Tristram Shandy and the Comedy of Context

Columbia University literature professor George P. Landow uses Laurence Sterne’s 1750s series of novels, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, to illustrate how communication takes place. Refuting the idea that language can only convey ideas between two people when both speakers agree on what a word denotes, Landow highlights the comedy—and communication—that takes place in Sterne’s novels when characters infer meaning by what words connote. Landow writes that literature “often communicates not by denotation but by the indirect definition the context of a dramatic situation provides.”

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