Laurence Sterne - World Literature

World Literature

Laurence Sterne


BORN: 1713, Clonmel, Ireland

DIED: 1768, London, England

NATIONALITY: Irish, British

GENRE: Fiction


The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767)

A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768)



Laurence Sterne. Sterne, Laurence, painting. The Library of Congress.



Laurence Sterne’s enduring reputation as an author rests upon two works, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-1767) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), both of which were written and published during the last nine years of his life. During that time he was the recipient of excessive praise and the target of scathing criticism, heralded as a second Francois Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, or Jonathan Swift, but also condemned as an immoral hypocrite. Controversy continues about the precise nature of Sterne’s contribution to English literature, but few scholars would deny him a place among the most important of eighteenth-century writers. It is Sterne more than any other author of that century whose work has seemed, time and again, of special interest to modern fiction writers as they experiment with realism, psychology, and ‘‘metacommentary’’ as the organizing principles of narrative.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Penniless Youth. Sterne was born in Clonmel, in County Tipperary, Ireland. His English father made a poor living as a soldier in the army; his mother, a woman of Irish and French ancestry, was of a lower class than her husband, who apparently married her to settle a debt with her father. Sterne spent much of his childhood moving with his family from one army barracks to another throughout England and Ireland, and his recollections of the military surroundings in which he grew up formed the basis for the characters of Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim in Tristram Shandy. In 1723, Sterne began attending a school in Halifax, Yorkshire, but when his father died penniless in 1731, he was forced to discontinue his education and live with relatives in Elvington, Yorkshire. Two years later his cousin arranged for him to enter Jesus College, Cambridge, as a sizar, which allowed Sterne to defray his university expenses by working as a servant to other students. At Cambridge he met John Hall-Stevenson, a rich and reckless young man whose home—Skelton Castle, renamed ‘‘Crazy Castle’’— has figured prominently in the Sterne legend as the site of boisterous drinking parties and of a library containing a notable collection of curiosa and erotic literature.

Life in the Church. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge, Sterne was influenced by his uncle Jacques, a prominent churchman active in Whig politics, to enter the clergy. Sterne’s decision to follow an ecclesiastic career resulted from his need to earn a living rather than from any sense of spiritual calling. He was ordained a deacon in 1736, a priest in 1738, and afterward received various appointments in Yorkshire. In 1741 Sterne was married to Elizabeth Lumley, who is described by Sterne’s biographers as an unpleasant woman whose instability—she eventually became insane—was not improved by her husband’s incessant philandering. Despite his lack of faithfulness, however, Sterne was not the cruel husband and parent once portrayed by his detractors. After his marriage was effectively dissolved in separation, which was actually initiated by Elizabeth rather than Sterne, he continued to provide for his wife and daughter.

From the time of his marriage until the publication of Tristram Shandy in 1759, Sterne lived for the most part the life of an average Yorkshire clergyman, although some of his activities—his extramarital affairs, his frequenting the society of Hall-Stevenson’s ‘‘Demoniacs’’ at Crazy Castle, his lawful but self-serving acquisition of his parishioners’ property, and his casual attitude toward the theological doctrines of his church—would by subsequent generations be considered extraordinary conduct, however common it was in Sterne’s time. Prior to the composition of his masterpiece, Sterne’s only works were the sermons in which he preached an abstract rather than specifically Christian morality, articles of political propaganda written at the instigation of his uncle Jacques, and A Political Romance (1759), a satirical allegory concerned with local church politics that indicates some of the humor and narrative flair of Sterne’s major work.

Literary Celebrity. Sterne was forty-six when the initial volumes of Tristram Shandy were published, and his fictional alter-ego Tristram vowed to produce two additional volumes each year for the remainder of his life. Although the novel received mixed reviews, readers of the time elevated both the book and its author to a phenomenal status of celebrity. A short while after the publication of Tristram Shandy, Sterne happened to be in London and found himself the center of a following that included aristocrats, members of fashionable society, and leading figures in the arts. His lively, amusing manner made him well liked, and his attendance at social affairs was eagerly sought. However, upon the discovery that the author of Tristram Shandy was a clergyman, Sterne was attacked in the English press, which complained that the slyly erotic and scatological humor of Sterne’s novel was unacceptable coming from a man of the cloth. Nevertheless, with the appearance of subsequent volumes of his novel, Sterne retained much of his popularity, not only in England but throughout the rest of Europe as well. The social successes of London were repeated when Sterne visited Paris in 1762. A second visit to continental Europe in 1765 served as the material for A Sentimental Journey, a work which in its extreme subjectivity, emotionalism, and narrative verve is as striking a contrast to the literary travelogue as Tristram Shandy is to the realistic novel. During his remaining years, Sterne continued to compose installments of Tristram Shandy and wrote The Journal to Eliza (1904), a self-conscious record of his romance with a woman named Eliza Draper. Having suffered poor health since his youth, Sterne died of tuberculosis in London a few weeks after the publication of A Sentimental Journey.



Sterne's famous contemporaries include:

Voltaire (1694-1778): Born Frangois-Marie Arouet, but better known by his pen name, Voltaire was one of the leading writers of the French Enlightenment. His thoughts on civil liberties, freedom of religion, and the ills of society were to prove highly influential on the leaders of both the French and American revolutions.

George Washington (1732-1799): The first president of the United States, Washington led the Continental Army during the American Revolution and is often described as the Father of His Country.

Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786): Dubbed Frederick the Great for his spectacular military victories during the Seven Years' War, Frederick began the ascendancy of Prussia as a major power in Europe.

Adam Smith (1723-1790): Smith's views on economics, expressed in his book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, have formed the foundation of modern economic theory. His ideas on competition and self-interest promoting a healthy economy have long been used to defend free trade and capitalism.

Robert Burns (1759-1796): A writer known as ''Scotland's favourite son,'' Burns's poetry was written in Scots dialect as often as in English. He was both a cultural icon and inspiration to later Romantic poets and liberal thinkers.

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797): British philosopher and feminist, her A Vindication of the Rights of Women argued that women were not naturally inferior to men, as was widely believed at the time.



The bildungsroman traces the growth and development of a single character, often from youth to old age. Tristram Shandy is just one classic bildungsroman story; here are some others.

Pamela (1740), a novel by Samuel Richardson. The first epistolary novel—that is, a novel told through a series of letters—this tale follows a young maid who resists her master's advances until he agrees to marry her. The success of the book led to many more such epistolary tales throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Tom Jones (1749), by Henry Fielding. After writing two parodies of Pamela, Fielding tried his hand at novelwriting (at the time a new form of storytelling); the resulting tale, which follows a boy in his growth to a successful young man, stands as one of the classics of eighteenth-century literature.

The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a novel by J. D. Salinger. This controversial tale of teenage discontent is an account by Holden Caulfield of life following his expulsion from a prep school at the age of sixteen.

Into the Wild (1996), a nonfiction work by Jon Krakauer. This book is an ultimately tragic account of a free- spirited, nature-loving young man who leaves his life and family behind in search of his own identity.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001), a film by Chris Columbus. Based on the first book of the bestselling Harry Potter series of novels by J. K. Rowling, this introductory tale follows young Harry as he begins his adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.


Works in Literary Context

The Black Sheep of Eighteenth Century Literature. Tristram Shandy is an unusual work by the literary standards of any period, but it particularly stands out in the century that saw the birth and early development of the realistic novel. While such novels as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones display their authors’ attempts to make prose fiction a means for depicting contemporary life, Sterne demonstrates in Tristram Shandy aspirations of an entirely different kind. His characters, although profoundly human, are also profoundly odd and do not have the significant connections with their society held by characters in the great realistic novels of the time; his style is one of cultivated spontaneity and unpredictability, a series of digressions as opposed to the progressive movement of events common in the works of Sterne’s contemporaries; and, perhaps most conspicuously, his narrator is concerned with relating his ‘‘Life and Opinions’’ rather than the more usual ‘‘Life and Adventures’’ of the eighteenth-century bildungsroman (coming-of-age tale), making the novel largely a plotless discourse on an encyclopedic array of subjects.

Unsentimental Journey. Sterne’s other major work, A Sentimental Journey, is a nonfiction memoir that conveys much the same sensibility as the fictional Tristram Shandy. An account of Sterne’s travels in France and Italy, this memoir has as its central concern the subjective side of the author’s experiences rather than the objective rendering of people and places, which is the more usual concern of the travel writer. V. S. Pritchett has written that ‘‘Sterne displays the egotist’s universe: life is a personal dream,’’ an observation that is illustrated by the minute and self-conscious attention that Sterne pays to his own feelings in A Sentimental Journey. Sterne’s preoccupation with feelings, especially those of tender pathos, led to his establishing the word ‘‘sentiment’’ as it is presently understood, giving connotations of heightened, somewhat artificial emotion to a term which previously had denoted ‘‘thought’’ and ‘‘moral reflection.’’ The deliberate courting and elaborate description of feeling in A Sentimental Journey also appears in Sterne’s letters and his Journal to Eliza, provoking a major controversy in criticism of Sterne—the sincerity or pretense of both his personal writings and those written for a reading audience. As the issue of sincerity by its nature is restricted to the realm of individual opinion, critics have tended to praise or condemn Sterne to the extent that they believe in the truth of the feelings he describes. Modern critics have generally treated the question of Sterne’s sincerity as a more subtle and complex matter than had been previously realized, attributing to him a facility for taking an ironic view of his most intense feelings or, as in Ernest Nevin Dilworth’s The Unsentimental Journey of Lawrence Sterne, finding in his work a satirical mockery of sentiment.


Works in Critical Context

Perhaps the most important factor contributing to the controversies surrounding Sterne’s work is his provocative and persuasive humor. Some critics have seen this quality of Sterne’s writing as an end in itself, a viewpoint represented by Wilbur L. Cross, who contends that Sterne ‘‘was a humorist pure and simple, and nothing else.’’ Other critics, including those of the English Romantic movement and most modern commentators, perceive more profound motives underlying these works, with a number of recent studies contending that Sterne’s humor derives from an acute awareness of the ultimate evil and suffering of human existence and that each farcical antic is an allusion to a grim truth. Whether or not it is justified to place Sterne in the philosophical company of modernists who blend comedy and despair in their works, critics are now largely in agreement that Sterne is an exceptional case of an eighteenth-century writer whose works are particularly sympathetic with the concerns and temperament of twentieth-century readers.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Tristram Shandy’s uniqueness brought about its wide success during the 1760s, and the novel’s universal appeal has enabled the work to overcome the disparagement of such important eighteenth-century authors as Samuel Johnson—whose comment on Sterne’s novel was that ‘‘nothing odd will do long’’—and to survive the outright loathing of such nineteenth-century figures as William Makepeace Thackeray.

William Kenrick wrote of the work and the author in 1759, ‘‘His characters are striking and singular, his observations shrewd and pertinent; and, making a few exceptions, his humour is easy and genuine.’’ By contrast, author Horace Walpole, writing in 1760, called the book ‘‘a very insipid and tedious performance’’ and stated, ‘‘It makes one smile two or three times at the beginning, but in recompense makes one yawn for two hours.’’ Critic Edmund Burke pointed out one defining aspect of the novel that has been the subject of much critical discussion over the centuries: ‘‘The author perpetually digresses; or rather having no determined end in view, he runs from object to object, as they happen to strike a very lively and very irregular imagination. These digressions so frequently repeated, instead of relieving the reader, become at length tiresome.’’

As additional volumes of the ongoing work were published, more critics echoed the sentiment of Burke. Owen Ruffhead, reviewing the third and fourth volumes in 1761—and who, like many at the time, assumed Tristram Shandy to be the actual author of the work— directed his criticisms directly at the author: ‘‘We must tax you with what you will dread above the most terrible of all imputations—nothing less than dullness. Yes, indeed, Mr. Tristram, you are dull, very dull.... Your characters are no longer striking and singular.... The novelty and extravagance of your manner pleased at first; but Discretion, Shandy, would have taught you, that a continued affectation of extravagance, soon becomes insipid.’’ Despite this critical backlash, Sterne’s most famous work remained the subject of favorable scholarship throughout the nineteenth century, with prominent figures such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt complimenting many elements of the books.

Influence. Unlike many authors whose works are discussed in relative isolation from their lives, Sterne is closely identified with his narrator, Tristram Shandy. Especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Sterne was often judged by the narrator’s opinions and liberties of taste; inverting this approach, an appraisal of Sterne’s work became inseparable from an appraisal of his life, either to demonstrate a reprehensible similarity between the two or a paradoxical contrast. The issue of the often salacious humor in Tristram Shandy pervaded Victorian commentary, both positive and negative, on Sterne’s work. In the twentieth century, critics have emphasized the remarkable likenesses between the narrative techniques in Tristram Shandy and the formal experimentation of modern literature, particularly in Sterne’s unorthodox punctuation, his use of nonverbal devices like drawings, his disregard for sequence, and his selfconscious dwelling on his manner of composition. Despite the evidence presented by John Ferriar and others that Sterne borrowed heavily and blatantly from a number of sources, including Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, few critics have questioned the success with which he adapted these borrowings to his own purposes and transformed old materials into one of the most original and important works in literature.


Responses to Literature

1. Many critics have argued that the method of storytelling in Tristram Shandy is more akin to current novels rather than those of the eighteenth century. Do you think this is true? Pick two to three recent experimental novels and compare their format and narrative strategies with that of Tristram Shandy.

2. Describe Sterne’s interest in travel and unusual settings, customs, and people. Contrast this to other eighteenth-century writers, such as Jonathan Swift or Voltaire, who utilized unusual settings and people in their stories. How do the writers’ works differ?

3. In 2005, filmmaker Michael Winterbottom directed the film Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, but remarked that Sterne’s story was ‘‘utterly unfilmable.’’ Watch Winterbottom’s film and try to decipher the problems he faced in adapting the novel to film. Where does he succeed and where does he fail? Come up with a strategy of how you would have adapted the film, including ideas for dialogue, scenes, and actors and actresses you would cast.

4. Do you feel that the digressive action in Tristram Shandy dominates the story, or is there an overarching plot that the digressions ultimately serve? In your opinion, is an overarching plot a defining characteristic of a novel? Why or why not?




Cash, Arthur H. Laurence Sterne: The Early and Middle Years. London: Methuen, 1975.

________. Laurence Sterne: The Later Years. London: Methuen, 1986.

________, and John M. Stedmond, eds. The Winged Skull: Papers from the Laurence Sterne Bicentenary Conference. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971.

Hartley, Lodwick. Laurence Sterne: An Annotated Bibliography, 1965-1977. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978.

Moglen, Helene. The Philosophical Irony of Laurence Sterne. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida, 1975.

New, Melvyn. Laurence Sterne as Satirist: A Reading of Tristam Shandy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1969.

Stedmond, John M. The Comic Art ofLaurence Sterne: Convention and Innovation in Tristam Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.