Tristram Shandy on Film and Online: Reflecting on Public Readings of the Novel

In a course focused on the novel’s emergence in Britain, few books have divided my students more starkly than Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.  Ranging from attitudes of reverence to confusion to contempt, students struggle to find common ground in their understanding of what this text is and how it can possibly be considered a novel.  These disparate responses provide an important opportunity for students to reflect on the roles that readers’ interpretations play in shaping and defining novels and their meanings.  After first exploring their own confusion and contradictory conclusions, students can then examine the significance of what I describe as public readers in the story of the novel’s development.  Such public readers, whether critics in the eighteenth-century Monthly Review or today’s bloggers on sites like Tumblr, can powerfully frame our encounters with novels.

After an initial class discussion of students’ opinions about the first two volumes of the novel, the class reflects on how early readers may have shared such confusion and disagreement.  These confounded readers may have particularly turned to the guidance of public readers like critics, especially during a time when these texts were only gradually gaining recognition as a distinct genre. Much like these eighteenth-century readers, today’s readers in the digital age are also acutely aware of and reliant on public readings of literary texts.

To explore these contemporary public readings, students are asked to browse an online site like Tumblr where users present microblogs that can be re-blogged or liked by others.  These postings allow students to see short, focused perspectives that represent many different interpretations, criticisms and endorsements of features of the novel.  On Tumblr, students might find complaints about the formlessness of the novel along with images capturing Sterne’s famous squiggly lines depicting his stories’ wandering plots.  In a 2015 search of “Tristram Shandy” on Tumblr, a person’s tattoo of these lines was posted and re-posted, celebrating Sterne’s mocking resistance to linear plots and those readers insightful enough to appreciate his wit. 

Students might also notice the many postings about the 2005 movie, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.  This film, itself a public reading Sterne’s text, presents another opportunity to reflect on how such readings can influence our interpretations.  The film creates a vivid and dizzying re-enactment of many scenes, including that of Tristram’s traumatic birth.  It rejects a chronological telling of the novel in favor of a more circular and digressive plot, suggesting to its viewers a reading of the novel that celebrates its scenes of action intertwined with comedy.   

Encouraging students to explore the influence of such public readings of Tristram Shandy points to the ways in which novels can be understood as collaborative productions shaped by authors as well as by public and private readers.  Such lessons are especially relevant and necessary for students today as they frequently and sometimes uncritically rely on such online public readers to help them prepare for classes.  

 

Kimberly Baldus, University of Missouri - Saint Louis

Special thanks to Paula Reiter for soliciting this piece.

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