At one point or another, most of us have likely asked the question “why am I here” or “what am I doing”? As I read the first four volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, rather than asking myself this question (as I surely knew that I had to read this novel in order to pass the class, and even someone as absent-minded as myself would not forget that I was reading a novel), I found myself continuously asking it of the narrator, the titular Tristram Shandy himself. Four volumes in, and the man has continuously sidetracked the reader So, I argue that Tristram Shandy (the character and the book) is an Ur example of a “postmodern” hero in a “postmodern” (some two hundred years or so before the rise of the movement) work. He is a man lacking focus, and intentionally avoiding completing the very task he set out to do, defying the reader’s expectations and leaving the readers continually guessing. To that end, my presentation will be a traditional style, with no visual aids.
The two main passages I am focusing on are Tristram’s rendering of Slawkenbergius’s Tale, and Chapter XIII in book 4. Other passages may be brought up, but these two will be the most important. Slawkenbergius’s Tale might appear to have little to do with much at first (or no more than any of Tristram’s other tangents), but closer observation, particularly in light of what we learn about Tristram’s birth and comments about his father raise a variety of questions (and the actual meaning of what a “nose” really means in this tale) both about Tristram’s feelings on his father, and his own possible feelings of inadequacy. The other passage sheds light on Tristram’s reasons for taking so long to tell his story, noting how long he has taken
To aid me in my presentation, I will be making use of a couple additional resources. The first resource is the abstract for an article entitled “Postmodernism in the Eighteenth Century? Enlightenment Intellectual Contexts and the Roots of Twentieth-Century Concerns in Tristram Shandy”. The abstract, which outlines a historical context for a postmodernist reading of Tristram Shandy, can be found online via the university library. The other text that I will use is Stephen Bonnycastle’s In Searth of Authority: An Introductory Guide to Literary Theory, particularly the chapter on Postmodernism. This book is not available in the library, though relevant quotes will be provided to the class in the presentation.
I also have come up with the following questions to discuss:
- How does Slawkenbergius’s Tale relate to possible feelings of inadequacy on Tristram’s behalf, particularly in regards to his father’s feelings on noses?
- According to Stephen Bonnycastle, “[p]ostmodern literature… often offers possibility of new and unusual combinations, and a dissolution of the rules that concern many styles or genres of writing” (258). Given that this work was written in the 18th century, when many genres as we know them did not exist, is it possible to retroactively “subvert” an entire genre?
- Has Tristram been meaning to sidetrack the reader and prevent us from getting to his life story? How does this subvert our notions about what a traditional “story” or “autobiography” should be? Is Tristram even the main character in his own life?