Artistic incorporation and accusations of plagiarism
Sterne incorporated into Tristram Shandy many passages taken almost word for word from Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Francis Bacon's Of Death, Rabelais and many more, and rearranged them to serve the new meaning intended in Tristram Shandy. Tristram Shandy was highly praised for its originality, and nobody noticed until years after Sterne's death. The first to note them was physician and poet John Ferriar, who did not see them negatively and commented:
If [the reader's] opinion of Sterne's learning and originality be lessened by the perusal, he must, at least, admire the dexterity and the good taste with which he has incorporated in his work so many passages, written with very different views by their respective authors.
Critics of the 19th century, who were hostile to Sterne for other reasons, used Ferriar's findings to defame Sterne, claim that he was artistically dishonest, and almost unanimously accuse him of mindless plagiarism. Scholar Graham Petrie closely analysed the alleged passages in 1970; he observed that while more recent commentators now agree that Sterne "rearranged what he took to make it more humorous, or more sentimental, or more rhythmical", none of them "seems to have wondered whether Sterne had any further, more purely artistic, purpose". Studying a passage in Volume V, chapter 3, Petrie observes: "such passage...reveals that Sterne's copying was far from purely mechanical, and that his rearrangements go far beyond what would be necessary for merely stylistic ends".
A major influence on Tristram Shandy is Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Rabelais was by far Sterne's favourite author, and in his correspondence he made clear that he considered himself Rabelais's successor in humorous writing. One passage Sterne incorporated pertains to "the length and goodness of the nose". Sterne had written an earlier piece called A Rabelaisian Fragment that indicates his familiarity with the work of the French monk and practising Doctor.
Sterne was no friend of gravitas, a quality which excited his disgust; Tristram Shandy gave a ludicrous turn to solemn passages from respected authors that it incorporated, as well as to the Consolatio literary genre.
One of the subjects of such ridicule were some of the opinions contained in Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, a book that mentioned sermons as the most respectable type of writing, and that was favoured by the learned; Burton's attitude was to try to prove indisputable facts by weighty quotations; his book consisted mostly of a collection of the opinions of a multitude of writers, to which Burton often modestly refrained to add his own, divided into quaint and old-fashioned categories; it discussed and determined everything from the doctrines of religion to military discipline, from inland navigation to the morality of dancing schools.
Much of the singularity of Tristram Shandy's characters is drawn from Burton. Burton's introductory address to the reader, where he indulges himself in a Utopian sketch of a perfect government, form the basis of Tristram Shandy's notions on the subject. Burton's quaint and old-fashioned categories inspired many of Sterne's ludicrous chapter titles. And Sterne parodies Burton's use of weighty quotations. The first four chapters of Tristram Shandy are also founded on some passages in Burton.
In Chapter 3, Volume 5, Sterne makes a parody of the genre of consolatio, mixing and reworking passages from three "widely separated sections" of Burton's Anatomy, including a parody of Burton's "grave and sober account" of Cicero's grief for the death of his daughter Tullia.
Other techniques and influences
His text is filled with allusions and references to the leading thinkers and writers of the 17th and 18th centuries. Pope and Swift were major influences on Sterne and Tristram Shandy. Satires of Pope and Swift formed much of the humour of Tristram Shandy, but Swift's sermons and Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding contributed ideas and frameworks that Sterne explored throughout his novel. Other major influences are Cervantes, and Montaigne's Essays. It also owes a significant inter-textual debt to Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, Swift's Battle of the Books, and the Scriblerian collaborative work, The Memoirs of Martinus Scriblerus.
The shade of Cervantes is similarly present throughout Sterne's novel. The frequent references to Rocinante, the character of Uncle Toby (who resembles Don Quixote in many ways) and Sterne's own description of his characters' "Cervantic humour", along with the genre-defying structure of Tristram Shandy, which owes much to the second part of Cervantes' novel, all demonstrate the influence of Cervantes.
The novel also makes use of John Locke's theories of empiricism, or the way we assemble what we know of ourselves and our world from the "association of ideas" that come to us from our five senses. Sterne is by turns respectful and satirical of Locke's theories, using the association of ideas to construct characters' "hobby-horses", or whimsical obsessions, that both order and disorder their lives in different ways. Sterne borrows from and argues against Locke's language theories (on the imprecision and arbitrariness of words and usage), and consequently spends much time discussing the very words he uses in his own narrative—with "digressions, gestures, piling up of apparent trivia in the effort to get at the truth".
There is a significant body of critical opinion that argues that Tristram Shandy is better understood as an example of an obsolescent literary tradition of "Learned Wit", partly following the contribution of D. W. Jefferson.