Publication Date

Spring 2007


College of Arts and Sciences




Between the years 1759 and 1769, Laurence Sterne published a hugely popular and widely controversial work, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. One aspect of this "shaggy dog" story is to address the ambiguity and imprecision of language as a system of communication. Communication (or lack of) occurs throughout the piece both between the characters and between the narrating voice of Tristram and the "constructed" reader. Tristram Shandy reveals this language difficulty through several means: First is the hobby-horse, the individuals' fixations and obsessions; second and connected to this idea of the hobby-horse is the John Locke's philosophy of the "association of ideas;" third is the book's sexual comedy, which reveals various characters' sexual inadequacies and links them to their linguistic inadequacies. The manner in which these various language dilemmas are presented is both lighthearted and sentimental, suggesting that the "solution" to language's inabilities to convey entire meaning or individual essence is within the context of humor and affection.