The Reader in Sterne’s "Tristram Shandy" ; Metafiction or Metanarrative

Lawrence Sterne’s novel, Tristram Shandy is unique in that it is much ahead of its time in its post-modernist approach to the narrative technique, and in its according of the reader a special consolatory status. Tristram Shandy is an auto-referential novel in which the tale per se is less important than the narrative method, the fictive matter less important than the manner of telling it, and the reader’s concern with the events less important than the narrator’s causerie with the reader. The presence of an intruding self-conscious narrator and a perpetually present implied reader makes it what critics generally call a metafiction or Meta narration’ since the narrator discusses with the reader his narrative and artistic techniques. That Sterne considers a narrative to be a communication between the reader and the narrator is brought to the fore in his own statement: ‘Writing, when properly managed is but a different name for conversation’. 
‘The protagonist of Tristram Shandy, one might argue, is the Reader’, observes J. Paul Hunter in his essay ‘Tristram  Shandy and the Art of Interruption’. The narrator begins by drawing  the reader’s sympathy to his tale by declaring, ‘Believe me, good folks, this is not so inconsiderable things as many of you may think it’ The central role of the reader of ten elicits from the author an adulatory address: ‘your worship’ and ‘your reverences ‘.The range of addresses varies from chapter to chapter, sometimes even from passage to passage, from ‘Sir’ to ‘My  Lord’, from ‘dear Sir’ to ‘your worship’, from ‘gentle reader’ to the more intimate ‘my dear Garrick’. Sometimes the references are gently playful or even slightly satirical, as when he addresses the reader as ‘Sir Critick ‘or as ‘you gently with the greate beards’. On numerous occasions the reader must is a lady, a ‘madam’, and often addressed by  the more faminate ‘dear girl’ or ‘Jenny’, thought some critics argue that he is more condescending or even insulting when addressing the female reader.  

‘The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding’, declares Tristram, ‘Is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him some things to imagine in his turn, as well as yourself. The writer’s role in this creative partnership is to take up the burden of a vast quantity of apparently subsequent and inconsequential detail, and simultaneously to find emotional, if not rational, coherence. The reader’s ability to process this detail hinges upon his growing emotional and intellectual response to the writer. The narrator and reader progress from ‘slight acquaintance’ to ‘familiarity’ to ‘friendship’, as the reader proves willing to accept the writer’s aberrations. ’As we jog on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do anything-only keep your temper’. The ideal relationship between the reader and the narrator is of amused tolerance, a ‘good-humoured of the inevitability of error and the likelihood of mutual responsibility for it’.

Although the narrator often praises the reader’s imagination as when he refers to the painting of Raphael ‘which your connoisseurship knows is so exquisitely imagined, that even the particular manner of the reasoning of Socrates is expressed in it’, he is often disputatious and even didactic. He asks the reader,’ And pray who was Tickletoby’s mare?’ Tristram asks the reader to educate himself by reading:’ Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader, read’. He adds that if he lacks the knowledge to understand words so simple, he certainly will fail to ‘penetrate the moral’ of the rest of the work. He emphatically points out that his purpose is to educate and train the reader, for ‘all good people, both male and female, .may be taught to think as well as read’.

Sterne repeatedly manipulates the reader by deliberately disappointing expectations of narrative from which one has developed through prior reading. By unexpectedly departing from conventional narrative forms in the epic and the novel, Sterne insists that reader’s allegiance to them is a sign of preference for convenient artifice to inconvenient reality. He subverts the Roman critic when he remarks that he has ‘begun the history of myself….as Horace says, ab Ovo’. He further reveals his awareness that Horace ‘does not recommend this fashion’ of opening at the beginning, for Horace supports Homer’s habit of beginning in medias res, or in the ‘middle of things’. His declaration to reader is emphatic: ‘Ishal confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man’s rules that ever lived’. He thereby compels the reader to attune himself to the Shandian narrator.

The attraction of the novel is therefore lies in wondering not only what the narrator is going to do next, but also in wondering in to what  role he is going to trick the reader-whose sex, status, and point of view are changeable at the writer’s whim. The reader is threatened and intimidated, coxed and cajoled into becoming a willing confidant and even accomplice.


What is Metafiction?

Metafiction is a literary genre that self-consciously draws attention to its own fictional nature, often by breaking the illusion of reality or challenging traditional narrative conventions. Metafictional works frequently involve characters who are aware they are in a work of fiction or comment on the writing process itself.

1.Hunter, J. P. (1971). Response as Reformation: “Tristram Shandy” and the Art of Interruption. NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 4(2), 132.
2. History of English Literature  by Edward Albert
3. British Library. (n.d.). British Library.


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