Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 1 Chapters 13 20 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 1, Chapters 13–20 | Summary



Getting back to the village midwife (from Vol. 1, Chapter 7), Tristram describes her as a highly respected person within her own small social circle—of which he promises to include a map at "the end of the twentieth volume." Realizing his story has escaped his control, Tristram likens the narrative to a journey full of interesting landmarks and scenic vistas. Because of these "unforeseen stoppages," he cautions the reader, his life story will likely never be told in full.

Undaunted, he proceeds to give a summary of his parents' marriage settlement, a complicated legalese document, which he quotes in a fancy blackletter font. The relevant point is his mother's stipulation that she be allowed to travel to London whenever she is to give birth. If she feigns pregnancy, however, she "forfeits" the next London trip even if she really is with child. One such false alarm takes place about two years before Tristram's birth.

Irritated by the unnecessary London trip, Walter informs his wife that she must, per the marriage contract, bear her next child at home in the country. Tristram refuses to say whether this counts as "perseverance" or "obstinacy" on his father's part. Mrs. Shandy insists, however, on choosing her own midwife. She and Walter argue for weeks about whom to hire: she favors the unnamed village midwife, but he wants to hire a "man-midwife" whom he regards as more professional and scientific. Mrs. Shandy wins the fight, but Walter decides to have the "man-midwife" standing by in case his services are needed.

Tristram next describes his father's profound belief in the power of names to shape a person's destiny. This belief has led Walter to be extremely careful about naming his son, lest he be doomed to a life of mediocrity or worse. In Walter's opinion, the worst name a man can have is Tristram, a "melancholy dissyllable of sound," which he thinks will lead to a "mean and pitiful" life for anyone who bears it. Then, in an odd chapter-length digression, Tristram considers the notion of baptism by injection, a practice he regards as one of the quirks of Catholicism. To show that such baptisms are sanctioned by the Church, he produces a lengthy excerpt, in French, from a theological work debating the validity of this mode of baptism.


These chapters highlight Tristram's gossipy, playful way of addressing the reader, whom he imagines sometimes as a woman—"Madam"—and sometimes as a man—"Sir" or "your Honor." Given his tendency to veer off into seemingly irrelevant side stories, it is perhaps unsurprising that Tristram sometimes jokingly quizzes the reader on details from previous chapters. In Vol. 1, Chapter 20 for example, he pokes fun at the reader for not noticing an insinuation about his mother's religion—namely, that if she had been Roman Catholic, Tristram could have been baptized before he was even born. His reasoning on this minor point ends up filling multiple pages, during which he quotes from the theologians of the University of Paris (commonly known as the Sorbonne).

There is, by the way, no evidence to suggest baptism by injection was ever actually performed. Instead, it seems to have been a theoretical concept considered by religious scholars in their attempts to define baptism more precisely. The broader point is that the theologians are obsessed with minute, impractical details—a tendency that greatly amuses Tristram, who notes the same habit of thought among clergymen, lawyers, philosophers, and physicians. In general, Tristram enjoys making good-natured jokes at the expense of learned professionals, whom he sees as overly self-serious (unlike himself) and unable to avoid flaunting their knowledge (much like himself). In this he resembles Parson Yorick, who is generally eager to take his fellow clerics down a notch if they start acting too arrogant and quarrelsome.

Another recurring source of amusement is Walter's obsession with names, and with book learning of all sorts. Uncle Toby, introduced earlier in Vol. 1, is almost entirely preoccupied with a single "hobby-horse": studying military fortifications and recreating them in miniature on the Shandy estate. Walter, in contrast to his brother, has a seemingly inexhaustible interest in many different subjects, from philosophy to the history of fashion. Usually, his quest for knowledge is motivated by a practical concern, such as Tristram's education. Just as often, however, his reading leads him straight into a swamp of pointless trivia. Such is the case in these chapters, where Walter searches far and wide for works to support his belief in the importance of a well-chosen name. When he embarks on one of these intellectual expeditions, it is a sure sign he will be thwarted by some kind of accident—like the momentary confusion that leads to Tristram being named Tristram rather than Trismegistus (Vol. 4, Chapter 14).

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