Laurence Sterne

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Sterne, Laurence

(stûrn), 1713–68, English author, b. Ireland. Educated at Cambridge, he entered the Anglican church and was given the living of Sutton-in-the-Forest, Yorkshire, in 1738, where he remained until 1759. He came to London the following year and was a great social success. Unhappily married, he was involved with various women during his lifetime, most notably Mrs. Eliza Draper, for whom he wrote the Journal to Eliza (1767). He led a somewhat dissolute life and much of the time was plagued by ill health, dying finally of tuberculosis. In 1760 the first volume of his masterpiece Tristram Shandy appeared. Although it was denounced on moral and literary grounds by Dr. Johnson, Horace Walpole, and others, the book was a popular success and eight subsequent volumes followed (1761–67). As a result of his travels to the Continent (1762–66) he wrote, but left unfinished, A Sentimental Journey (1768). He also published in his lifetime several volumes of sermons. One of the most entertaining and original literary works in English, Tristram Shandy is, in a sense, a parody of a novel. It is a hodgepodge of character sketches, blank pages, dramatic action, transposed chapters, and various digressions. Sterne constantly obtrudes himself into the novel and is by turns witty, satiric, sentimental, knowledgeable, and obscene. Beneath this apparent chaos, however, is a structure based on the association of ideas. In Tristram Shandy Sterne enlarged the scope of the novel from the mere recording of external incidents to the depiction of a complex of internal impressions, thoughts, and feelings.


See the Shakespeare Head Press edition of his works (7 vol., 1926–27); his letters (ed. by L. P. Curtis, 1935); his memoirs ed. by D. Grant (1950); biographies by W. L. Cross (3d rev. ed. 1967), W. B. Piper (1965), D. Thomson (1973), and A. H. Cash (2 vol.,1975–86); studies by L. C. Hartley (1966), J. M. Stedmond (1967), J. Traugott, comp. (1968), and Valerie G. Myer (1984).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Sterne, Laurence


Born Nov. 24, 1713, in Clonmel, Ireland; died Mar. 18, 1768, in London. British writer; most prominent representative of sentimentalism.

Sterne graduated from the school of divinity at Cambridge University in 1738 and became a clergyman. In his parodie novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (vols. 1–9, 1760–67; Russian translation, vols. 1–6, 1804–07), Sterne polemically exaggerated and reduced to absurdity Enlightenment pretensions of having reached a rational understanding of life. Following D. Hume, he also expressed doubt as to the infallibility of the “heart,” the chief category of sentimentalist ethics. The novel’s chaotic composition, eccentricity of narrative manner, and violation of moral taboos called forth a fierce polemic against it. Sterne’s reconsideration of literary canons and traditional concepts of man was continued in his unfinished A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768; Russian translation, 1793). The mechanism of sharp changes in mental states, the capricious play of emotions, and the narrator-hero’s ironical self-analysis all serve to expose the incompleteness and one-sidedness of concepts coming both from the Enlightenment and sentimentalism. Another experiment in psychological studies was the Sermons of Mr. Yorick (vols. 1–2, 1760–69).

Sterne’s influence was particularly strong in France (on Diderot) and Germany (Jean Paul). In Russia, he influenced A. N. Radishchev, N. M. Karamzin, and V. F. Odoevskii; A. S. Pushkin and L. N. Tolstoy expressed their high opinion of him. In the early 20th century, the formal-experimental features of Sterne’s poetics had a revival in “stream-of-consciousness” literature.


Works and Life, vols. 1–12. New York, 1904.
Letters. Oxford, 1935.
Zhizn’ i mneniia Tristrama Shendi, dzhentl’mena. Sentimental’noe putesheslvie po Frantsii i Italii. Moscow. 1968.


Tronskaia, M. L. Nemetskii sentimental’no-iumoristicheskii roman epokhi Prosveshcheniia. Leningrad, 1965.
Elistratova, A. A. Angliiskii roman epokhi Prosveshcheniia. Moscow, 1966.
Cross, W. Life and Times of Laurence Sterne. New Haven, 1929.
The Winged Skull London [1971].
Thomson, D. Wild Excursions: The Life and Fiction of Laurence Sterne. London [1972].
Hartley, L. Laurence Sterne in the Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill [1966].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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