A parody of the biographical form of writing of the time, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is an experimental book by Anglo-Irish writer and priest Laurence Sterne. A challenge to follow, even for the 18th century reader, it contains many literary and philosophical references and is full of double entendres. The novel ruminates on serious themes such as fate and free will, the limitations of language and ideas, literature and science, education and knowledge, and sex and identity. But it is also a very trivial book, sharing intimate aspects of Tristram’s life. It is narrated by the author-protagonist in a non-linear, convoluted and digressive way, which, Tristram believes, makes it true to life.

“…there is a fatality that attends the actions of some men: Order them as they will, they pass through a certain medium which so twists and refracts them from their true directions.”

...hay una cierta fatalidad que siempre está presente en las acciones de algunos hombres: dispónganlas como las dispongan, atraviesan un determinado medio que las distorsiona y hace desviarse de sus verdaderas direcciones.


The book progresses by jumping backward and forward in time and introducing stories-within-stories. Anecdotes are often unfinished, and whole pages filled with asterisks or dashes, or even left blank. The book begins at the moment of Tristram’s conception, but even that is complicated, with Tristram blaming his problems in later life on his parents because they were interrupted in the act. His birth does not actually occur until Volume IV, but Tristram encourages the reader to persist.

“I have undertaken, you see, to write not only my life, but my opinions also; hoping and expecting that your knowledge of my character, and of what kind of a mortal I am, by the one, would give you a better relish for the other: as you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship.”

He acometido la empresa, ya lo ve usted, de escribir no sólo mi vida, sino también mis opiniones, con la esperanza y el deseo de que su conocimiento de mi carácter y de la clase de mortal que soy por medio de lo uno le predispondría mejor para lo otro. A medida que prosiga usted en mi compañía, el ligero trato que ahora se está iniciando entre nosotros se convertirá en familiaridad; y ésta, a menos que uno de los dos falle, acabará en amistad.


The focus changes from the hero himself to background details related to Tristram’s family and environment. He introduces his father, Walter, as a country gentleman interested in insignificant subjects; Walter has many documents on the subject of noses, for example, as his son is born with a squashed one. Tristram considers how theories develop and grow strong in a subjective way.

“It is the nature of an hypothesis, when once a man has conceived it, that it assimulates every thing to itself as proper nourishment; and, from the first moment of your begetting it, it generally grows the stronger by every thing you see, hear, read, or understand.”

Las teorías se caracterizan por el hecho de que, una vez concebidas, todo lo asimilan en provecho de su propia nutrición; y, desde el mismo instante en que se las engendra, todo lo que uno ve, oye, lee o entiende no hace sino fortalecerlas cada vez más.

Other characters in the book include Walter’s brother, Uncle Toby, a war veteran with a heart of gold; Parson Yorick, a priest with a rude sense of humour; “man-midwife” Dr. Slop; Corporal Trim, Uncle Toby’s loyal valet; and Walter’s wife and Tristram’s mother, Elizabeth Shandy, a down-to-earth woman little appreciated because of her “lack of imagination.”


When Tristram’s brother Bobby suddenly dies, Tristram becomes the family’s sole heir. Walter begins writing a detailed work called the Tristrapedia, intended to cover all the topics necessary for the boy’s education. However, Walter finds he can’t write fast enough to keep up with his son’s growth and development.

“He shall neither strike, or pinch, or tickle—or bite, or cut his nails, or hawk, or spit, or snift, or drum with his feet or fingers in company;—nor (according to Erasmus) shall he speak to any one in making water,—nor shall he point to carrion or excrement.”

No pegará, ni pellizcará, ni hará cosquillas,—ni se morderá o roerá las uñas, ni hará gargajos, ni escupirá, ni olisqueará, ni tamborileará con los dedos ni con los pies cuando esté en sociedad;—y tampoco (según Erasmo) le dirigirá a nadie la palabra mientras esté haciendo aguas,—ni señalará jamás con el dedo una carroña o un excremento.

At one point, the narrative jumps forward decades to the present (to about 1765), where Tristram, now in his 40s, is preparing to travel to France in an attempt to run away from death. In France he races around, enjoying himself most in the rural south, where he takes part in fairs, festivals, and country dances.


Back to the main plot line, and Tristram tells the story of a romance between Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman, who prevaricated for decades about starting a relationship. Finally, Toby realises he is in love and prepares to visit. Walter gives his brother lengthy advice in a long “Letter of Instruction”. Tristram observes that education can have the effect of closing the mind as well as opening it.

“You are a person free from as many narrow prejudices of education as most men.”

Usted es una persona que está tan libre de los numerosos y mezquinos prejuicios de la educación como la mayoría de los hombres.


In typical style, the novel ends with an absurd, inconclusive tale about a bull and a baby. Mrs. Shandy delivers the famous final lines, questioning the veracity of the entire story.

“—What is this story all about?

—It is a Cock and Bull story, and a cock-and-bull story, and various other kinds of story — and it is one of the best of its kind ever heard.”

—¿Qué es toda esta historia?.

—Ni más ni menos que una Fábula: sobre una POLLA y un TORO, dijo Yorick;—y es una de las mejores que en su género he oído jamás.

Sterne became an unlikely celebrity because of Tristram Shandy. Centuries on, its radical free-form construction influenced literary icons such as James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov and Salman Rushdie, but also many musicians and visual artists. A film adaptation of the book entitled A Cock and Bull Story was made in 2005 by British director Michael Winterbottom, who set it in a contemporary framework.