The 18th century novel Tristram Shandy written by Laurence Sterne could be described as an anti- novel since it moves away from the conventional realist novel which used to be the only predominant style in novel writing at that time. Sterne rejects the traditional narrative technique of presenting a chronological plot with beginning, middle and end and instead offers the reader a non-chronological story rather built around digressions than following a straight forward narration. In order to reveal the way in which Sterne achieves this contemporary uncommon style one has to take a closer look at the role and function of language and non-verbal elements in Tristram Shandy.
The language Sterne uses resembles real speech. Thus the narrative consists of broken sentences, pauses and colloquial words which emphasize the importance of conversation in the novel. Likewise Sterne conveys the highly artificial style used by authors of the 18th century like Richardson and Fielding who presented their stories in chronological order with a language that was fluently and grammatically correct. Here Sterne emphasizes the fact that language is imperfect in reality and thus makes reference to John Locke’s idea of the insufficiency of language in his “Essay on Human Understanding”. “Well might Locke write a chapter upon the imperfections of words.” (5.7.288) This struggle with words can be seen in the failure of Tristram trying to write down his past, a past that is beyond his reach and therefore cannot be written down. Uncle Toby has to face the same problem, namely that he is unable to express himself through language but, unlike Tristram, finds a way to express himself and to keep his past remembered; he plants a battlefield in the garden in order to keep his experiences of war alive. Accordingly it is not language that is mirrored but rather a thought process which explains the difficulty of defining the meaning of words and their arbitrariness since the human mind has no clear or simple structure corresponding to Locke. Here Sterne introduces a new style of writing as the 18th century realistic novel had never made a difference between speech and thought for which Tristram Shandy is portrayed as a proto (post-) modernist novel.