a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

Home All New Browse Search About

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759)
Laurence Sterne

Michele Benzi wrote to recommend that I add this classic novel, which was critically praised when it first appeared and then fell in esteem due to accusations of plagiarism. Benzi writes:

Contributed by Michele Benzi

I was surprised not to find this "Great Book" in your database, as it contains a number of references to mathematics (and to mechanics, astronomy, engineering and many other fields of knowledge). Sterne mentions Archimedes, Stevin, Tartaglia, Galileo, Torricelli, Descartes, the Bernoullis (he actually quotes a paper from 'Acta Eruditorum' from 1696) and the Marquis de l'Hopital. There's even a discussion of the cycloid, which was one of the hottest mathematical topics in the XVII and XVIII centuries (see Euler's frontispice of his 1744 book on the calculus of variations).

Here is the passage from the book that concerns cycloids and the work of the Bernoulis. As you can see, the joke is that knowledge of cycloids would be needed to build the bridge according to plan, but his uncle knows only about parablolas:

(quoted from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman)

For a whole week after he was determined in his mind to have one of that particular construction which is made to draw back horizontally, to hinder a passage; and to thrust forwards again to gain a passage--of which sorts your worship might have seen three famous ones at Spires before its destruction--and one now at Brisac, if I mistake not;--but my father advising my uncle Toby, with great earnestness, to have nothing more to do with thrusting bridges--and my uncle foreseeing moreover that it would but perpetuate the memory of the Corporal's misfortune--he changed his mind for that of the marquis d'Hopital's invention, which the younger Bernouilli has so well and learnedly described, as your worships may see--Act. Erud. Lips. an. 1695--to these a lead weight is an eternal balance, and keeps watch as well as a couple of centinels, inasmuch as the construction of them was a curve line approximating to a cycloid--if not a cycloid itself.

My uncle Toby understood the nature of a parabola as well as any man in England--but was not quite such a master of the cycloid;--he talked however about it every day--the bridge went not forwards.--We'll ask somebody about it, cried my uncle Toby to Trim.

This is certainly an explicit reference to mathematics, though I remain unsure whether it is enough to justify the inclusion of "Tristram Shandy" in this database. Michele's suggests that even more mathematics can be found in a diagram illustrating the non-linearity of the author's style of narration. Personally, I think that Michele may be giving the author too much credit here, reading some deep mathematics into a simple joke...but since he is a math professor at Emory and as qualified as I to comment on these things, I will simply let him speak for himself (and let you decide for yourself):

Contributed by Michele Benzi

But that's not all. Sterne seems to have somehow foreshadowed the notion a non-rectifiable curve, like the von Koch 'snowflake'; he even has a page where he draws a few curves joining two points A and B; one is a straight line segment, the others are almost fractal-like curves, and he uses these as an analogy to describe his narrative style, full of digressions in all directions, like a curve without tangent at any point (some of the curves resemble Brownian motion). I found these to be extraordinary for an XVIII writer -- a postmodern author well ahead of the times.

More information about this work can be found at
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
  2. The Birds by Aristophanes
  3. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
  4. The Chair of Philanthromathematics by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)
  5. Inquirendo Island by Hudor Genone
  6. Micromegas by Fran├žois Marie Arouet de Voltaire
  7. Topsy-turvy (Sans Dessus Dessous) by Jules Verne
  8. Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw
  9. The Devil and the Lady by Alfred Tennyson
  10. The Romance of Mathematics: Being the Original Researches of a Lady Professor of Girtham College... by Peter Hampson Ditchfield
Ratings for The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
1/5 (1 votes)
Literary Quality:
3/5 (1 votes)


Home All New Browse Search About

Your Help Needed: Some site visitors remember reading works of mathematical fiction that neither they nor I can identify. It is time to crowdsource this problem and ask for your help! You would help a neighbor find a missing pet...can't you also help a fellow site visitor find some missing works of mathematical fiction? Please take a look and let us know if you have seen these missing stories anywhere!.

(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)