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Tristram Shandy | Symbols



Tristram Shandy uses the word "hobby-horse" to embrace a wide variety of attitudes and pastimes, from a lawyer's fondness for flowery language to Uncle Toby's model fort-building. These various "hobby-horses" are defined not so much by the activity itself—which can range from butterfly-collecting to fiddle-playing—but by the disproportionate enthusiasm which people bring to it. From some of the examples Tristram provides, one might correctly infer that the word is related to modern "hobby." The connotations of "hobby-horse," however, are somewhat broader: the word can describe almost any sort of intellectual or recreational passion, including political causes and academic subjects. Hobby-horses are so central to the rhetoric of Tristram Shandy that the narrator even coins an adjective, "hobby-horsical," to describe people obsessed with them.

You can learn a lot about a person, Tristram argues, by observing their hobby-horse. This principle guides his description of several of the novel's major characters, including his father Walter, his Uncle Toby, and their mutual friend Parson Yorick. In talking about his family, Tristram gives relatively little in the way of traditional biographical detail. The reader learns, for example, that Walter used to be a merchant and that he is in his 50s when Tristram is born. What really fills out the picture of Walter, however, is his obsession with book learning of all sorts and his insistence on applying this learning to everyday life, even when it is totally impractical to do so. Tristram devotes literally dozens of chapters to describing his father's library and his joy in stocking it with unusual books and manuscripts. He even jokingly likens his father's quest for rare works to a wooer's pursuit of a mistress.

A side benefit of hobby-horses, in Tristram's view, is their tendency to keep people too busy to do much harm to one another. Just as one might tell an excessively nagging or critical person to "get a hobby," Tristram is delighted when people burn off their excess energy on harmless pastimes. He is particularly delighted when England's politicians spend time and attention on their hobby-horses, since this keeps them from getting into worse forms of mischief, such as corruption and scandal. Vamping on the horse-riding analogy, he declares: "Let them ride on without opposition from me; for were their lordships unhorsed this very night—'tis ten to one but that many of them would be worse mounted ... before tomorrow morning." He is willing, however, to make an exception for Lord Pitt, a leading British statesman and the dedicatee of the novel. Such a "generous and noble" man, he flatteringly argues, cannot take the time to indulge in a hobby-horse without robbing the country of his brilliant leadership.


Walter Shandy's hobby-horse leads him, from time to time, into the realm of the absurd. Whenever a new issue or idea catches his fascination, he stocks his library with all the books on the subject he can find—even those of doubtful relevance. He does this when deciding what to name his son, how to dress him, and even in what manner the boy should be born. Of all Walter's fits of research, however, his investigation of noses is perhaps the weirdest. Tristram devotes ample space to it: noses and "nose literature" are the subject of almost a third of Vol. 3 (Chapters 31 onward) and the first quarter of Vol. 4 (starting with Slawkenbergius's Tale).

Whenever Walter becomes overly invested in his plans for his son, those plans are sure to be disappointed. Predictably enough, this happens with Tristram's nose, which is "crush'd ... as flat as a pancake" during childbirth rather than growing into the distinctive appendage Walter hopes for. Dr. Slop, no doubt aware of Walter's strong opinions concerning noses, rushes down into the kitchen and makes up a "bridge" to support the baby's squashed nose. Tristram declines to say whether Slop is hoping to actually repair the damage or merely to prop it up so Walter will not notice. In either event, this bit of emergency rhinoplasty is unlikely to improve matters, especially with the bungling Dr. Slop overseeing the treatment. Walter, who nearly faints at the news, certainly has little faith in Slop's ability to restore the smashed nose.

All this talk of noses also leaves Tristram with room for one of his favorite authorial pastimes: innuendo. In general, Tristram loves to pretend he is too bashful to make a dirty joke, when in fact he revels in this sort of humor. He repeatedly imagines his reader as a person of delicate, even prudish sensibilities, then—to avoid offending such a person—proceeds in a cautious and overly delicate manner whenever a topic with possible sexual overtones comes up. The net effect is to draw even more attention to these implications than if they were simply mentioned directly. Tristram's discussion of noses is a prime example: he spends several pages talking about their size, shape, and status as a symbol of manhood, using asterisks as the verbal equivalent of winks and nudges. He even, in an episode from the Shandy family history, insists that a man's nose must be of a given length in order to please his wife. Otherwise, she will demand extra compensation when the marriage contract is drawn up.

Then, in Slawkenbergius's Tale (beginning of Vol. 4), Tristram presents the protagonist's prominent nose as an object of borderline erotic fascination for the women of Strasburg. Having made the joke as explicit as he dares, however, Tristram repeatedly warns the reader against reading too much into his discussion of noses—when, in fact, this is exactly what he wants the reader to do. In Vol. 3, Chapter 31 he even offers a sarcastic disclaimer in which he urges readers "to guard against the temptations and suggestions of the devil." "By the word Nose," he disingenuously maintains, "I mean a nose, and nothing more, or less."

Uncle Toby's Fort

When he moves up from London to the Shandy family estate, Uncle Toby sets about constructing a model fortified city on the bowling green: a 3/8-acre plot of land reserved for a lawn game similar to bocce. This fort, whose construction and maintenance Toby oversees throughout the novel, becomes Tristram's prime example of a hobby-horse. Together with his valet and fellow veteran Corporal Trim, Toby meticulously refashions the fort to match the landscape of each major siege in the ongoing War of the Spanish Succession. When the war eventually ends (Vol. 6, Chapter 30), Toby feels adrift without the structure provided by his cherished hobby. Walter Shandy, Toby's brother, finds this to be a ridiculous pastime, and he makes periodic jokes—usually good-natured ones—about the progress of the fortifications. Toby, meanwhile, finds his enjoyment of fort-building heightened by the sense that he is serving his country, though it is unclear whether the model fort is ever visited by active British military leaders.

Apart from its role as a plot device—it brings Toby and Trim to Shandy Hall and gives them something to do—the fort functions as a symbol with multiple overlapping meanings. On the surface it represents Toby's ongoing attachment to the soldiering life, even though his wounds will no longer permit him to return to the field. "You can take the dog out of the fight," as the old saying goes, "but you can't take the fight out of the dog." Toby, despite his gentleness and good humor, has a lot of fight left in him when he is sidelined by his injury. Recreating Great Britain's overseas campaigns allows him to participate in the wars vicariously, and in a much more meaningful way than merely tracing the engagements on a map. Tristram's constant allusions to the fort help to craft an image of Toby as having a single-track mind, so the reader is not surprised when Toby describes other aspects of life—such as courtship—in term of a battle or a siege. The fort also showcases Toby's "hobby-horsical" nature more broadly: there's something endearingly wacky about the way he lavishes attention on his pet project, setting aside a sizable portion of his income to adorn it with tiny cannons, drawbridges, and watchtowers. In short, the fort offers a better glimpse into Uncle Toby's mind than most of his lines of dialogue can provide.

Finally, as a key to Toby's personality, the model fort also helps to establish the difference in character between the two Shandy brothers. Whatever he may have been during his career abroad, Walter, when he appears in the novel, is a man of reflection, study, and argument. He seems most at home in his library, dredging up books on some obscure subject, or in his parlor chair holding forth with Dr. Slop and Parson Yorick. Toby, in contrast, is a man of action, and his hobby suits this image. Although he eagerly reads up on the science of military fortification, he is much happier building than studying.

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