Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Plot Summary

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Summary

Vol. 1

Tristram Shandy proposes to tell his life story from the moment of his conception onward. He blames his parents for allowing themselves to be interrupted while they were conceiving him, thus leading to a life beset with many small misfortunes. He introduces his father, Walter Shandy, as an old country gentleman with hard opinions on a variety of seemingly trivial subjects. Walter's brother, Uncle Toby, is described as a war veteran with a heart of gold. Filling out the cast is Parson Yorick, a country priest whose wisecracking tendencies have made him many friends and a few powerful enemies.

After a brief struggle to tell his story without getting bogged down by digressions, Tristram throws in the towel and warns the reader to expect constant interruptions and side stories. In his autobiography Tristram barely makes it as far as the day of his birth: Mrs. Shandy, Tristram's long-suffering mother, intends to travel to London to bear her second child, but her husband overrules her and she ends up "lying in" at Shandy Hall. This basic narrative, however, is frequently submerged in a welter of background details related to Tristram's family members. Walter, he reveals, is obsessed with the significance of names and would never have wanted his son to be named Tristram. How, then, did Tristram get his name? The narrator promises to reveal all in a later chapter.

Vol. 2

Tristram offers a more detailed backstory for Uncle Toby, who has launched into an all-consuming study of military fortifications while recovering from a battlefield wound to his groin. His own biography continues at a glacial pace, with the "man-midwife" Dr. Slop being sent for when the birth seems like it will be a complicated one. Slop, who is described as a "little, squat, uncourtly" fellow, is among the new characters introduced in this volume. Also joining the cast is Corporal Trim, a former soldier who serves as Uncle Toby's loyal valet. Slop is about to go upstairs and tend to Mrs. Shandy when he realizes he has forgotten his tools. They are retrieved just in time to bring the volume to an end.

Vol. 3

Before Dr. Slop can go upstairs and deliver the baby, however, he must open his doctor's bag, which has been bound up in hopelessly complicated knots. Attempting to sever the knots with a knife, he cuts his thumb and starts swearing in surprise and anger. Susannah, the maidservant, runs downstairs to report that things are not going well upstairs. Dr. Slop agrees to come up and assist, once he has tested out his forceps and his delivery technique on Uncle Toby's hands. The mock procedure leaves Toby cut and bruised, throwing Dr. Slop's abilities into question. Nonetheless, the doctor goes up to the bedchamber, and the Shandy brothers soon doze off in their armchairs.

They are woken up by Corporal Trim, who has just finished turning a pair of old boots into mortars for Toby's model fort. Dr. Slop, he announces, is making a "bridge" in the kitchen—not a model drawbridge, as Toby thinks and hopes, but a device to prop up the baby's nose, which has been crushed during childbirth. To Walter this is disastrous news: he marches upstairs and flings himself into bed, not saying a word. This apparent overreaction, Tristram says, comes from Walter's deep belief in the importance of having a long and shapely nose. Although the Shandy men in general have placed a great importance on noses, Walter has taken it to a new extreme, amassing tracts and treatises on noses in various languages. Tristram gives some highlights from his father's collection of nose literature, promising to share a lengthier excerpt in Vol. 4.

Vol. 4

The volume opens with "Slawkenbergius's Tale," a whimsical fable about a stranger with a long nose. After this digression, which is one of the novel's most extensive, the scene returns to Shandy Hall, where Walter is gradually recovering from the news of his son's squashed nose. Given his belief in the power of names, Walter proposes to make up for the baby's nasal deficiencies by giving him the name Trismegistus. As Walter and Toby attempt to make their way downstairs, Tristram continually interrupts the narrative to indulge in chapter-length tangents on various topics. Eventually, he simply fast-forwards to the evening after his birth.

All, however, is not yet well. Susannah wakes Walter to let him know that the baby may not survive and should be baptized without delay. He tells her to convey his wish that the child be named Trismegistus, but the name gets misheard as "Tristram." The baby's health improves, but Walter is deeply aggrieved when he learns his son has been misnamed. He eventually decides to seek Yorick's advice, in case the baptism—and thus the name—can be declared void. Yorick invites him to a gathering of religious scholars where the matter will be debated, but after a long and largely irrelevant discussion, these men declare the baptism valid.

Disappointed, Walter throws himself into the new project of deciding how to spend an unexpected bequest from his aunt. He has enough money to send his older son Bobby to Europe or to improve a parcel of land on the Shandy estate. Bobby, a minor character who has scarcely been mentioned up to this point, dies suddenly, making the decision an easy one. Tristram, for all his flaws in Walter's eyes, is now the family's sole heir.

Vol. 5

Walter copes with Bobby's death by making a long funereal speech, leaving Mrs. Shandy to infer what has happened. Trim, meanwhile, gives a similar sermon to the household staff. Hoping to salvage what is left of his legacy, Walter begins writing a work called the Tristrapedia, intended to cover all the topics necessary for Tristram's education. Much like Tristram Shandy itself, the book becomes an all-consuming undertaking, but Walter finds he cannot write fast enough to keep up with his son's growth and development.

Fast-forwarding to age five, Tristram describes a mishap in which he is circumcised by a falling sash window (window made of movable panels). After consulting his library, Walter takes the news in stride, though he wonders what might be causing all these misfortunes to befall his son. He returns to his work on the Tristrapedia, sharing excerpts of the early chapters with Uncle Toby, Parson Yorick, and Dr. Slop. As might be expected given his opinions on noses, names, and childbirth, Walter has some peculiar thoughts about parenting and education as well.

Vol. 6

When Walter seeks a tutor for the young Tristram, Toby mentions young Billy Le Fever as a candidate. This leads Tristram to tell the sad tale of Lieutenant Le Fever, a dying soldier to whom Toby ministered in his last days of life. The lieutenant's son, Billy, has been Toby's ward ever since, though he has recently gone off to serve as a soldier overseas and is just now expected to return to England. Meanwhile, Dr. Slop scandalizes the Shandy family by spreading rumors about Tristram's injury, greatly exaggerating the extent of the damage done. Walter decides it is time to dress Tristram in breeches—the short trousers worn by older boys and men. As is his habit, he agonizes over the style of breeches to order for his son and does much reading on the subject.

In another extended flashback Tristram describes the last, most glorious phase of Uncle Toby's model fort-building. As the War of the Spanish Succession rages on overseas, Toby and Trim busily recreate one besieged city after another on their small plot of land. Trim even devises a way of simulating siege artillery by blowing the smoke from a hookah through a series of tiny cannons. The war, however, ends with the treaty of Utrecht, leaving Toby without a hobby. Little by little he starts courting his attractive neighbor, the Widow Wadman. The other members of the Shandy family suspect the two will marry shortly.

Vol. 7

Before the reader can learn about Uncle Toby's love affair, however, the narrative lurches forward to the present (i.e., about 1765), where Tristram, now in his 40s, is preparing to travel to France. The stated purpose of this voyage is to escape Death, who has tracked Tristram to his residence in England and is planning to pay him a visit any day. Hurried onward by an awareness of his own mortality, Tristram rushes from one French city to another, barely stopping to record a few landmarks for the reader. He finds Paris impressively large but otherwise dreary, and none of the sights he wishes to see in Lyons are open to the public. Tristram enjoys himself much more in the rural south of France, where he slows his pace enough to take part in fairs, festivals, and country dances.

Vol. 8

Tristram finally begins the story of Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman. The two first met, he says, just after Toby moved up from London, when he stayed in her guest room until his own house could be furnished. Eleven years passed, during which time the Widow Wadman vacillated about whether to pursue a relationship with Toby. He, meanwhile, was too busy with his siege works to give love a second thought. Spying on Toby from the hedges between their yards, Mrs. Wadman occasionally visited Toby to flirt under the pretext of asking about his fort-building and past military exploits.

Back in the main timeline of the narrative, Toby and Trim continue dismantling their fort, since the Peace of Utrecht leaves them with no new battles to simulate. Mrs. Wadman makes a bolder advance upon Toby by pretending to have something in her eye and asking him to take a look. Struck by her beauty, he realizes he is in love. As Toby prepares to pay Mrs. Wadman a visit, Walter offers his brother some characteristically longwinded advice, first in a speech and then via a "Letter of Instruction" on conducting a love affair. The letter never gets read, and the volume closes with Toby making his way to Mrs. Wadman's front door.

Vol. 9

Toby, dressed in his poorly fitting Sunday best, marches up to Mrs. Wadman's, with Corporal Trim along for moral support. Daunted by the task before him, he makes an about-face and marches back to the street, then summons his courage and walks to her front door again. When Trim finally knocks, Mrs. Wadman and her maid Bridget eagerly admit their guests. Toby awkwardly confesses his love and proposes marriage within the space of a few minutes. Mrs. Wadman, however, is mainly concerned about Toby's war wound, which she fears has left him impotent. Toby happily answers her questions but fails to see the point of her inquiry. Bridget, meanwhile, plies Trim for the same information with less delicateness and more success.

Days later, Toby is reflecting on his ongoing courtship with Mrs. Wadman, who has been so concerned and attentive about his old injuries. Trim, embarrassed, finally connects the dots for his employer, who is surprised and (perhaps) a little dismayed to learn the thrust of Mrs. Wadman's many questions. The two visit Shandy Hall, where Walter and Mrs. Shandy are chatting with Yorick and Dr. Slop. In true Shandean fashion the novel closes with an absurd, tangential story about a bull and a baby.

Tristram Shandy Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Tristram is conceived.

Rising Action

2 Tristram is born, his nose smashed by the doctor's forceps.

3 Tristram is baptized with the wrong name.

4 Bobby, Tristram's elder brother, dies suddenly.

5 Tristram's father writes a Tristrapedia to educate his son.

6 Tristram is circumcised by a falling window.

Climax

7 Now middle-aged, Tristram starts writing his autobiography.

Falling Action

8 The older Tristram visits France to alleviate his illness.

Resolution

9 In failing health, Tristram ends his autobiography abruptly.

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