The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Lawrence Stern 

Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

I grew up in a very conservative school district.  How conservative, you might ask?  Well, my husband went to Catholic schools, and he got a more comprehensive sex ed in health class than I did.  Just Google “ACLU” and “Lee County” to read a little about what went on in my county.  However, we also had some fairly educated people and a few decent schools and teachers, and so arguments over what books should be read and what was appropriate for high schoolers abounded.  We had a list of suggested books for my AP English class that were, in reality, required, since we had to write papers on a certain number of them, and that’s how we got to read Toni Morrison.  There was definitely a certain segment of the population that thought that modern books were too offensive and risque and full of sex and violence and shouldn’t be read in schools.  A quick hop over to the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged books and the reasoning will show you this mindset is still alive and well.  What’s most confusing to me about this is that the same people challenging any new book that mentions sex will say that we should stick to the classics, to the literary canon.  Which makes it painfully obvious that these people have never read the classics.

People have been basically the same for the last several thousand years, and past popular culture bears that out. If anything, the classics might be more vulgar than modern literature.  Shakespeare might be beautiful, but his plays are plenty bawdy and it’s all the risque jokes that were popular with the masses.  Canterbury Tales maybe should be banned, since the punchline to the Reeve’s Tale is that (SPOILER ALERT) the students get back at the baker by raping his wife and his daughter.  And as for Tristram Shandy, a book that was controversial and considered overly bawdy at the time it was written, well, one of its asides is a very long extended joke* about a man with a huge dick nose that drives all the ladies wild.  (One lady steals her husband’s trumpet to go demonstrate the man’s instrument at a convent and they could be heard moaning inside for three days at the thought of his nose.)

This is all fine as far as it goes, I just get a little irritated when people pretend that our generation is the degenerate and vulgar one.**  La plus ca change, you know?

Back to a review of Tristram Shandy, though.  My main thought on this book–besides that Tipper Gore would object to it on an album–is that satires are always a bit tricky to read a few hundred years after they’re written.  This is almost definitely the type of book that I should have read with a companion guide or in a class.  It’s obvious throughout that pretty much everything is some sort of joke and has at least two meanings, maybe more, but current events have changed so it’s a bit difficult to understand what all the book is about.  I found myself wondering if I would have liked it a lot more if I’d had more context for it.  I’m sure I didn’t get as much out of it as I could have if I knew more about the time period, but without that knowledge, instead I found it a bit of a slog and difficult to follow.  The dick jokes still hold up, though.

*See what I did there?

**This doesn’t just apply to books, by the way.  I can go on a fine tirade about classic Betty Boop cartoons vs. sexuality on tv today.**

**I’m lots of fun at parties.

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