Tristram Shandy

Reception and influence

Some of Sterne's contemporaries did not hold the novel in high esteem, but its bawdy humour was popular with London society. Through time, it has come to be seen as one of the greatest comic novels in English. Schopenhauer, in particular, considered it the acme and crowning of the novel form, one of the "four novels at the top of their class", along with Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, Rousseau's Nouvelle Héloïse, and Cervantes' Don Quixote.[15][16]

Samuel Johnson famously commented, "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last."[17][18] Schopenhauer privately rebutted Samuel Johnson, saying: "The man Sterne is worth 1000 Pedants and commonplace-fellows like Dr.J."[19] The young Karl Marx was a devotee of Tristram Shandy, and wrote a short humorous novel, Scorpion and Felix, which remained unpublished, that was obviously influenced by it.[16][20] Goethe praised Sterne in Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years, which in turn influenced Nietzsche.[16]

Tristram Shandy has also been seen by formalists and other literary critics as a forerunner of many narrative devices and styles used by modernist and postmodernist authors, such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Carlos Fuentes, Milan Kundera and Salman Rushdie.[21]

The success of Sterne's novel got him an appointment as curate of St. Michael's Church by Lord Fauconberg in Coxwold, Yorkshire, which included the living at (what Sterne called) Shandy Hall. The medieval structure still stands today under the care of the Laurence Sterne Trust after its acquisition in the 1960s. The gardens, which Sterne tended to during his time there, are daily open to visitors.


In 1766, at the height of the debate about slavery, Ignatius Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne[22] encouraging the famous writer to use his pen to lobby for the abolition of the slave trade.[23]

"That subject, handled in your striking manner, would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many — but if only one — Gracious God! — what a feast to a benevolent heart!"

In July 1766 Sancho's letter was received by Reverend Laurence Sterne shortly after he had just finished writing a conversation between his fictional characters Corporal Trim and his brother Tom in Tristram Shandy wherein Tom described the oppression of a black servant in a sausage shop in Lisbon which he had visited.[24] Laurence Sterne's widely publicised 27 July 1766 response to Sancho's letter became an integral part of 18th century abolitionist literature.

"There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me — but why her brethren? — or yours, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St. James’s, to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ere mercy is to vanish with them? — but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so." [24]

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