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Natalia Toporowska Kara Brennion Callie Frisch Brad Elliot Angie Register Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman: An Annotated Reception History The nine volume novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was written by Laurence Sterne over a seven year period. Beginning with Books I and II in December of 1759, this ongoing project received reviews and criticism from the onset. Sterne published seven additional volumes between January 1761 and January 1767, before his death in 1768. What follows is a small sampling of criticism for this historical novel. All of the 18th and 19th century reviews, essays and criticisms discussed have come from Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Volume 2, edited by Dennis Poupard. Poupard, Dennis Ed. “Laurence Sterne (1713-1768).” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. 370- 443. 14 Nov. 2009 1759: William Kenrick stated, “ On the whole, we will venture to recommend Mr. Tristram Shandy, as a writer infinitely more ingenious and entertaining than any other of the present race of novelist.” The essay produced in the same year of Tristram Shandy’s literary onset expresses to the reader the merits of Sterne’s novel. Kenrick touches on the idea of digression, something Sterne readily uses in his work, while praising the inventive project Sterne sets out to accomplish.


1760: Horace Walpole stated, “It makes one smile two or three times at the beginning, but in recompense makes one yawn for two hours.” Walpole makes a claim towards the awkward nature of the novel, arguing that it may seem a humorous adventure for a while, but not in the long run. He also states the best element of writing within the piece is a sermon. In conclusion, Walpole acknowledges the praise the novel receives and the contradictions of the praising patrons of Sterne.

1761: A review of Volumes II and III by Owen Ruffhead said, “Mr. Tristram Shandy, you are dull, very dull. Your jaded Fancy seems to have been exhausted by two pigmy octavos, which scarce contained the substance of a twelve-penny pamphlet; and we now find nothing new to entertain us.” In this review the author argues of the demerits of Sterne’s project in its heavy digressions and persistence of the ongoing Uncle Toby storyline. Ruffhead charges Sterne with a misuse of talent, going so far as to explain why this novel is not “a remedy against the spleen.” The characterizations and storylines that made the first two books popular and charming become the exact reason this reviewer has such distaste for the latest installments of Tristram Shandy.

1768: Ralph Griffiths states in his essay of 1768, “Little did we think that in those very moments, so grateful, so pleasant to us, thou thyself wert expiring on the bed of mortal pain.” Griffiths’ essay argues for the idea of travel. He discusses the ability of the reader to reap the benefits of the writer’s journey and work. He also discusses the ability of the final volume of Tristram Shandy, Volume nine, for its natural traits and persistence, while praising Sterne for his talent, wit, benevolence and contributions to the literary world.


1798: An essay by John Ferriar states, “ Most of the writers from whom stern drew the general ideas, and many of the peculiarities of his book, were then forgotten.” This essay points out the many parallels that Sterne’s Tristram Shandy had with other writers of the period and before. Namely, Ferriar discusses the influence of Swift, Pope, Cervantes, and Rabelais. The essay concludes with thoughts on censorship and the usage of other’s ideas within another author’s work, as well as the merits of Sterne’s great work of literature.

1819: William Hazlitt states, “ […] he has contrived to oppose, with equal felicity and originality, two characters one of pure intellect, and the other of pure good nature, in My Father and My Uncle Toby.” William Hazlitt discusses the characterizations Sterne creates in his novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. The discussion of Sterne’s ability to create intelligent and inventive persons on the page is bolstered by Hazlitt charge of great wit and humor on Sterne’s part.

1880: Scholar Leslie Stephen, in an essay on Sterne, states, “There is another defect in Tristram Shandy, which would of itself remove it from the list of first-rate books […] It contains eccentric characters only.” Leslie Stephen’s essay discusses the characterizations within Tristram Shandy, while discussing the downfalls of Laurence Sterne’s personality. He highlights the ability of the


characters within the story to be eccentric and humorous, while showing the indecency Sterne created. Current Criticism: Booth, Wayne. "Did Sterne Complete "Tristram Shandy?" Modern Philology 48.3 (1951): 172-83. Print. 10 Nov. 2009 Wayne Booth argues in “Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?,” that the work set forth in the project of this novel was far greater than what was accomplished in the nine published volumes. Using correspondence and personal writings of Sterne’s, Booth shows the overall desire to follow through with the vow of two volumes every year till his death, which is discussed in the opening lines of the first volume of Tristram Shandy. In this essay there is also the idea that Sterne failed at completing the tenth volume that was to be published alongside volume nine in January 1767. The idea of completion is further discussed by showing the differences in volume nine and the previous eight volumes. Finally, Booth asserts that Sterne was tired of the project of Tristram Shandy. Hardin, Michael "Is There a Straight Line in this Text? The Homoerotics of Tristram Shandy." Orbis Litterarum: International Review of Literary Studies 54.3 (1999): 185 -202. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 15 Nov. 2009. Hardin argues that although the text is predominately read as a heterosexual relationship between the reader and Tristram the author, the sexuality and play of the text is plural. Hardin believes that the narrator between the “Gentleman reader” is based on “sexual intimacy and cogeneration” (188). He states that the relationship with the “Madame reader” is quite different. His interaction with her tends to be condescending. This contemporary spin on a different approach to reading Sterne’s novel makes the reader question whether or not Sterne intended for their to be a homo-erotic relationship between the narrator and the “Gentleman reader”.


Kraft, Elizabeth "(Re)Solving Sterne's Unsolvable Riddles and Mysteries: Two New Tools." Eighteenth-Century Life 33.3 (2009): 142-149. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 14 Nov. 2009. Kraft highlights the various reasons why Sterne’s novel is pertinent to our society in the 21st century. Kraft discusses the influence that Rabelais had on Sterne’s creation of Tristram Shandy. She states that numerous allusions and the tone of the novel’s bawdy humor can be attributed to Rabelais. She also writes about the influence John Locke’s “theories of empiricism” had upon Sterne. She attributes Pope’s and Swift’s essays played a key role in Sterne’s development of humor throughout the novel.


Historical Annotated Reception  

An annotated reception of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

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