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Tristram Shandy | Themes


Live and Let Live

One of the most remarkable things about Tristram Shandy is his generous, forgiving attitude toward others. Despite having suffered much and having been wronged in many ways, Tristram retains a nonjudgmental outlook, and his mockery of the world and its follies is almost always gentle. In part, this comes from Tristram's belief in the pervasiveness of fate and human nature—two qualities that it is foolish to resist and that together control much of human life. It would be madness, in Tristram's view, to try and make Uncle Toby give up his model forts and take up a more useful or "respectable" pastime, just as it would be absurd to expect Tristram's father to set aside his pet theories about noses, names, and medicine. This point is made early on through the story of Parson Yorick (Vol. 1, Chapters 7–12), whose friend Eugenius urges him to rein in his jokes and pranks before he offends the wrong person. The advice, well-intentioned though it may be, is given in vain, since being a jester runs deep in Yorick's nature.

For Tristram, the constancy of human nature is a basic truth of life. Thus, it makes little sense to criticize people for their habits of mind, which they cannot help. Instead, Tristram takes pleasure in describing the good aspects of his characters, even though, strictly speaking, they are no more responsible for their virtues than for their vices. Walter Shandy furnishes a good example: to judge simply from his words and actions, he is irritable and a bit pompous but also hard-working and deeply invested in his son's well-being. Tristram, in his description of his father, constantly downplays his grouchiness—"his anger at the worst was never more than a spark" (Vol. 3, Chapter 22)—and makes light of Walter's know-it-all tendencies. What is more important, in Tristram's view, is his father's impressive learning and his zeal in attempting to do right by Tristram, despite constant disappointments. Nor does Tristram make such allowances only for family members and other loved ones. Even the humorless tax collector in Vol. 7, Chapters 33–36 is ultimately absolved by Tristram, who jokingly describes their conversation as a peace treaty between France and England.

Because Tristram is such a forgiving fellow, he sometimes finds himself irked or offended by the judgmental attitudes of others. "Only keep your temper," he cautions the reader in Vol. 1, Chapter 6, and both author and audience will be sure to have a pleasant time. By Vol. 3, however, some readers—i.e., professional reviewers—have evidently failed to keep their tempers, and Tristram chides them for this shortcoming. In his view, critics who have nothing nice to say about Tristram Shandy are wasting his time as well as their own: the novel was written to be enjoyed as an experience, not looked over for flaws like a horse at a livestock auction. To the extent that anything really bothers Tristram, apart from his bad health, it is the critics' tendency to fixate on small defects. "Their heads," Tristram sneers in Vol. 3, Chapter 12 "are stuck so full of rules and compasses ... that a work of genius had better go to the devil at once, than stand to be prick'd and tortured to death by 'em."

Time and Mortality

For the most part Tristram Shandy is irrepressibly cheerful in tone. Underneath its brisk and bubbling surface, however, is a chilly undercurrent of death. The novel's emphasis on time and mortality is in part autobiographical, since Sterne's tuberculosis continued to worsen as the volumes of Tristram Shandy were published, nearly killing him in 1762 and ultimately claiming his life in 1768. Tristram, who is suffering from the same illness, does his best to be cheerful in spite of his chronic (and likely terminal) condition. Early volumes repeatedly include a promise to keep writing "if": if "life and good spirits" hold out (Vol. 1, Chapter 22); if "this vile cough" does not "kill me in the meantime" (Vol. 4, Chapter 32).

In Vols. 5 and 6 health and sickness become a more pressing preoccupation: Tristram's dedication to the two volumes apologetically describes them as "the best my talents, with such bad health as I have, could produce." Walter Shandy's pursuit of the "secret of health" in Vol. 5, Chapters 33–36 might be seen as an instance of dramatic irony, given how elusive any such secret will later prove to Tristram. Nonetheless, when Tristram tells the tale of Lieutenant Le Fever in Vol. 6, the dying man is more an object of pity than of empathy.

By Vol. 7 Tristram is clearly writing against the clock. The early chapters proceed at an almost frantic pace: Tristram hurries from one French town to another, leaving himself no time to appreciate the sights. Movement, he says, is life and joy; to stop, or even to slow down, could be fatal. It is with a kind of serene self-abandonment that, late in the volume, he finally does slow down and resume living life to the fullest. The hectic, clattering carriage is traded for a plodding mule. Ever the jester, Tristram claims he can now relax because he has outrun Death. It would be more accurate, if also more sobering, to say he has made his peace with death and is now ready to enjoy the rest of his life, however short it may be.

In the final two volumes Tristram keeps up at least the appearance of good cheer, but he cannot help dropping a few hints as to his deteriorating condition. In a side remark in Vol. 8, Chapter 6 he casually mentions that he has, just a few months ago, "[broken] a vessel in [his] lungs" during a fit of laughter, losing a half gallon of blood in the process. Then, in Vol. 9, Chapter 8 the notions of time and mortality are sounded directly in a short but wistful monologue: "Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it ... are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more—every thing presses on."

Finally, as if from sheer exhaustion, Tristram proposes leaving his narrative incomplete, trusting to future writers to take up the pen and continue the story. His weakness, he confesses, is the result of further acute blood loss and a "most uncritical fever" (Vol. 9, Chapter 24)—symptoms of worsening and possibly end-stage tuberculosis. In the last 10 or so chapters, the narrator practically staggers toward the finish line, telling his story with unusual directness and concision. In most narrators these qualities would be laudable, but in Tristram—who never met a digression he didn't like—they are more than a little worrisome.

One of Tristram's main rhetorical defenses against the encroachment of death is his unusual view of time. Like the English philosopher John Locke, Tristram adopts the notion of time as "duration," i.e., the "train and succession of our ideas" (Vol. 2, Chapter 8) as opposed to the linear "clock time" of the external world. He seems to come by this perspective honestly, since Walter, his father, is of a very similar persuasion. In fact, the novel's longest single exposition of the Lockean view of chronology takes place in Vol. 3, Chapter 18 where Walter sets out to educate Toby about the nature of time. The "train" of ideas in a person's head is, he implies, a more authentic and useful way of reckoning the passage of time than the customary "minutes, hours, weeks, and months."

For Tristram, at any rate, rushing back and forth between the past and the present affords a kind of freedom from the steadily ticking clock of mortality. At moments, however—some of them already listed above—Tristram cannot avoid the awareness of time's inexorable passage in the real world. This painful realization underlies, for example, his lament in Vol. 4, Chapter 13 where he complains of being "one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month." Tristram may achieve a sense of timelessness in telling his life story out of order, but ultimately he is still living—and thus dying—faster than he can write it all down.

Wisdom and Foolishness

Tristram loves to play the part of the "wise fool," and he frequently summons up the trappings of a traditional court jester to symbolize this role. In Vol. 1, Chapter 6 he warns of his tendency to "sometimes put on a fool's cap with a bell to it, for a moment or two as we pass along." In fact, such moments of foolery are not transitory and intermittent but grow to take up much of the novel: after asking to be credited with "a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside," Tristram seems bound and determined to maximize the outward display of foolishness in his novel. As if to reinforce this impression, he will wager his fool's cap in Vol. 2, Chapter 2 and invoke the "cap-and-bell" a third time in Vol. 3, Chapter 18. Motley, the multicolored fabric of a jester's outfit, is also symbolically included in Vol. 3 in the form of two marbled pages without any printed text. (These appear between Chapters 36 and 37, with Tristram describing them as the "motly emblem of my work.") In Vol. 9, Chapter 12 Tristram will even worry that his work is growing too wise and, therefore, insufficiently foolish. He promises to insert "a good quantity of heterogeneous matter"—i.e., a few chapters of miscellaneous nonsense—right away, simply in order "to keep up [the] just balance betwixt wisdom and folly." Yet for all this focus on foolishness, Tristram manages to deliver some striking insights about human nature and to advance a view of life remarkably free from bitterness, envy, or fault-finding. For these reasons he might be considered a deeply wise character.

The natural counterpart to the "wise fool" is the "foolish sage," a person who pretends to great wisdom by virtue of an extensive (or at least lengthy) education but who fails to recognize the shortcomings of mere book-learning. Walter Shandy, whom Tristram gently mocks for his insistence on consulting his library for solutions to all life's problems, is a mild version of the foolish-sage archetype. More outwardly learned and, at the same time, more inwardly foolish are the religious scholars whom Walter consults about his son's baptism in Vol. 4, Chapters 26–29. These men, who pride themselves on their familiarity with Christian doctrine and canon law, cannot even answer a simple question without launching into a dissertation on the most trivial aspects of baptism. By vaunting their wisdom, they unwittingly underscore their own folly.

Foolishness, in Tristram's view, is an unavoidable feature of human nature. Everyone, no matter how kind (Uncle Toby) or intelligent (Walter) or practical-minded (Mrs. Shandy), has their share. The appropriate response, he argues by example, is not to ignore one's own foolishness or try to hide it from others but to embrace it and hope to accumulate a little wisdom as a by-product.

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