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Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. Volumes I-III.


Volume I

Tristram's Conception: The book opens with the following sentence: "I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me..." (1). The narrator proceeds to describe the unfavourable circumstances of his conception which he believes marked the whole of his life. Among the unfortunate incidents was for instance his mother's question to his father during the act, by which she wanted to know whether he had not forgotten to wind up the clock. From various details the narrator concludes that he was begotten in the night between the first Sunday and Monday in March 1718. He was born on 5th November the same year. He describes himself as the sport of fortune who "was begot and born to misfortunes" (18).

Digression on Hobby Horses: The narrator proceeds to describe the character of the midwife who attended his mother at his birth. The poor old woman was instructed in her profession by the village parson's wife and her licence was bought with the parson's money. Follows a digression on gentlemen's hobby horses, which are one of the leading motifs of the volume. In connection with gentlemen, there follows an advertisement of the narrator who professes to be an accomplished compliment writer and offers his services to wealthy and influential persons. He uses any occasion when he sees a man of distinction mounted on his horse to drop an elaborative complimentary letter at his feet, when the man happens to descend to them.

Parson Yorick's Story: The parson used to like good horses, but any horse he bought soon degenerated into a haggard useless creature. Considering the amount of the money he had already spent on buying new horses, the parson decided to keep a poor thin horse and to give the spare money away on charitable purposes. So it came that he willingly paid for the midwife's licence in order to provide her with an occupation and help her out of poverty. The parson's last name was Yorick, like that of Hamlet's jester, and his ancient family descended from Denmark. Yorick was a good but simple man unacquainted with the ways of the world. He treated everyone with straightforward sincerity, which made him many enemies. He disregarded the many warnings of his friend Eugenius and so he died broken-hearted and pursued by creditors. Eugenius provided him with the epitaph: "Alas, poor Yorick" (15)!

Tristram Parents' Marriage Settlement: The narrator records the marriage settlement of his parents, which in many words says that his mother, Elizabeth Mollineux, is entitled to deliver her children in London rather than in the Shandy Hall in the country, and that his father, Walter Shandy, is obliged to cover the expenses of the London journeys. A year before Tristram's birth, the mother raised a false alarm and had herself dispatched to London only to find out that she was not pregnant after all. The following year when she was expecting Tristram, the father denied her the London journey to make up for the previous year's wasted expenses. The mother was forced to deliver Tristram in the country, to which purpose she found for herself the midwife mentioned.

Digressions on Names: The narrator observes the difficult position of his father who had a strong aversion to the name Tristram, thinking it "extremely mean and pitiful", but had to pronounce this name twenty times a day whenever he called his son (25). The narrator muses that for instance the name Caesar endows its bearer with inherent heroic dignity, whereas such a name as for instance Judas would never be chosen for any child but as a punishment.

Digression on Papists: The narrator startles the reader with the question whether he or she noticed that his mother was not a papist. If the answer be negative, the reader is strongly recommended to reread the preceding chapter. It contains a little remark saying that the narrator must first get himself born and only then he can be baptised. The narrator transcribes a lengthy argument in French which states that in exceptional cases the Roman Catholic Church allows the babies to be christened by injection while still within their mother's womb. The narrator urges the reader to think while reading and to pay attention not only to the story but also to the ideas presented.

Uncle Toby's History: Tristram's fatherly uncle, Mr Toby Shandy, is described as a modest man, but the opposite turns out to be the case. He is characteristic for his family pride, which is manifested for instance in his attitude to the sixty-year-old incident involving Tristram's aunt Dinah. She married a coachman and had a child by him, which is what uncle Toby calls a murder of family. The narrator digresses on the difficulties faced by the author who seeks to delineate character and describes the different methods used by different writers. The narrator decides to derive the characteristics of the uncle from the nature of his hobby-horse but ends up with the conclusion that the horse and the man cannot be described. The crucial experience in uncle Toby's life was his participation in King William's wars between the English and the Dutch. During the siege of Namur he incurred a wound in his groin caused by a stone and was consequently invalidated from the army.

Volume II

Uncle Toby's History Continued: Uncle Toby spends the period of his recovery in the house of his brother. He becomes obsessed with his Namur experience and his only diversion is giving accounts of the battle to his brother's visitors. Uncle Toby's descriptions are inconsistent and misleading, but the narrator defends him against critics, claiming that it is not caused by dullness of mind but rather by the confusion of language. Uncle Toby's confusions are cleared when he gets himself a military map of the area. He starts buying maps of other battles and soon comes to master the theory of fortification. His servant James Butler, aka Corporal Trim, suggests a project of rehearsing the siege of Namur. The idea is received with enthusiasm and for the first time during the four years of uncle Toby's convalescence, he is eager to recover. The narrator gives the music of uncle Toby's favourite whistle, "Lillibullero", written for James II and against Irish papists.

Mother's Labour: When her labour begins, the mother sends for the midwife whom she has chosen for herself. The father sends for the man-midwife, Dr Slop, who lives nearer and whom he would prefer to the old midwife. The mother however refuses the man. Dr Slop arrives at the house only few minutes after the servant Obadiah left to fetch him. He happened to set out on his own to see how the mother is. Dr Slop met an accident when he slipped from his pony and fell in mud. He received further harm from the mud sprayed by Obadiah's horse who was just passing by him, galloping on the road towards his house. Dr Slop makes a poor caricature of a character, furthermore, he seems to be a despicable Roman Catholic rather than a conformist Protestant. Dr Slop's surprising appearance strangely reminds uncle Toby of Stevinus, author of a book on fortification, and he sends Corporal Trim to fetch the book.

Yorick's Sermon: Corporal Trim brings the book and finds a handwritten sermon slipped in between the pages. Corporal Trim is skilled at rhetoric and likes to listen to himself, so he starts reading the sermon in a declamatory manner. The sermon is entitled "For we Trust we Have a Good Conscience" and suggests that those who are haunted by their conscience are certainly guilty, whereas it does not follow that those who are not haunted by conscience are certainly innocent. Otherwise the sermon is aimed against the hypocritical Roman Catholic Church. It is recorded in full length and the comments of the speaker and his audience, the father and Dr Slop, are inserted enclosed in square brackets. Corporal Trim falls in emotion while reading about the persecution by the papists because his brother Tom fell a prey to inquisition. The sermon is revealed to be written by parson Yorick, who once borrowed the book from the doctor.

Father's Contemplations: Similarly as uncle Toby is obsessed with fortification, the father is obsessed with the ideal management of a prosperous state. He is in general fond of metaphysical discourse and learned argumentation. He seems to have solutions for all the possible problems which he would implement if he were in power to do so. His opinions are typically contrary to those of the rest of the world and he takes great delight in arguing his points. While the mother is in labour, the father is concerned with the damage supposedly caused to a child's brain by birth. He supposes that his eldest son Bobby is so dull because it was up to him to prepare the way for the children who came after him. The father believes that the safest way to preserve the baby's mental faculties intact is to have a Caesarian section or to be born feet first. Because of the disappointment in his eldest son, he sets his hopes on the next, that is Tristram.

Volume III

Fit Forms of Swearing: Obadiah arrives with a bag containing Dr Slop's medical instruments. Out of fear of losing anything, he had tied the bag with multiple knots and added even more knots when he found that the instruments produce an annoying jingling sound as he carried them on horseback. Dr Slop has great difficulties in untying the knots and he swears prodigiously while attempting to get at his instruments. Finally he resorts to cutting the knots with a knife but he cuts his thumb accidentally. On hearing him curse, the father forces on Dr Slop a manual containing supposedly a list of of fit forms of swearing. The leaflet is in fact an elaborate formula of excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church. The text is printed in Latin together with a side-by-side translation in English. Obadiah, all his bodily parts, and all his actions are accordingly condemned by the Holy Trinity, all the apostles, all the saints, etc.

Author's Preface: The narrator gets rid of his characters by making them doze or being busy and makes use of the spare time to write his preface. He announces that his book is written with wit and judgement, at least with such degree of them as his Creator thought fit to bestow on him. He continues to consider the common prejudice that wit and judgement hardly ever occur together for the one is thought contrary to the other.

Unfixed Door Hinges: Uncle Toby and the father are disturbed from dozing by Corporal Trim, who brings in a pair of new mortars to be used for rehearsing the siege. He would walk in silently, but this is impossible because of the broken hinges of the parlour door. The father has left the hinges unfixed for ten years and so for reasons unknown adding another annoyance to his already many existing afflictions. The father is disconcerted on finding out that the mortars were made by the way of trimming his old jack-boots. It is not the question of the price of the boots but rather a question of their sentimental value because the boots used to be a family inheritance.

Destroyed Drawbridges: The narrator records the history of uncle Toby's unfortunate experience with Widow Wadman whom he courted unsuccessfully. At the same time Corporal Trim wooed the widow's maid Bridget with more success. Corporal Trim wanted to show Bridget the drawbridge that he and uncle Toby built for rehearsing the siege but the bridge proved to be too weak to hold the weight of both and broke down. Uncle Toby undertook to built another drawbridge but this second attempt was not that successful as the preceding. The father keeps on teasing his brother for this accident.

Long Noses: Tristram's great-grandfather had "little or no nose" to much dismay of the great-grandmother (98). Tristram's father blames him for diminishing the grandeur of the family line by having such a small nose. The father prefers long noses, he even collects treatises supporting his opinion about the superiority of long noses. His book collection is small but carefully chosen. The father was most disappointed by Erasmus's dialogue on the subject because he could not find any deep metaphysical message in the writing. His favourite, on the other hand, is Hafen Slawkenbergius's digest of noses. The father even undertook the pain of translating this work from Latin into English for the benefit of his brother, despite uncle Toby's perfect indifference towards the subject.



Structure: The novel is almost arbitrarily divided into nine relatively short volumes, each of them comprising several chapters. The length of the chapters ranges from few sentences to several pages. Neither the chapters nor the volumes give any impression of being closed logical units in themselves. A situation began in one chapter is often concluded in the following one, while a new subject matter may be introduced anywhere in the middle of a chapter rather than traditionally at its opening.

Typography: The novel includes striking typographical experiments. There are various layouts, from a side-by-side translation of a Latin text into English to an alphabetically ordered word register. All thinkable typographical symbols are used, even drawings are included. There are lines consisting only of asterisks, there are series of full-stops and series of long disruptive dashes. The narrator uses dashes and asterisks to stand for omitted words, but not only curse words are replaced in this way, also the most crucial words which would explain the given situation are occasionally missing.

References: The narrator makes use of a vast body of references. He refers both to what may be called a shared cultural heritage and to obscure persons and works. His favourites are the classics as well as modern literature, especially then Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote. He mentions all possible fields of knowledge reaching for instance from astronomy to medicine. He often resorts also to fictional quotes, for instance when transcribing the marriage settlement of his parents or when devoting several pages to transcribing a sermon. He often uses untranslated quotations in French, Greek, or Latin.

Digressions: The novel is based neither on the development of plot nor on the delineation of character. It consists of a series of digressions which follow from free associations of various ideas in the mind of the first person narrator. The narrator draws attention to minor incidents and a multitude of minor characters with the prospect that they will contribute to the overall picture of his own history: "In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too—and at the same time" (32). The narrator emphasizes his misfortunes, yet he treats his own misfortunes as well as misfortunes of others with agreeable and inoffensive humour.

Metafiction: The narrator leads a pleasant discourse with the reader whom he frequently addresses to explain himself and his work. Occasionally he inserts comments of the reader as he imagines the reader would respond to a given situation. In this sense the novel may be viewed as a metafictional one. The narrator purports to tells his history in the manner of an epic or a tragedy. He seeks to accumulate all of the details which might be of consequence to his life. So it comes that in the first three volumes the narrator does not even proceed to get himself born. Some of the information given correspond with the facts of the author's life, for instance he actually did produce two volumes of this work per year and did continue working on the book for the rest of his life.

Indefiniteness: The narrator toys with the reader, he keeps on promising explanations which never come or even mischievously refuses to give any explanation at all. For instance he refuses to tell who his "dear, dear Jenny" is and suggest the possibilities of a wife, lover, friend, or relative. Or when he attempts to draw the character of uncle Toby, he ends up with the conclusion that the person is impossible to describe (34). The narrator takes delight in his whimsicality, claiming that "my reader has never yet been able to guess at any thing" and that "if I thought you was [sic] able to form the least judgement or probable conjecture to yourself of what was to come in the next page—I would tear it out of my book" (35).


  • Author

    Sterne, Laurence. (1713 - 1768).
  • Full Title

    The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
  • First Published

    1759 - 1768. 
  • Form

    Novel in nine volumes.

Works Cited

Sterne, Laurence. Tristram Shandy. 1759 - 1768. The Works of Laurence Sterne. London: Routledge, 1891.


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