Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 1 Chapters 21 25 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 1, Chapters 21–25 | Summary



The story snaps back to the day of Tristram's birth, with Uncle Toby and Walter sitting in the parlor and wondering about all the noise upstairs. Immediately Tristram veers off onto another tangent, this time contemplating the effect of England's climate on the "odd and whimsical" personalities of its people. The Shandy family, he maintains with pride, are among the weirdest of the bunch. Building on his profile from previous chapters, Tristram describes Uncle Toby as a war veteran who retired from service after sustaining a groin injury.

Tristram now offers a "digression on digressions," in which he commends the previous chapter for its "masterstroke of digressive skill." Having admonished the reader to pay attention to his artful style of narration, he then vows to keep on digressing for another 40 years' worth of volumes, or as long as "life and good spirits" hold out. Doubling down on the digressions, Tristram next argues the merits of discerning a person's character from their "hobby-horse." Thus, he promises to describe Uncle Toby not in terms of his outward appearance, but by analyzing his peculiar hobbies and fascinations.

Before he proceeds, however, Tristram wants to explain why a person's hobby-horse reveals so much about their personality. Drawing on the equestrian image suggested by the term "hobby-horse," he suggests that "by long journies [sic] and much friction ... the body of the rider is at length fill'd as full of hobby-horsical matter as it can hold." Describing the hobby, therefore, gives a good idea of the "genius and character" of the person.

Tristram sets the stage for Uncle Toby's hobby-horse by describing his misfortunes at the siege of Namur, where Toby's pelvic bone was "dismally crushed" by a chunk of falling stone. During his recovery from this injury Toby took a room at the London home of his brother Walter, where visitors often asked him to describe the battle in which he was wounded. Frustrated by his inability to give an exact account, Toby at last figured out an "expedient" for helping him to remember, but this won't be explained until Vol. 2.


Tristram's concern for his "life and good spirits" is a glancing reference to a sad autobiographical truth: when he began writing Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne was already suffering from symptoms of tuberculosis, a then incurable and generally fatal illness. In successive volumes Tristram will gradually succumb to the disease as well, though he will laugh it off and reassure the reader of his intention to go on writing as long as possible. In Vol. 7 Tristram will gamely attempt to cheat Death by running away to France, but by Vol. 8 he has seemingly made his peace with mortality and is resolved to enjoy whatever years, or months, are left to him. Perhaps because of his own physical weakness, Tristram is acutely aware of the seeming disconnect between mind and body: one can be lively and quick even as the other decays. "Our minds," he notes, "shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystalized flesh and blood." Tristram is defined not by his status as a tuberculosis sufferer, but by his wildly inventive wit and unflappable good humor, just as Uncle Toby's kindly nature and love of military exploits are more important than his war wound.

The novel's almost universally positive portrayal of soldiers is, likewise, a reflection of Sterne's own life experiences as the son of an infantryman. The most straightforwardly sympathetic characters in the book, Uncle Toby and his sidekick Corporal Trim, are English soldiers of different ranks and social classes, but they are united by their wartime experiences and by an attitude of loyalty and chivalry. Tristram will gently mock these two for the "military" manner in which they do everything: toward the end of the novel, Toby will fall in love, and he will march up to his sweetheart's house as though attempting to besiege a city. Minor characters who happen to be soldiers—such as Lieutenant Le Fever in Vol. 6—will likewise appear in a warmly sentimental light.

A related character point is the "contrariety of humors" between the two Shandy brothers. As Tristram points out here—not for the last time—Walter and Toby have quite different personalities. Walter is scholarly, impractical, irascible, and insists on doing things "by the book." Toby is a man of action who admires his brother's intelligence but often fails to grasp the subtlety of his brother's philosophical speeches and sometimes simply dozes off or starts whistling loudly while Walter is talking. He is also, however, a gallant and generous man, and he is often particularly kind to those people—women, children, and servants—whom Walter sees as bothersome. The narrator evidently thinks fondly of both his father and his uncle, and he seldom mentions either man's flaws without emphasizing a counterbalancing virtue.

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