Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 1 Chapters 1 12 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 1, Chapters 1–12 | Summary

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Summary

Tristram Shandy decides to tell his life story from the very beginning, starting with the moment of his conception. At such a time, he argues, the thoughts and feelings of the parents have a profound impact on their future child's personality and fortunes. In Tristram's case, however, the conjugal act was interrupted when his mother reminded his father to wind up the clock. This interruption, Tristram argues, "scattered and dispersed the animal spirits" intended to assist his growth and development in the womb. He justifies this complaint by referring to a theory in which a tiny, fully formed human—a homunculus—was thought to exist inside each sperm cell.

Mocking his readers for their nosiness, Tristram offers a little family history. He introduces his Uncle Toby Shandy, a thoughtful old gentleman who provided Tristram with the clock anecdote later in life. (Much more will be said of Uncle Toby later in the novel.) He also describes his father, Walter Shandy, a country squire and former merchant who is obsessed with order and exactness. This habit of mind, Tristram says, led his father to wind up the household clock on the same day of every month. At that time Walter would also tend to "some other little family concernments," such as attempting to conceive an heir.

The story now fast forwards to Tristram's birth on November 5, 1718. Describing Earth as a "scurvy and disastrous world," he acknowledges that he has borne many "pitiful misadventures and cross accidents," but few real tragedies. The logical next step, he concedes, would be to explain how he was born. This, however, is not the course he intends to take. Instead, Tristram proposes to give the reader "not only my life, but my opinions also." This way, by the time his birth is narrated, the reader will know "what kind of a mortal" Tristram is and be more interested in such biographical details.

Tristram does, however, offer some remarks on the village midwife who assisted at his birth, "a thin, upright, motherly, notable, good old body" who was hired and trained by the parson's wife. He then takes up the subject of "hobby-horses"—those obsessions and passions that give life its zest. In most cases, he says, these hobbies are harmless, and in some cases they even do good by keeping people too busy to be malicious. He presents a generic dedication for his book, which he then proceeds to hawk to anyone who might wish to buy it. Tristram even offers to erase a chapter of his novel to make room for all the titles and noble deeds of his patron.

Returning momentarily to the midwife, Tristram segues to a description of Parson Yorick, whose wife was responsible for helping the midwife set up shop. He describes Yorick as a modest man who, after years of priding himself on his fine horses, had a change of heart and decided to buy only the cheapest, most broken-down horses he could find. More notably, Yorick is also a descendant of the jester Yorick who appeared in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Like his ancestor, Yorick has a fondness for witty jokes, but he seldom thinks about how his jests will be received. This jokey demeanor gets him in trouble when he insults the wrong clergymen, ruining his chances of advancement in the church hierarchy. He dies brokenhearted and lies under a tombstone engraved with the words, "Alas, poor Yorick!" In memory of the parson, Tristram interrupts his story to print two pages covered in black ink.

Analysis

By the time Yorick's death is narrated, the basic rules of engagement are established for the remainder of the novel: Tristram will jump backwards and forwards in time with gleeful abandon, trusting the reader to keep up and even to enjoy the ride. "Laugh with me, or at me, or in short do any thing," he cautions, "—only keep your temper." Yorick, though his death is announced in Chapter 12, will reappear throughout the novel, since Tristram is only loosely concerned with chronology and can never resist the chance to tell a good story, of which Yorick supplies plenty. In fact, many important moments for the novel's characters will occur as flashbacks and digressions, rather than in the main stream of narration. Yorick, who as a clergyman combines wittiness with a genuine concern for his congregation, will star in parts of Vol. 4, and a sermon of his will be reprinted almost entirely in Vol. 2. Uncle Toby, mentioned only in passing in the novel's opening chapters, will likewise be the subject of several anecdotes, which progressively round out his character. In Vol. 2 he is introduced as an eccentric old officer obsessed with fort-building, but Vol. 6 portrays him in a more heartwarming light as he tends to a dying fellow soldier. His thwarted love affair with the Widow Wadman, the main event of Vols. 8 and 9, completes the picture.

Tristram's attitude toward nearly everyone in the novel can be summarized as "live and let live." His father, his uncle, and Yorick are all preoccupied with various "hobby-horses," as Tristram calls them, and the narrator himself might be said to have a "hobby-horsical" quest to write his life story despite the constant distractions he seems to encounter. Tristram's gentle mockery of hobby-horses should not be confused with serious criticism: rather, he considers the capacity to throw oneself into a hobby to be a sign of humanity in an otherwise over-serious person. Some of the most obnoxious characters in Tristram Shandy—such as the pedantic clerics in Vol. 5 and the literary critics mentioned throughout—are explicitly forgiven by Tristram on this score, though not without a dash of sarcasm. To him, obsessing over the details of the baptism ritual is as much a "hobby-horse" as collecting books or butterflies and therefore equally immune from judgment.

Death will be a recurring presence in this otherwise lighthearted novel. Even Mrs. Shandy's remark about the clock in Chapter 1, awkwardly funny as it is, might be seen as a gesture toward the book's theme of time and mortality: in conceiving Tristram, she and Walter are "winding up the clock" that will wind down to his eventual demise. Although, as the reader later learns, Tristram suffers from a chronic and life-threatening disease, the narrator seldom treats the theme of death with total seriousness. His typographical "funeral" for Yorick—the two black pages after Vol. 1, Chapter 12—is a perfect example of his attitude. On the one hand there is something touching and sobering about this tribute, which visually evokes the black fabric draped over a coffin and the black garments worn by mourners. On the other hand the gesture is also a playful one, interrupting the chatty flow of the text with a simple, wordless block of black ink. If the black pages are a funeral pall for Yorick, they might also be seen as a curtain drawn over the scene by a self-consciously theatrical writer.

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