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Digressions in Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne was an Anglo-Irish novelist who wrote the novel ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’. Due to his poor financial position, Sterne was forced to borrow money for the printing of this novel, suggesting that he was confident that this novel would be a success. In this novel, Sterne has added a lot of digressions, as he believed that digressions are important for his novel, as they bind the whole story together.

          Digression is the central theme of Tristram Shandy. Digression refers to the action of moving away from the main subject you are writing or talking about and writing or talking about something else. There are three types of digressions found in this novel – explanatory, opinionative and interludes. The explanatory digressions are used to explain the story more clearly; opinionative digressions are used to give personal opinions of the characters on several topics, so that the readers can find the story more interesting. Interludes are such digressions that have no direct relation to the main plot  of the novel, but are used to tell the readers stories that are not related to the book but are interesting.

      Explanatory digression is the most important kind of digression found in Tristram Shandy.  They are squeezed inside the chapters without having a whole chapter for itself. Tristram’s words are not always philosophical, he also declares the limits of his explanatory digressions. These digressions have an immediate effect on the readers as they explain the story a bit more. For ex- Tristram explains in detail about the guilt felt by Trim on the window sash accident that circumcised Tristram. If explanatory digressions would not have been used here, the readers could never imagine the depth of this incident on their own. Several other digressions have been used at different parts of the novel. Tristram often sees the difficulty of the readers to understand the plot in advance so he used the explanatory digressions in the required places, so that readers can easily grasp the story. Without explanatory digressions, the entire story would have seemed too straightforward, lacking depth in the characters and the scenes. However, there are some weak explanatory digressions too, which do not serve much significant purposes. For ex, in the early chapters, the explanatory digression used for Uncle Toby doesn’t reveal anything extraordinary about him, just the basic characteristics of his personality.

          The opinionative digressions are basically used by Tristram to give his personal opinions about various things in the novel. They do not tell about the story as much as the explanatory ones do. These opinions are derived from the story itself, they do not supplement it. Example of opinionative digression is when Dr Slop is rehearsing Ernulph’s curse. It allows Tristram to form his  opinion on cursing in general. Also, his mother’s insistence for a mid-wife makes Tristram observe and give his opinion on human psychology. The main idea behind using opinionative digressions is to make the readers understand about Tristam as a character. Through them, the readers do not learn much about the story, but they surely get to know more about the character of Tristram, by analysing the way he thinks and form opinions. The author also adds these opinionative digressions to make the story look more artistic and interesting for the readers to keep reading. Tristram gives his valuable opinion about different topics like feminine pride, baptism etc. So, we can say that opinionative digressions are an integral part of ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’ in knowing more about the main character of the novel.

          The third type of digressions, i.e. interludes do not contribute to the main story. They neither explain the events nor are derived from it. Some examples of interludes are – Tristram’s preface, his explanation of satiric intentions etc. These digressions do not tell us anything about Tristram or the Shandy family in specific. Yet they are added in the novel to make it more exciting and long. They are added as different chapters or under special titles. Thus, we can say that the work of interludes isn’t to make us learn more about the characters or the story, but to get an interesting and smooth experience while reading through the pages. It is like some extra knowledge offered to us besides the main plot. Thus, they cannot be regarded as completely pointless.

          Digression is the soul of the novel Tristram Shandy. Through the digressions, the author gets out of the track from the main story, as he goes on to explain something else. But, he claims that Tristram Shandy is not like other novels, it is unique. Those who wants to discover more about the main character Tristram, might be disappointed even though it is his autobiography. The main reason behind this are the digressions, that continuously sweep the story to another direction. Usually, it is expected that the novels that are named after a character would tell about his/her life story. However, Laurence Sterne breaks this tradition, by introducing the consistent digressions, which do not allow the readers to know too much about the character. And that makes this novel a unique one.  

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