Over the past two weeks, I’ve been teaching Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It’s not a novel that I ever thought that I would teach. I embarrassingly admit that I hated it when I was in graduate school — I’m much more of a Richardson fan; I like the more traditional realist novel. But when I was creating the syllabus for my HTC class, I decided that it was about time I teach one of the great mid-century novels that I had never taught before. It was either Tristram or Tom Jones. I obviously picked the former.

On the whole, I’m glad I taught it. It’s certainly one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read, much less taught. (Why do I keep hearing the punchline, “Read it? I haven’t even taught it yet!” in my head?!) We spent two weeks on the novel. Even though this is an honors class, that was really pushing it, I think. On the one hand, my students had to read a lot of difficult material in a relatively short time. On the other hand, at least they don’t have to spend any more time on it if they didn’t like it!

We read the first five volumes of the novel the first week. I also brought in excerpts from Melvin New’s Laurence Sterne as Satirist (1969) to illustrate one of the foundational readings of the novel. His emphasis on the text as satire helped us link it back to Pope and Swift, who we had just read the week before. We finished the book for week two, watched the 2005 movie adaptation, I presented them with excerpts from Dennis Allen’s “Sexuality/Textuality in Tristram Shandy,” published in Studies in English Literature in 1985, and they each wrote a 5-page essay on it. I used Allen’s article to illustrate more recent trends in criticism and it certainly does — lots of gender and sexual stuff. (My students have stopped being surprised that the eighteenth century is so bawdy!) I also got to explain signs, signifiers, and signifieds, which is always fun!

I can’t claim to have any great insight into Tristram Shandy, and I’m pretty sure I don’t understand much of it. But it is a great work, and I’ve decided to give it a go in my regular eighteenth-century lit class. I’m not at all confident that it’s going to go well, but I want to keep teaching it until I feel like I have some sort of handle on it. (I realize that I might retire first, though!) Tristram is a novel that teaches its readers to read differently — it defies linear reading practices and the expectations of a typical realist novel.

Several of my students wrote reviews of the movie for their tutorial paper last week. Here’s the trailer:

I first saw this movie in Montreal. At the time, I didn’t really care much for it, since I thought it could have followed the novel more closely. But, since we were reading it, I figured it would be good to show it to my students and let them decide for themselves whether it was a good adaptation or not.

I was really impressed with what they did with it. They knew they could write about the film before seeing it, so they watched it with an eye toward how it adapts the book. In doing so, they saw a lot more parallels between the film’s digressions and content than I had seen. After discussing it with them in tutorial, I was convinced that the filmmakers had really gotten Sterne’s point and were doing a good job of adapting the book.

The movie adapts Tristram by depicting the behind-the-scenes story of a movie of Tristram Shandy; we see both scenes from the movie and scenes of the making of those scenes. Thus, many of the actors play themselves as well as characters from the novel. Steve Coogan, for example, plays Tristram, Tristram’s father Walter, and himself. Just as the novel uses Tristram’s narrative voice to give some shape to its contents, Coogan becomes the perspective from which we see most of the film’s action.

Coogan is great as Tristram/Walter/Steve Coogan. He has the right balance of likability and arrogance to play these roles for their comic effects. Several other actors show up in smaller roles, including Jeremy Northam, Kelly Macdonald, Stephen Fry, and Gillian Anderson. It’s certainly well cast, though it’s always difficult for me to see Gillian Anderson as anyone but Scully. Michael Winterbottom also does a good job in directing the movie; I like that he keeps it moving and that he tries to imbue the film with the novel’s sense of comic fun.

Now that my students have convinced me that it’s really brilliant, I need to watch the movie again. I will certainly have that opportunity in the fall, if I don’t wimp out and order Tom Jones instead!

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