Talk with Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne was an 18th-century Irish-born English writer, known for his satirical novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman", which broke new ground in narrative form and humor.


Who is Laurence Sterne?

Laurence Sterne was an 18th-century Anglo-Irish novelist and Anglican clergyman. He is best known for his novel "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman," which was published in nine volumes from 1759 to 1767. Sterne's work is noted for its rich humor, eccentric characters, and its playful, unconventional narrative techniques. Although he wrote other works, including "A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy," it's "Tristram Shandy" that remains his most celebrated achievement.

Sterne's writing style was innovative for its time, featuring a non-linear narrative structure, digressions, interruptions, and meta-fictional elements. He often broke the fourth wall, directly addressing the reader and discussing the nature of writing and storytelling itself. This has led to Sterne being considered a forerunner of more modern literary movements such as Modernism and Postmodernism, despite writing in the 18th century.

What inspired Laurence Sterne to write "Tristram Shandy"?

Laurence Sterne's inspiration for writing "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman" emerged from a combination of personal interests, literary influences, and contemporary intellectual currents. Sterne, originally a clergyman, had a keen interest in the complexities of human nature, the ambiguities of communication, and the exploration of contemporary philosophical and theological ideas. "Tristram Shandy" allowed him to delve into these themes with great energy and inventiveness.

The narrative style of "Tristram Shandy" is heavily influenced by Sterne's interest in the works of writers like Rabelais and Cervantes, whose playful, digressive, and metafictional approaches resonated with him. Sterne was particularly drawn to the way these authors broke conventional narrative forms and directly engaged with the reader. This influence is apparent in the novel's frequent breaking of the fourth wall, its unconventional typography, and its non-linear narrative structure.

Moreover, Sterne was part of the Enlightenment period, a time when traditional ideas in science, philosophy, and religion were being questioned and re-evaluated. This intellectual milieu fostered a skepticism towards absolute narratives and grand theories, which is reflected in the novel’s narrative structure and its questioning of the possibility of fully knowing or depicting a life.

Personal health issues and experiences as a vicar also played roles in shaping the novel. Sterne's own struggles with tuberculosis and his job as a clergyman are mirrored in the concerns with mortality and morality that appear throughout "Tristram Shandy."

Lastly, it is also suggested that writing the novel served as an escape and a source of amusement for Sterne during periods of illness and financial instability. The playful and humorous nature of the work, filled with wit and satire, certainly hints at a therapeutic element in its creation.

In sum, Sterne’s creation of "Tristram Shandy" was fueled by his rich inner life, his professional environment, his literary tastes, and the intellectual and cultural contexts of his time.

How did Laurence Sterne tackle the concept of time in his writings?

Laurence Sterne explored the concept of time in innovative and unconventional ways in his writings, particularly in his most famous work, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman." Sterne's treatment of time is notable for its playful non-linearity and digressive narrative style. Here are several ways through which Sterne addresses the concept of time:

  1. Narrative Structure: "Tristram Shandy" is famously digressive and non-linear. Sterne disrupts the traditional chronological narrative flow found in most novels. The story meanders through various anecdotes, philosophical musings, and playful asides, which can span various times and places, often out of sequence. This disrupts the reader's typical perception of time within the narrative.

  2. Temporal Reflections: Sterne frequently engages in direct discussions about time. For example, Tristram Shandy, the narrator, often reflects on the impossibility of recounting his life story in real time. He notes that the more he writes, the more there is to write, and humorously points out that it takes him longer to write about the events of his life than it took for the events themselves to occur.

  3. Temporal Disruption: Sterne uses various literary devices to interrupt the temporal flow. This includes blank pages, chapters of wildly differing lengths, and a marbled page, all of which disrupt the linear progression of time and the reader's expectations.

  4. Meta-narrative Commentary: Sterne's work often includes commentary on the process of writing and reading, which involves temporal manipulation. For instance, Tristram as the narrator might pause the story to address the reader directly about why he is choosing to skip certain parts or focus on minor details, thereby manipulating the narrative's temporal flow.

  5. Emphasis on the Present Moment: Despite the constant shifts in time, there's a strong focus on the present moment in Sterne's writing. He dwells on the immediate experiences and sensations of his characters, often expanding brief moments into lengthy, detailed episodes.

  6. Characterization and Time: Characters in Sterne’s works, like Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim, are often stuck in past military exploits, reliving them repeatedly. This fixation on the past affects their present interactions and decisions, showcasing how personal time can differ substantially from chronological time.

Through these techniques and others, Sterne invites the reader to contemplate the nature of time as more than merely sequential. He highlights its subjectivity and the ways in which it can be experienced and represented in varied, often contradictory, forms. This approach was quite ahead of its time, bearing similarities to narrative techniques used by modernist writers of the 20th century.

Discuss the structure of "Tristram Shandy" and its impact on the reader.

"Tristram Shandy" by Laurence Sterne is renowned for its unconventional narrative structure, which significantly impacts the reader's experience. The novel is ostensibly an autobiography of the protagonist, Tristram Shandy, but it deviates from traditional narrative forms in several ways that challenge and engage the reader.

  1. Digressive Style: One of the most notable aspects of the structure is its digressiveness. Sterne frequently interrupts the storyline with anecdotes, philosophical musings, and playful tangents. This constant deviation from the main narrative can be disorienting for readers but also mimics the associative nature of human thought, creating a more intimate and conversational style. The digressions are not merely distractions but often illuminate the themes and emotions of the main story in indirect ways.

  2. Non-linear Timeline: The narrative does not follow a straightforward chronological order. It jumps back and forth in time, which reflects the complexity of human memory and perception. This non-linear approach forces readers to piece together the timeline themselves, making the reading experience more interactive and engaging.

  3. Metafictional Elements: Sterne frequently breaks the fourth wall, with characters aware of their status as fictional entities and commenting on the process of writing and storytelling itself. This metafictional approach draws attention to the artifice of narrative and the constructed nature of literature, prompting readers to question the relationship between reality and fiction.

  4. Typographical Playfulness: The novel includes unusual typographical elements such as a marbled page, a blank page for the reader to draw their own conception of a character, squiggly lines to represent the narrative flow, and disrupted chapters. These playful and experimental uses of the book's physical form further engage readers and disrupt conventional expectations of what a book should be.

  5. Interrupted and Incomplete Tales: Many of the stories within the novel are left unfinished or are interrupted by other incidents. This technique, while sometimes frustrating, mirrors life’s unpredictability and unstructured nature. It challenges the desire for neat conclusions and reinforces the theme of life's inherent messiness.

The impact of this structure on the reader is multifold. It demands active engagement and participation, as readers must navigate through the maze of digressions and temporal shifts. It also fosters a unique relationship between the reader and the text, one where the reader becomes acutely aware of the act of reading and interpreting. Moreover, the structure reflects and enhances the themes of the novel, including the complexities of human nature, the subjective nature of experience, and the art of storytelling itself.

Overall, the structure of "Tristram Shandy" not only entertains but also intellectually stimulates the reader, encouraging a deeper contemplation of narrative form, personal identity, and the interplay between literature and life.

What was Laurence Sterne’s contribution to the development of the novel form?

Laurence Sterne’s contribution to the development of the novel form is notably significant and innovative, especially through his most famous work, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman." Sterne challenged and expanded the boundaries of the traditional narrative and structure of the novel in several key ways:

  1. Narrative Structure: "Tristram Shandy" defies conventional narrative order and coherence. The novel is famously digressive, looping forward and backward in time, and departing on long tangents that seemingly have little to do with the plot. Sterne plays with the idea of narrative causality and linear progression, which was a radical departure from the neatly ordered plots typical of earlier novels.

  2. Metafiction: Sterne’s work is a prime example of early metafiction. He frequently breaks the fourth wall, acknowledging the presence of the reader and the artificiality of the narrative. Tristram, as the narrator, discusses how he is writing the book and manipulates the text by playing with typographical elements, such as a marbled page, a blank page to be filled in by the reader, and a squiggly line representing the narrative flow of the story. This self-awareness about the nature of storytelling and the physical aspects of book-making was pioneering.

  3. Playfulness with Textual Form: Sterne experimented with visual elements within the text. Apart from the aforementioned marbled and blank pages, he included full black pages, peculiar punctuation, and disrupted narratives that require the reader to participate actively. These innovations encourage readers to think about the physical form of the text and their interaction with it as a printed book.

  4. Character Depth and Development: Although "Tristram Shandy" is characterized by seeming chaos and digressions, these aspects allow Sterne to explore the inner workings and idiosyncrasies of his characters in great depth. This psychological depth, provided not through traditional character development but through anecdotes, conversations, and tangents, was influential in the evolution of character portrayal in novels.

  5. Humor and Satire: Sterne used humor, irony, and satire to critique contemporary society, literary conventions, and even philosophical ideas such as John Locke’s theories of human understanding. His playful and ironic approach to subjects that were typically treated with seriousness set a new tone in literature that influenced later writers.

In sum, Laurence Sterne expanded the possibilities of narrative fiction and influenced literary forms and techniques in ways that can be seen in later writers such as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Jorge Luis Borges, among others. His work heralded a move toward modernist and postmodernist approaches to literature, making him a key figure in the development of the novel form.

How did Laurence Sterne play with the reader’s expectations?

Laurence Sterne, particularly in his masterpiece The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, expertly played with reader expectations in several innovative and groundbreaking ways. His narrative techniques often defy the conventional forms and expectations of the novel, requiring readers to engage with the text in unique and active ways. Here are some of the specific methods he used:

  1. Disruptive Structure: Sterne frequently disrupts the chronological flow of the narrative. Anecdotes, digressions, and philosophical musings are interjected in such a way that the main storyline is often put on hold for substantial lengths of time. This disruption challenges the conventional expectation that a story should be told in a straightforward, linear progression.

  2. Metafictional Commentary: Sterne often breaks the fourth wall, directly addressing the reader and commenting on the act of writing and storytelling itself. This metafictional technique makes readers acutely aware of the artificiality of the narrative and the presence of the author, which was a radical approach for his time.

  3. Typographical Playfulness: Sterne uses visual elements and unusual typographical techniques, including a marbled page, a black page to mourn a character’s death, squiggly lines to represent the movement of a walking stick, and blank pages for readers to draw their own conception of a character. These elements disrupt the traditional reading process and create a playful interaction between text and reader.

  4. Unconventional Characters: The characters in Sterne’s work often defy conventional archetypes. For instance, Tristram Shandy, the narrator, struggles to narrate his own birth and life story effectively, leaving many of his anecdotes unfinished. This subverts expectations of the protagonist as a coherent, omniscient, and reliable narrator.

  5. Parody and Satire: Sterne parodies various literary forms and satirizes intellectual pretensions, social norms, and even the burgeoning genre of the novel itself. By doing so, he challenges the readers' expectations of what serious literature should be, often turning what could be a straightforward narrative into a complex critique of society.

  6. Interrupted Narratives: The frequent interruptions in the narrative, whether by characters or the author, play with the reader’s expectations concerning story development and pacing. Readers are forced to constantly adjust their focus and expectations as the narrative jumps from one topic to another.

Each of these techniques not only entertains but also invites readers to question the nature of storytelling and the relationship between author, text, and audience. Sterne's playful and intellectual approach to writing was revolutionary at the time and continues to influence writers and challenge readers today.

Why did Sancho write to Laurence Sterne?

Sancho wrote to Laurence Sterne primarily to express his admiration for Sterne's writing and to seek Sterne's support for the abolitionist cause. Ignatius Sancho, an African man in England who gained his own freedom and became a notable figure in the literary and artistic circles of the time, was deeply moved by Sterne's empathetic portrayal of characters and his reflections on human suffering in works like "Tristram Shandy" and "A Sentimental Journey."

In the letter, dated July 27, 1766, Sancho appeals to Sterne's well-known sentiments of humanity, urging him to use his considerable influence to aid the cause of enslaved Africans. Sancho's letter cleverly references Sterne's own writings, particularly the tender scene in "Tristram Shandy" where Uncle Toby is moved by the suffering of a fly, suggesting that if Sterne could feel compassion for a fly, he should likewise feel a greater compassion for the human misery experienced by slaves.

Sterne responded to Sancho's letter, expressing his support and apparently sending Sancho a guinea. The correspondence between Sancho and Sterne not only highlights the interconnectedness of 18th-century British literary and intellectual circles, regardless of race, but also marks one of the early instances of discourse on racial and humanitarian issues in the public intellectual sphere of the time. This exchange is poignant, reflecting both Sterne's sentiments and Sancho's adeptness at engaging with prominent cultural figures to promote social justice.

Where was Laurence Sterne buried?

Laurence Sterne was buried at St George's Church, Hanover Square, in London. After his death in 1768, his remains faced a peculiar history; they were reportedly exhumed and sold to an anatomy professor before being reinterred. Eventually, his body was moved back to its original resting place in the churchyard. There is also a memorial plaque to Sterne within the church, commemorating his life and work.

Why did Ignatius Sancho write a letter to Laurence Sterne?

Ignatius Sancho, an African man in Britain who gained fame in the 18th century not only as a composer and actor, but also for his writings advocating for the abolition of the slave trade, wrote to Laurence Sterne seeking his support for the abolitionist cause. Sancho admired Sterne for his sentimental writing style, particularly in "Tristram Shandy" and "A Sentimental Journey," which displayed a deep empathy for the human condition.

In his letter, dated July 27, 1766, Sancho expressed his heartfelt admiration for Sterne's works and appealed to his sense of morality and compassion. Sancho pointed out the cruel absurdity of the slave trade, and its stark contradiction to the values Sterne espoused in his writings. He implored Sterne to use his influence and eloquence as a writer to help change the hearts and minds of people regarding slavery.

Sterne's response to Sancho’s letter is considered one of the few existing documents where Sterne openly expresses his views on slavery. Sterne agreed with Sancho's sentiments and assured him that he would mention the matter in his forthcoming work in a manner that would reflect his abhorrence and condemnation of such brutal trade. Indeed, Sterne later addressed the issue of slavery in "A Sentimental Journey," using the character of the captive starling to symbolize the plight of enslaved individuals, echoing Sancho's concerns and urging compassion and humanity towards them.

Find more on Gab AI like Laurence Sterne

Discover and learn about people that are similar to Laurence Sterne.

Explore our Characters