The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


Tristram opens his account of his life and opinions with a sense that it was all over before it was even begun: "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." And thus Sterne begins his exploration of the difficulties of creativity - both sexual and literary. In doing so, he pushes the conventions of the early novel to extreme limits.
See more details below
$11.45 price
(Save 4%)$11.95 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (13) from $1.99   
  • New (3) from $3.00   
  • Used (10) from $1.99   
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$3.49 price
(Save 12%)$3.99 List Price

All Available Formats & Editions


Tristram opens his account of his life and opinions with a sense that it was all over before it was even begun: "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." And thus Sterne begins his exploration of the difficulties of creativity - both sexual and literary. In doing so, he pushes the conventions of the early novel to extreme limits.
Read More Show Less

Product Details


Tristram opens his account of his life and opinions with a sense that it was all over before it was begun: "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." And thus Sterne begins his exploration of the difficulties of creativity - both sexual and literary. In doing so, he pushes the conventions of the early novel to extreme limits. Because of the tricks Sterne plays with beginnings and endings, the way he foregrounds the artificiality of textual representation and the way he expands the temporal and spatial possibility of narrative fiction, Tristram Shandy has been seen as the father and mother of all experimental novels. Most strikingly, Sterne involves the reader directly in the making of meaning: "Writing," declares Tristram, "when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation. . . . The truest respect which you can pay to the reader's understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself." Sterne draws the reader into a challenging conversation about life and literature.

Prior to embarking on Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) had shown little sign of becoming a major author. His early years were spent shuttling between England and Ireland, trailing after his father, who was an army ensign. After being educated at a grammar school near Halifax, Yorkshire, and at Jesus College, Cambridge (an institution with which his family had a long-standing connection), he entered the church - one of the few careers open to him.His uncle Jaques was an Archdeacon, and his great grandfather Richard had risen to the rank of Archbishop of York. Hoping to advance in the Church of England, Sterne pursued the modest vocation of a country parson for many years with occasional trips to the pleasure spots of Scarborough and York, and occasional flirtations to take his mind off his unhappy marriage. Ironically, when he abandoned thoughts of promotion and turned to writing fiction, he was rewarded with the living of Coxwold, Yorkshire; he promptly dubbed the parsonage 'Shandy Hall' after the fictional setting of his novel. When he died in lodgings in London in 1768, he left readers with the difficulty of deciding whether Tristram Shandy, his great shaggy-dog story, was completed or just terminated by the death of the author.

Tristram Shandy was not Sterne's first composition. Apart from writing weekly sermons, two of which were published (in 1747 and 1750), and publishing a poem in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1743, he contributed to local newspapers in York. At the behest of his uncle Jaques, he wrote political journalism and propaganda in support of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole. The first inkling of greater literary ambitions appeared in an allegorical satire on local church politics, A Political Romance, or History of a Good Warm Watch-Coat (1759). It so incensed the local factions it satirised that it had to be withdrawn shortly after it was printed. Tristram Shandy seems to have grown out of this satire as, when Sterne wrote to the fashionable London publisher Robert Dodsley in 1759, persuading him to take on his book, he assured him that he had revised it to make it more generally accessible: "All locality is taken out of the book-the satire general."

How far Sterne moved away from satire when he expanded the scope of Tristram Shandy is still a subject of debate. Readers are still divided about whether it is a satire, a novel, or something else. Because the experience of reading it is so far from that of reading, say, Moll Flanders (1722) or Evelina (1778), critics have assigned Tristram Shandy to other literary genres such as the classical genre of Menippean satire, a form that was used frequently in the Renaissance to satirize false learning. When Tristram boasts of his literary forebears, he does not refer to Defoe, Richardson, or Fielding, rather he puts himself at the head of a tradition that stretches from Lucian through Rabelais, Montaigne, Cervantes, and Scarron to Swift. At the same time, it is precisely his stylistic variety, or what Mikhail Bakhtin has called "heteroglossia," that many critics consider to be the defining characteristic of the novel. What is certain is that it makes sense to read Tristram Shandy alongside great European and American learned and mock-learned fictions such as Gargantua et Pantagruel by Fran├žois Rabelais (1532-51) or Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973), as well as alongside his contemporary British novelists.

Like many other eighteenth-century novels, from Robinson Crusoe (1719) to Tom Jones (1749), Sterne's work tells of the life and adventures, or in his case, the opinions, of its eponymous hero. It explains the influence of his social and physical background in the formation of his identity and dramatises the development of character over time. In Tristram's case, his formative influences are the eccentric residents and immediate neighbours of Shandy Hall. However, unlike most novels before and since, it makes the business of telling the story part of the story itself. Complaining about the unforeseen difficulties he has encountered in writing his life, Tristram exclaims: "I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,---and I am not yet born." As well as foregrounding the difficulties of writing a life, Tristram Shandy is a book about bookishness. Our attention is drawn to the physicality of the text we hold in our hands by means of typographical and other visual devices such as eccentric punctuation; blank, black, and marbled pages; missing chapters; and diagrams, asterisks, and squiggly lines where we expect blocks of print. Moreover, its status as fiction is called into question by the inclusion of several genuine documents such as the Sermon on Conscience and the "Memoire" presented to the Doctors of the Sorbonne as well as the presence of numerous non-literary discourses such as the jargon of the law, literary criticism, military architecture, and natural philosophy.

The identity of the work certainly puzzled and intrigued readers when its first instalment was published in 1759. Sterne was delighted to report that by March 1760 it had completely sold out in London. The rich and fashionable took him up and made him and his work an overnight sensation. Although Tristram Shandy was the talk of the town, not everyone understood or appreciated it; Samuel Johnson famously dismissed it with the statement that "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last." Yet last it did, both in the sense that it has earned the status of a classic, albeit a difficult one, and by virtue of the fact that its nine volumes were published at irregular intervals from 1759 to 1767. Its serial publication allowed Sterne to respond to historical events such as the Seven Years War (1756-63) and to other writers such as the rival novelist Tobias Smollett. Its long gestation also enabled Sterne to respond to the critical reception of previous volumes and to exploit the furore that arose when it became known that a clergyman wrote this wittily titillating work.

As a clue to his identity and as a way of trailing an edition of his other works, Sterne inserted a sermon and quickly brought out an edition of The Sermons of Mr. Yorick (1760) with a second title page revealing himself as the author of both works. Public condemnation followed swiftly. One critic aped Sterne's style in order to rebuke him: "Tristy's a clergyman of the church of England - smoke the parson! - Did you ever know such a jolly dog of a divine? - He has the finest knack at talking bawdy! - And then he makes such a joke of religion!" Some critics conceded that despite their improper means of publication, the sermons encouraged benevolence and philanthropy. The Monthly Review commented that "Since Mr. Sterne published his Sermons, we have been of opinion, that his excellencies lay not so much in the humourous as in the pathetic; and in this opinion we have been confirmed by the. . .story of Le Fever." As a way of seeming to satisfy this demand for morally improving and emotionally arousing literature, Sterne increased the doses of sentimental narrative in later volumes and received praise for doing so. In his first instalment, Sterne had demonstrated his facility with the sentimental mode in the touching story of how his uncle Toby wouldn't harm a fly - even though he was ready to slaughter his enemies in battle. Lessons in philanthropy and touching displays of affection occur with greater frequency from volume five. The death of Le Fever, uncle Toby's amours, and the story of Maria are the most notable examples. Surely, though, there is something cynical or satirical about this display of sensibility on demand? The conclusion of the Story of Le Fever is a case in point. The phrasing and the very punctuation seem designed to tug the readers' heartstrings by representing the final pulses of Le Fever's own heart: "Nature instantly ebb'd again,---the film returned to its place,---the pulse fluttered-stopp'd-went on--throb'd-stopp'd again-moved-stopp'd-shall I go on?-No." However, the abrupt beginning of the next chapter tears the web of sensibility that has just been spun: "I am so impatient to return to my own story, that what remains of young Le Fever's. . .shall be told in a very few words." Tristram's self-centredness potentially undermines his emotional and moral position. Yet it would be more accurate to think of him as testing rather than rejecting the values of sentimentalism.

The fact is that Sterne identified himself with both the salacious and neurotic Tristram and the witty melancholy Yorick. He endowed both characters with his black coat, spidery legs, and lean physiognomy. Perhaps the single most important feature that links Sterne with Tristram and Yorick and gives shape to his narrative is the certainty of their death from tuberculosis. At the end of volume IV, Tristram promises to tease his readers in twelve months time "unless this vile cough kills me in the mean time." It was a very real threat; his first tubercular haemorrhage had occurred when he was a student. "The truth was," states Tristram, "my time was short." By 1762 his health was so poor that he went south to warmer climes, an experience which provided him material for his books. He returned to the continent in 1765, and his next literary production, A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768) drew on both of these therapeutic journeys. He presents his illness dramatically in Tristram Shandy, when Death himself knocks on his door and grasps him by the throat so that he cannot speak. Typically his response is ambivalent. On the one hand, he avoids Death by frolicking with the sun-burnt lasses of Languedoc; on the other, he utters a most poignantly beautiful apostrophe to impermanence: "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more---every thing presses on---whilst thou art twisting that lock,--see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make.-" Delicately, he opens out from his own fear of mortality to the transience of all life; the fact of termination is the context in which we live and love and write.

When in the thick of Sterne's "riddles and mysteries," while trying to follow his learned digressions and allusive squibs at the same time as trying to keep a grip on a narrative that seems to be going nowhere, it is easy to assume that Sterne had no end in mind. That is, it might appear both as if the novel is not driving towards closure and also that there are no larger themes or issues which might bring this fragmentary text into a meaningful coherence. Yet, one might hazard a generalisation: Sterne's themes are the universal and perennial ones: life and death, identity and community. Although it is formally fragmented, its themes are skilfully interwoven. There are several intertwined plots in the novel: the stories of Tristram's early years, including Walter's crazy paternal projects; uncle Toby's bowling-green campaigns; and the story of the composition of Tristram Shandy itself. Both they and the numerous interpolated tales and digressions largely concern the linked problems of living an embodied life and the pleasures and pains of living with other people.

When you live in a body and in a community, you are bound to get hurt. Tristram declares that "A man's body and his mind. . .are exactly like a jerkin, and a jerkin's lining;-rumple the one-you rumple the other." The book is full of physical injuries-noses, knees, groins, thumbs are crushed and cut-most of them as an indirect result of the hobby-horsical theories of Walter and Toby. This fact reminds us that, although he mostly writes about other people rather than himself, we find out who Tristram is by learning about his relations: Walter's oratory and natural philosophy, his mother's solidity (she would rather knit her husband a pair of breeches than gallivant off to France), Yorick's dry but dangerous wit, Toby's ability to reconcile differences with a squeeze of the hand, have all contributed to his personal make up. Whatever else it is, and despite its obscure and experimental surface, Tristram Shandy is one of the great novels of family life.

Judith Hawley is a Senior Lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has published articles on Sterne and edited various eighteenth-century texts, including Jane Collier's The Art of Ingeniously Tormenting (Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 1994) and Henry Fielding's Shamela and Joseph Andrews (London: Penguin Books, 1999); she is the General Editor of Literature and Science, 1660-1832 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2002-3).
Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2003

    Headed for a deserted island? Bring this book.

    Sterne's book is the most hilarious ride one can hope for in the world of English literature. It breaks every rule and convention of the English novel; it can be called the first postmodern novel, and was written before even modernism had taken shape. Neitzsche called Sterne 'the most liberated spirit of all time', and this book is the reason why. Enough said. Buy it, read it, and laugh until you cry.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 23, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A superb edition without apparatus

    The Everyman Library edition of Tristram Shandy is a pleasant, clean text in a satisfying hard cover at an affordable price. Those who already know their middle 18th century Britain will be able to navigate the text from this edition alone, but anyone who has not read Tristram Shandy before may prefer a thoroughly emendated edition, like the Norton. The Florida Edition, edited by Melvin New, is the choice for those seeking an authoritative critical text. For me, I wanted a copy of Tristram Shandy for re-reading, for leisure, and for comfort, and the Everyman delivered all of those things beautifully.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2004

    Wish it was my LIFE and OPINIONS***

    Sterne is the patriarch of modernism. His text is rich with short cuts, detours, and dead ends. It threatens to stall or stay in perpetual motion. In short, it is nothing but a joy to read. The reader constantly plays a game within Sterne¿s own textual game. Each return back to the novel sparks a new advent of the eye. Certain phrases of Sterne¿s read like poetry, others suggest the potency of a painting like the Mona Lisa, deep, uncertain, and ever staring back into the nothingness deeps of the viewer¿s pupil. I appreciate texts like James Joyce¿s Ulysses all the more having read Tristram Shandy, the text that launched a thousand typos (well, actually, it took another one hundred and sixty three years for Joyce to get his ¿modernist¿ act together). Tristram Shandy is a truly a celebration in literary masochism. The struggle to conquer each page¿s uncertainty only results in failure. Yet, the failure to pin down the infinite is sweet, bittersweet. Our struggle with the indeterminate that paints each page is beautiful. Sterne¿s games provoke the eye and mind to remain ever questioning; for indeed, only the uncertain defines the extent of one¿s genius. In his refusal to accept the conventional, Sterne is the ultimate optometrist. He corrected my 20/20 vision; I now see blurry, indeed I would not want to see any other way.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 13, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted August 11, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 7, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)