Reading Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne

Before Seinfeld, 230 years before in fact, Lawrence Sterne wrote a book about nothing. The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy is no such thing as the title indicates. It’s not about his life, nor his opinions; it’s not really about anything. Conceivably, if you wanted to stretch a point, it could have been titled Curious Events and Anecdotes of the Shandy family, 1695-1723. But to suggest that the book is plot-driven or primarily a narrative would be deceiving.

It’s about how hard life is; how difficult it is to accomplish anything, to get anywhere, whether by Walter’s precision,  by Uncle Toby’s pre-occupation, or by Tristram’s own autobiographical efforts.

To the 21st Century reader, the language itself poses the first, preliminary challenge. 18th Century English is not so terribly different as to be incomprehensible, but it is more than “quaint.” Here are a few examples of words that might give modern readers a little trouble (page numbers from Penguin edition):

37. close (reasoning) – careful, detailed

37. obliquity – deviance

40. not but – although

40. every man will speak of the fair as his own market has gone in it – every man will speak of the market as his own buying/selling has been profitable or not

42. withal – nonetheless

42. let the case – even if the case

43. dainty (amendment) – fussy, finicky; overdone

43. neat (formula) – slick, facile

43. whim-wham – whim, fanciful reduplication

43. (I) own – admit

43. accordingly as the fly stings – as the cookie crumbles

72. cheapening – haggling, bargaining

73. sensible – aware

92. an hypothesis – Sterne frequently uses “an” before a voiced “h,” as in “an hypothesis,” on page 99 “an HOBBY-HORSE,” and in many other instances.

114 – an’ (please) – if it, with “it” contracted away. This usage, “an” when we would use “if,” is frequent. See page 136 and many other instances.

124. fardel – load, burden, pack

125. beluted – muddled

157. prebendary – senior cleric, originally one supported by revenues from an estate or a parish

174. jerkin – men’s close-fitting, sleeveless jacket of the Elizabethan period, out of fashion by 1650, already anachronistic in mid 18th century

185. to give over (whistling) – to give up, to stop, to cease

193. cant – hypocritical and sanctimonious talk

195. julap – julep, a sweet drink to help swallow medicine

195. fender – iron railing around a fireplace

206. whoreson – unpleasant, disliked

206. this head – this subject

207. exordium – preface, introduction

216. opificer – one who makes or creates something (e.g. a poet, writer, or artist)

226. on Michaelmas and Lady-Day – 29 September and 25 March, two of the traditional English quarter-days, on which rents were due.  See

228. renitency – resistance, opposition

251. stiver – a trivial amount; a small Dutch coin (20 to the guilder), worth a little more than an English penny

These are just a sample of unfamiliar 18th words and usages found in Tristram Shandy.


Sterne, or at least Tristram as narrator, is explicit about his method of writing. His digressions are obvious to the reader, as is the fact that he’s not getting anywhere with his alleged autobiography. But Tristram then, tells us so, more than once.

I know there are readers … who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of every thing which concerns you. It is in pure compliance with this humour of theirs … that I have been so very particular already. … [Thus] I have begun the history of myself in the way I have done; and that I am able to go on, tracing every thing in it, as Horace says, ab Ovo. (p. 38)

Throughout, Tristram (as narrator) breaks the fourth wall and frequently speaks directly to “you,” the reader.

In the beginning of the last chapter, I informed you exactly when I was born; but I did not inform you how. No, that particular was reserved entirely for a chapter by itself;—besides, Sir, as you and I are in a manner perfect strangers to each other, it would not have been proper to have let you into too many circumstances relating to myself all at once.  —You must have a little patience. I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also. … Therefore, my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out—bear with me, —and let me go on, and tell my story my own way: —Or, if I should seem now and then to trifle upon the road, —or should sometimes put on a fool’s cap …,—don’t fly off,—but rather courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside … (p. 41)

If you are tempted to say, “Aw, c’mon, enough with these digressions. Get to the point already,” Tristram has an answer:

[I] rebuke a vicious taste, which has crept into thousands [of readers], —of reading straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them.

The mind should be accustomed to make wise reflections, and draw curious conclusions as it goes along; the habitude of which made Pliny the younger affirm, ‘That he never read a book so bad, but he drew some profit from it.’ The stories of Greece and Rome, run over without this turn and application,—do less service than [if] read with it. (p. 83)

He repeats and expands on this view many times. Page 95, “digressive and progressive at the same time.” On page 127, “Writing is conversation.” On page 286, he notes that he is in the middle of the fourth volume and he has just covered the first day of his life. On page 444, “going backwards and forwards.”

Tristram Shandy might or might not be to everyone’s taste, but if you tackle it, go in with open eyes. Not much is going to happen. Go along for the ride. That’s all there is, after all.


While not much happens in the book, some events do take place, and within an actual historical setting. Since Tristram himself isn’t even born until halfway through, it should be no surprise that his father  (Walter Shandy), his Uncle Toby, Toby’s servant Corporal Trim, his mother Elizabeth, the parson Mr. Yorick and others take up more of the book than Tristram himself.

For the pedants like me, who like to nail blobs of jelly like Tristram Shandy to a fixed wall of time, …

Two European wars, pitting the English, the Dutch, and their allies against the French,  provide the context for Sterne’s novel. First, the Nine Years War (aka War of the Grand Alliance, King William’s War), from 1688-97, was fought mainly around the borders of France (the Low Countries, Savoy, Catalonia), notably the Siege of Namur in the summer of 1695. This is where Uncle Toby was injured and sparked him to build miniature fortifications in the garden. Second, the War of Spanish Succession (aka Queen Anne’s War) from 1703-1713. Uncle Toby and Cpl. Trim followed the events of this war with great interest, and Toby was quite disappointed when the Peace of Utrecht brought it to an end.

July 2 – Sept. 1, 1695 – Siege of Namur

1696 –  1700 – Uncle Toby confined for four years at his brother’s house (in London?), after his wound at the siege of Namur; page 100. He began his obsession with studying fortifications.

1696 – Walter Shandy beginning his business in London; page 100

August, 1699 – Uncle Toby found it necessary to understand projectiles; page 110.

1699 – Toby and Trim left Walter’s house to lay siege to cities, i.e. in the model in the garden of Shandy Hall, page 403

1706 – Death of La Fever (a minor character); page 403

April, 1713 – Peace of Utrecht. This put an end to Toby and Trim’s war-modeling. See pages 440, 445, etc.

1713 – Walter came into the country, i.e. from London to Shandy Hall; page 403.

1714 – Uncle Toby’s affair with Widow Wadman, “when the trumpet of war fell out of his hands and he took up the lute.” Page 447

approx. 1715 – Walter and Elizabeth’s marriage contract. Could have been any time between 1713 (when Walter moved to the country) and Sept. 1717 (when Elizabeth had her false alarm). For the marriage contract (“settlement), see pages 66ff.

1717 – Young La Fever joined the Imperial army. Siege of Belgrade. Page 417.

September, 1717 – Tristram’s mother, Elizabeth Shandy, nee Mollineaux, brought Walter to London, falsely believing she was pregnant. p.69

March, 1718 – Tristram conceived; page 38.

Nov. 5, 1718 – Tristram born; page 40.

1721 – Walter determines to hire a “governor” (tutor) for Tristram, then age 3. See page 401.  Toby recommends young La Fever; see page 417 for dates.

1723 – Tristram accidentally circumcised; page 369

1741 – Tristram travelled through Denmark with Mr. Noddy’s eldest son; page 54. This could also be the approximate time of his travels through France, described (but not dated) in Book VII, pages 457 – 513.

1759-1766 – Tristram writes the book; dates mentioned in several places.