This is not the title of another post on Tristram Shandy

because I am still considering what title I want to use. Although I have already written about the play of form in Laurence Sterne’s book (Tristram Shandy ****s Up the Page, Progressive Digressions in Tristram Shandy, and The Stuff That Dreams are Made Of), there is so much more to say! I feel I could go on exploring metafictional elements in Tristram Shandy for years and never get to the bottom of the book. So here are just a couple of additions to my earlier observations of metafiction in Laurence Sterne’s masterpiece.

In chapter twenty of volume 3 you can find the preface to the novel and in chapter 24 of the 9th volume, there’s an invocation. A dedication appears in chapter 8 of the first volume, then in the following chapter, Tristram offers to sell the dedication for 50 guineas, promising to print the buyer’s name in all succeeding editions. However, he then limits the dedication only to what relates to Hobby-Horses, “but no more, shall stand dedicated to your Lordship.—–The rest I dedicate to the Moon” (20). By playing with expectations of form, by breaking those expectations, Laurence Sterne exposes the artificiality of those conventions, making us aware that it is merely a cultural tradition to put a dedication or invocation at the beginning of a novel, rather than in the middle.

In chapter 13, Tristram refers to a map which will be added to the end of the twentieth volume. The map, he says, will make his explanation much clearer. (Only nine volumes were published.) A footnote to the name to Confucius pretends to clarify when in fact it merely adds to the narrative confusion: “Mr. Shandy is supposed to mean ***** ***, Esq; member for ******,——and no the Chinese legislator” (312). (The use of footnotes in a novel which confuse rather than clarify is a common convention in metafiction. In Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce includes a footnote that is a bar of music.)

In the section which reproduces Slawkenbergius’s Tale, the original tale in Latin is four pages long, but the translation is nineteen pages. By offering us a translation that is fifteen pages longer than the original, he shows us that translations are never the same as the original text, but something new, something different.

I think I know what my title should be now:

Formal Informalities in Tristram Shandy

Tristram has a great deal of fun with chapters. He addresses questions such as how an author decides when to end one chapter and start another (the author’s whim, rather than a logical decision). At one point, Tristram declares at the beginning of a chapter that he has decided to start the chapter nonsensically, which is, in fact, the beginning of the chapter, so then he must begin it again “nonsensically.”  At the end of another chapter, he declares he will start the chapter over again. Early in the novel, he promises us a chapter on buttonholes, but never delivers, although he refers back to non-existent chapter on buttonholes from time to time.

On page 255 the book jumps from chapter 23 to 25, skipping over part of the Tristram’s European voyage. We are told that there should have been a gap of ten pages, but the bookbinder is no fool and so the gap was much shorter so as not to waste paper on nothing. Nor is the book any worse for the missing chapter, Tristram Shandy says, “the painting of this journey, upon reviewing it, appears to be so much above the style and manner of anything else I have been able to paint in this book, that it could not have remained in it without depreciating every other scene; and destroying at the same time that necessary equipose and balance (whether of good or bad) betwixt chapter and chapter, from whence the just proportion and harmony of the whole work results” (256).

Chapters also appear in the “real world” of the novel, blurring the borders between fiction and reality. Tristram’s father states, “what a long chapter of chances do the events of this world lay open to us! Take pen and ink in hand, brother Toby, and calculate it fairly” (226).

There is even a metachapter, a chapter on chapters, chapter 10, at the end of which he says, “So much for my chapter upon chapters, which I hold to be the best chapter in my whole work; and take my word, whoever reads it is full as well employed as in picking straws” (228). Picking straws refers to the game we call, pick-up sticks. Chapters in other words are randomly thrown into the work and readers must pick through them to make sense of them. As logical as chapter breaks and other formal elements like prefaces and dedications appear to be, they appear as they do because of tradition and author’s decision.

And then the entire novel ends abruptly.

(To read more about metafiction, read my book Narrative Madness, available at or on Amazon.)

Work Cited

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. New York: The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1960.

One thought on “This is not the title of another post on Tristram Shandy”

  1. The End
    Have a Good Day, from Dan
    Writing letters backwards can be amusing but rather difficult to follow at times.
    Dear Ron,

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