Our spring quarter starts tomorrow, so I’ve been spending some of my spring break planning my graduate seminar on Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, which will meet on Thursday evenings starting this week. This is going to be a vert busy and difficult quarter for me, but I’m really looking forward to teaching this class. I anticipate that it’s going to be the most difficult class I’ve ever taught, but if I can pull it off it’s going to be immensely rewarding.

I’ve taught Tristram Shandy twice before in my honors tutorial classes in 2008 and 2007. In both of these classes, we spent about two weeks rushing through the novel’s highlights. When I last taught it in 2008, I decided that I wanted to spend more time with this book, to challenge myself to really try to come to terms with it (emphasis on the word “try”). So, I decided that I would teach my next graduate seminar on it. What better way to force oneself to get to know a text better?!

As a graduate student I was supposed to read Tristram for a seminar on the eighteenth-century novel. I didn’t enjoy the book at all and was never able to finish it. Now that I’m teaching it to graduate students, I’ve been trying to identify why I disliked it so. My current theory is two-fold. First, I think that the professor didn’t properly contextualize the novel for us. As a class on the novel, we read what one would expect (for the mid-nineties): Oronooko, Roxana, Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, and then Tristram, which was followed by Humphrey Clinker, Caleb Williams, and probably something by Mary Wollstonecraft or Jane Austen, but I forget now what we ended with.

I now realize that this context only partially prepared us for Sterne’s novel, since the traditional of the eighteenth-century realist novel is only a small part of what Sterne is doing in Tristram. For this reason, I’m placing Tristram Shandy in a different contact by starting this seminar with Jonathan Swift. We’ll begin with Gulliver’s Travels and then read A Tale of a Tub (another text that I didn’t enjoy as a graduate student). I hope that these texts will show my students how Sterne is indebted to Swift’s combination of realism, fantasy, and satire. Like Swift, Sterne draw on the growing conventions of realist fiction in a playful way so that he can comment on and critique a host of cultural, political, and religious issues of his time.

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