After his education at Cambridge, Sterne spent a major part of his young life as a vicar in Yorkshire, amassing minutely observed details about the social environment. He began work on his masterpiece, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, reading excerpts to a circle of friends. The first two volumes were published in 1760 and catapulted the author to instant literary fame. Further volumes appeared in 1761, 1762, 1765 and 1767. Sterne was lionized by fashionable London society, and he became a kind of cult figure.
Tristram Shandy was intended as a comedy that exposed the stupidity of human vanity and of life itself. In its own time, the novel was condemned as being too indelicate by many. Still, it was astonishingly modern and very similar to the works of twentieth-century writers such as the American writer Joseph Heller. Sterne emphasized the irrationality of human thought processes, using a fragmented narrative to support his assertions. He made use of the grotesque and the absurd to convey the ultimate futility of human desires and intellect.
Structural experimentation was one of the novelľ’s unique features. Changes in tone, plot narration and even in typography blank pages, flashbacks and interpolations, its blanks and dashes, its asterisks, its black marbled pages, wiggly lines, and misplaced chapters, a preface that occurs in the middle of the book, eccentricities in punctuation, etc. added to the work’s novelty.
Tristram, the nominal hero, plays little part in the action, though as the authorial voice of the narrative, his random associations determine its form. As a character, he is not born until Volume 4 and never gets beyond infancy. Tristram’s father Walter Shandy and his uncle Toby appear as comic caricatures of Locke’s theory of the association of ideas. ‘Shandy’ is an old Yorkshire dialect word meaning crackbrained, odd or unconventional, and it suits the book perfectly.
Sterne can be considered the harbinger of the technique which, in the twentieth century, came to be known as the ‘Stream Of Consciousness’. He flouts order, plays with digressions and gives free expression to the impressions that pass through a man’s mind. His thoughts ramble forward, backward, sideways, where they will; and his wide range of characters are presented with all their obsessions and peculiarities. Yet, Sterne’s novel does not stand out in splendid isolation as a revolutionary or iconoclastic work. Tristram Shandy was also much in keeping with the mood of an age caught up in the cults of sensibility and the picturesque, with its love for ruins and heightened sentimentality. Aside from his debt to Locke, Sterne was working in the long tradition of intellectual satires embracing Montaigne, Rabelais, Erasmus and Swift, as well as drawing on a mass of picaresque and travel literature.
With all its structural and narrative surprises, Tristram Shandy stands in part against the idea of literature as a finished and ordered product, its uneven surfaces capable of reflecting with accuracy, the conditions of life. This is one reason why it has proved such a fertile influence on twentieth-century fiction, influencing novelists like James Joyce, John Fowles, Gunter Grass and Salman Rushdie. The distinctive style and narration ensure that this eighteenth-century novel usher in the tenets of postmodernism. What was regarded in the eighteenth century as a joyous, exuberant cock-and-bull story, has surprisingly displayed a multi-layered texture, thematically and technically, so natural to modern fiction.