Time in "Tristram Shandy"

Essay, 1998

10 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents


1. Order of Events

2. Duration

3. Fusion of time schemes

4. Conclusion



Metafiction, according to Patricia Waugh, consists of ‘the construction of a fictional illusion (as in traditional realism) and the laying bare of that illusion’.[1] Tristram Shandy, I will argue in this essay, undermines fictional illusion by foregrounding ‘the most fundamental set of all narrative conventions: those concerning the representations of time’ (Waugh 70). I will exemplify this by trying to apply a conventional set of narratological terms to Tristram Shandy.[2] I will show that these terms, which are based on conventional narratives, are neither exhaustive nor distinctive when one tries to use them for Tristram Shandy.[3]

Narrative fiction, Rimmon-Kenan states, has three main aspects: story, text and narration:

‘Story’ designates the narrated events, abstracted from their disposition in the text and reconstructed in their chronological order, together with the participants in these events.

Whereas ‘story’ is a succession of events, ‘text’ is a spoken or written discourse which undertakes their telling. ...

Since the text is a spoken or written discourse, it implies someone who speaks or writes it. The act or process of production is the third aspect - ‘narration’. (Rimmon-Kenan p. 3)

Time is essential for all of these three aspects, as will become clear in my discussion. Time in itself, following Rimmon-Kenan, can be viewed in three respects: order, duration, and frequency (p. 46). I will focus on the first two aspects since they are more essential to the novel than frequency.[4]

Finally, I will discuss whether, after my discussion of Tristram Shandy’s time structure, one can conclude that the novel is a metafiction according to Waugh’s definition of the term.

1. Order of Events

One might argue that it is not sensible to try and abstract a chronological story existing outside the text of Tristram Shandy. It is, however, possible; and moreover, it is the text itself that suggests this chronology in the first place. Sterne is very intent to create a factual and fictional ‘context for Tristram’s life’,[5] by giving the reader many dates, and possibilities of dating, in the text. A historical chronology is created mainly by references to battles, such as the siege of Limerick (V.42), the battle of Landen (VI.24), the demolition of Dunkirk (III.24, VIII.10), or, again and again, uncle Toby’s siege of Namur (first in I.21).[6] Some fictional events of the story can be dated with the help of these historical references, for instance the years of uncle Toby’s convalescence (1695 to 1699, dated by the siege of Namur)[7], and his ‘amours’ (1713, dated by the demolition of Dunkirk). However, there are some fictional events that are dated directly in the text, the most important one being Tristram’s date of birth, ‘the fifth day of November, 1718’ (I.5). This, for instance, dates the accident of the window sash, since Tristram is ‘five years old’ (V.17), to 1723. Other fictional dates given in the text include the beginning of Toby’s infatuation with his hobby-horse, ‘which was in August, ninety-nine’ (II.3), or Mrs Shandy’s false labour trip to London ‘in the latter end of September, 1717’ (I.15). Many exact dates in the text refer to the time in which Tristram is actually writing down his book (I.18, I.21, V.17, IX.1). The implications of these dates shall be discussed in chapter two.

The high density of dates in Tristram Shandy suggests that his reader has some hope of untangling the enigma of the narrative if not life. While Sterne remains aloof, playing the humorous omniscient, Tristram struggles, the reader struggles, the story veers along seemingly without direction. (Livingston Davidson 55)

The ‘struggle’ the above quotation refers to is caused by several factors. First of all, a chronological order can be abstracted from the text, but the order of story-events in the text does not follow this chronology at all. If Tristram’s text follows any line, then it is shaped like the ones he gives us in chapter 40 of volume six. Volume one, for instance, starts with Tristram’s conception in the year 1718, goes on to the death of Yorick in 1748 (I.12), and to Mrs Shandy’s ill-fated trip to London in 1717, and ends on uncle Toby’s wound and convalescence, 1695 to 1699. Tristram’s comment to this disruption of temporal linearity is the following:

when a man is telling a story in the strange way I do mine, he is obliged continually to be going backwards and forwards to keep all tight together in the reader’s fancy. (VI.33)

The ‘strange way’ of storytelling may also refer to Tristram’s digressions, which continually interrupt the story. An example for such a digression is the letter of the ‘Docteurs de SORBONNE’ (I.20), elaborating on prenatal baptism. This theme is only to become truly relevant when Tristram’s birth and baptism are narrated in volume four. So Tristram is right, when he states: ‘In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too, - and at the same time’ (I.22) The progression, however, is not linear, but ‘rhapsodical’ (I.13), i.e. of an unrestrained form. One cannot even talk of flashbacks or anticipations, since the text does not have a defined beginning or ending. That is, the text does not begin at a certain point in the chronology of the story, and moves on to another point later in the story, interrupted by some references to later and earlier story-events. This would be the typical temporal structure of a conventional text. Tristram Shandy, on the contrary, jumps from one period in the chronology to another without motivating this step. The novel thereby foregrounds the possibilities of an author to manipulate the chronology of events in the story for his text.

2. Duration

Tristram Shandy’s foregrounding of the duration of narrative time is even more unconventional than its use of chronology. The most essential aspect of duration of narrative time discussed in Rimmon-Kenan (pp. 51-56) is pace, i.e. the question of how much text-time is devoted to how much story-time. The pace of Sterne’s novel is extremely varying; it reaches from the minimum to the maximum pace. The two extremes appear quite frequently in the novel. The minimum pace is represented by Tristram’s digressions: the story pauses, while the text goes on. Examples for this are passages such as Mrs. Shandy’s marriage settlement (I.15), or the various chapters containing Tristram’s reflections about his life and his writing, such as the ‘chapter upon chapters’ (IV.10). The maximum pace is the ellipsis. Several important events of the story are alluded to, but never told. An example for this is Tristram’s tour ‘through most parts of Europe’ with ‘Mr Noddy’s eldest son’ (I.11), about which ‘the most delectable narrative’ is promised, but never given. Similarly Tristram speaks of ‘that future and dreaded page’ (V.25) on which he would describe uncle Toby’s death, yet he never speaks of it again. Furthermore, the reader must assume that all the other main characters of the novel must be either very old or dead by the time Tristram is writing his last few volumes. However, there is no reference to the lives of Walter, Toby, Mrs Wadman or Trim after the day of Yorick’s death in 1748.[8]


[1] Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London & New York: Methuen, 1984), p. 6.

[2] I will use the terms established in: Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (London & New York: Routledge, 1983).

[3] This is not a criticism of Rimmon-Kenan’s set of terms. They are meant to describe the narrative norm, which must be established before one can discuss any undermining of the norm.

[4] The fact that several events of the story are referred to in the text repeatedly is interesting in itself, but the self-reflective references of the narrator mainly focus on the duration of time and the ordering of events. Given the limited length of this paper, I chose not to integrate frequency in my discussion.

[5] Elizabeth Livingston Davidson, ‘Toward an Integrated Chronology for Tristram Shandy.’ English Language Notes, 29:4 (1992), p. 50.

[6] References without name refer to Tristram Shandy. Since the chapters are mostly quite short, and since so many different editions are being used, I refer to chapters rather than pages. I.21 means volume one, chapter 21.

[7] I follow Elizabeth Livingston Davidson’s chronologies (50-54).

[8] In the chronology of the story, that is.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Time in "Tristram Shandy"
University of Aberdeen  (English Department)
Tristram Shandy
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
393 KB
About the time-mechanism in Laurence Sternes Klassiker "Tristram Shandy" About the time-mechanism in Laurence Sternes Klassiker "Tristram Shandy"
Time, Tristram, Shandy, Tristram, Shandy
Quote paper
Mag. Markus Widmer (Author), 1998, Time in "Tristram Shandy", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/14785


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Time in "Tristram Shandy"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free