of irritation”. It reminds me of David Copperfield who starts his “memoir” from the very beginnings of his birth as well.


  8. Danielle — part of the fun of TS is the way the narrator TRIES to tell his life story but finds he can’t. He keeps backing up and backing up in order to try to find the real beginning (but there never is a real beginning), and he realizes that the time it takes to tell his story truthfully is longer than the time he has left to live! It’s fun stuff.


  9. bookchronicle

    “It was all pure pleasure. ”



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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s