Laurence Sterne The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy
I am sure, that every one of you knows enough about the life itself, but maybe only few of you know something about the life of Tristram Shandy. I am sure, that every one of you knows enough about opinions in general, about your own opinions or opinions of others, but only few of you know something about opinions of Tristram Shandy. I am not an exception; I know things about life and opinions too but probably every one of you now suppose, that I know enough about the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy and that I will tell you something about these verities.
Well.. it will not be so simple and easy, and here is why: physically, Tristram himself appears in the story only for a few times. One of the simple definitions of the word “LIFE” says, that it is the period between the birth and death (it can be said, that it is also the period including both, the birth and death, and, according to some beliefs, also the time before the birth itself). Seeing, that the book in its very beginning says about the conception of Tristram, it is evident, that he will be born and die in some time (what is, of course, not mentioned, because it is Tristram, who is the author of this book, though only fictional). Then, the definition of the word “LIFE” is fulfilled and it is only up to the reader to look forward to the development of the life of Tristram. However, it was not Laurence Sterne, if the reader’s enthusiasm would not be blown away by a simple move of hand, by circa 250 pages, when he finally faces the birth of Tristram Shandy. From then, it is for the first time when he appears physically, as a person integrated into the plot, but only for a moment and from this point, he appears only in brief mentions – as a five years old boy during an incident in the house and than, probably as an adult travelling over the France, where he is the direct source of information about his person. However, let us try to focus on Tristram as a fictional writer and the author of this book at the same time and as a storyteller, who enters the story very frequently. In this case, he is a rich source of information not only about protagonists but also indirectly about himself.
With irony, which is the spirit of this book, he uncovers his relation to the world and people, from politics, through religion and philosophy to his friendship with ass.
However, his opinions and life events, it means those of Tristram Shandy, are not absolutely dominant; opinions and the life of his father Valter Shandy have the same value (importance) and maybe it would not be so unfair to think
about renaming the title of the book to: The Opinions And Life Of Tristram Shandy (according to the quantitative appearance in the book), or even, to copy the reality of the book, to: The Life And Opinions Of The Shandies. However, if the story is not absolutely only about the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, what is then about?
The main story is not very complex and therefore difficult to understand – it develops and is built on life episodes and strange but interesting relation between two brothers, thinking in absolutely different ways. One of them is Uncle Toby, a bit uneducated and naive but pleasant man, and the other is Tristram’s father, Valter Shandy, a sympathetic intellectual thinking whenever and wherever. Every one of them has his own hobby: for Uncle Toby, it is everything what is connected with wars, battles and arms and for Valter Shandy, it is thinking, analysing and doing philosophy. There are also others who enter the story, from all we can mention for example Toby’s servant Trim, Valter’s servant Obadiah or reserved Dr. Slop. What makes this book complex and exceptional (what is different from all the books written until then) is the way by which author approached to the writing of this novel and which influenced other important writers, such as James Joyce, Marcel Proust or even, from the contemporary writers, Milan Kundera.
He put the telling of the story into the hands of a storyteller who finds himself in a position of a person whose next steps are barely predictable. He is the one who manipulates and arranges the whole story. The story is not therefore written in a chronological order but the episodes are mixed one with another. The work is not complicated only in the horizontal line but also in the vertical line where the plot is interrupted and slowed down by numerous digressions and author’s comments.
Once the book is read, it is evident that the author is a very original person. Always trying to find another way how to enrich his work and to surprise and attract the reader, he shows us ways how to do it: it is the presence of, for example, strange chapters, concretely missing ones, mixed ones or even chapters with their numbers but without any text in it, unfinished stories or sentences, “star” sentences, writing about how and why is he writing (it means writing about writing) and so on.
*** p.64 ***
But let us get back into the story, concretely to one of its dominants which is the father of Tristram Shandy, Valter Shandy, developing on the background of the main story of this work, beginning with the conception of his son until his child age.
As I have already said, Valter was a man thinking, considering, always looking for the truth. He was a man who read hundreds of books not only philosophical under of which influence he created many new and original theories, which were of an immense importance to him. However, it was a pity that there was not a single person next to him who could support any of his theories, which resulted in the feeling of irritation and estrangement and in inability to communicate with others. One of his beliefs was about how the child must be born. He was sure that it is extremely important to do it by the Caesarean. However, Tristram is born in a natural way.
*** p.124-125 ***
Another belief was that it is important to have a visible nose because as he says the nose is a guaranty of success, wealth and of forming one’s personality. However, Tristram’s nose is damaged while being pull out of mother’s body by a special instrument of Dr. Slop.
He also believes that the first name for a child must be chosen very carefully because it influences his personality.
*** p.51-52 ***
And what was the name chosen for Tristram?
*** p.225-226 ***
We now about father’s aversion to the name Tristram but as we know, the book hold this name in its title, so it is clear, that something went wrong.
*** p.231-232 ***
Speaking about all the disasters mentioned, which happen to Tristram, resulting in father’s suffering, an evident paradox may be visible. It is clear that Valter is an immense pedant; he approaches and prepares for the birth of his son in a very responsible way, even more responsibly as the mother herself:
1) he chooses the best specialist available, Dr. Slop;
2) he gathers information about possible danger connected to the act of giving birth;
3) he searches for the best alternative of the name for his son.
It all means that the arrival of his son is prepared in all details and he believes that everything will go perfectly. However, everything that seems to be of a great importance to Valter is destroyed somehow in a few hours. Months of planning and awaiting are broken in a moment, and father deeply touched and disappointed starts to be apathetic and he is trying to find the reason of this misfortune. Is it a conspiracy of heavens? is it a chance? is it a curse? (Or is it a concrete ancient curse held by Valter and read by Dr.
Slop while waiting for the birth?) We will never find out...
*** p.147 ***
Valter believes that Tristram is harmed from 3/4 (because of his birth, nose and name) but believes that he can save at least 1/4 of his personality by writing a book called Tristramopedia. The book contains advises and information about how to educate and elevate Tristram.
*** p.317 ***
While reading the book , we identify the person of Tristram Shandy and, step by step, we run away with the idea that his birth was not as disastrous as his father thought. We find Tristram a bit strange but very intelligent, with great skills in writing and therefore not touched by the fact that – according to his father - he was born “wrongly”, has not a perfect nose and has an inconvenient name. I am sure that his father finds Tristram a very great person but how is he dealing with the fact that in spite of his theories, intellectually, Tristram is not harmed? There are three possibilities:
1) father’s theories fall down;
2) he supposes that his son is an exception to the rule;
3) he does not think anything.
(Uvedené strany pre ilustráciu práce citátmi sú aktuálne pre knihu vydanú vydavateľstvom Odeon, Praha 1971 – druhé, opravené vydanie.).