Despite the immense popularity of Laurence Sterne’s work during his lifetime, his contribution to the novel form and experimentalism has only been acknowledged since his death. His contemporaries Richardson and Goldsmith denounced his archaic methods and took offence at his playful irreverence but his oddity is never accidental nor perverse; it is the strategy of an inventive, thoughtful, comic talent. Tristram Shandy, perhaps his best loved work, defies convention at every turn, distributing narrative content across a bafflingly idiosyncratic time-scheme interrupted by digressions, authorial comments and interferences with the printed fabric of the book. This comically fragmented story line is a reaction against the linear narratives of Fielding and Richardson; aiming instead at a realistic impressionism, a shape determined by the association of ideas. This study critiques Sterne’s work in the light of modern literary theory, questioning whether he was an artist before his time.
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