On Satire: 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman' by Laurence Sterne

Clare Bucknell and Colin Burrow

Tristram Shandy was such a hit in its day that you could buy tea trays, watch cases and cushions decorated with its most famous characters and scenes. If much of the satire covered in this series so far has featured succinct and damning portrayals of recognisable city types, Sterne’s comic masterpiece seems to offer the opposite: a sprawling and irreducible depiction of idiosyncratic country-dwellers that makes a point of never making its point. Yet many of the familiar satirical tricks are there – from radical shifts in scale to the liberal use of innuendo – and in this episode Clare and Colin look at the ways in which the novel stays true to the traditions of satire while drawing on Cervantes, Rabelais, Locke and the fashionable notion of ‘sentiment’ to advance a new kind of nuanced social comedy.

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