Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767)

This chapter argues that the key narrative strategies of Tristram Shandy, particularly its blatant digressiveness and its play with various levels of time, directly result from central thematic concerns, namely Sterne’s critique of Enlightenment scientific optimism and the equally optimistic benevolist assumptions of eighteenth-century moral philosophy. Moreover, the essay heuristically distinguishes two long-term traditions of Sterne scholarship: on the one hand, decontextualized approaches that frequently mine the novel for anticipation or mere confirmation of present-day concerns; on the other hand, historicizing approaches that often fail to do justice to the apparent ‘modernity’ of Sterne’s text. However, these two traditions, it is argued, are not mutually exclusive: Presentifying readings – attempts to make Tristram Shandy relevant to our own time – do not have to be ahistorical if present-day concerns are traced to their roots in the central eighteenth-century contexts of Sterne’s text.


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