Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 2 Chapters 1 10 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 2, Chapters 1–10 | Summary



Tristram reminds his reader of the matter at hand: his Uncle Toby's war injury, which led to Toby's developing an unusual hobby. The siege of Namur, Tristram says, is almost impossible to describe without an extensive knowledge of fortifications, a subject that gave Toby great trouble in recounting the battle to guests. At last Toby gets the idea to acquire a large map of Namur to aid his explanations. Anticipating critics' objections to his portrayal of Uncle Toby, Tristram insists Toby is much more than the "pudding-headed, muddle-headed fellow" he seems to be. Toby is, however, quite confused by the complex terminology used to discuss military architecture. He then explains how Toby's interest in Namur blossomed into a preoccupation with fortifications of all kinds. Gradually, Toby collects maps and books, learning more and more about the subject until he became something of an expert. "Endless," Tristram wryly remarks, "is the Search of Truth!"

Eventually, Uncle Toby becomes dissatisfied with merely reading about fort-building and, despite his surgeon's warnings, decides to relocate to the Shandy estate in the country. In doing so, he is egged on by his sidekick, Corporal Trim, who served under Toby in the wars and is now his valet. Trim has had the brilliant idea to clear out a small plot on the family estate and build model fortifications rather than merely drawing them on maps. This idea so excites Toby that he makes plans to leave London immediately.

The timeline shifts forward—again—to Shandy Hall on the day of Tristram's birth. Toby and Walter are still marking time in the parlor while they await news from upstairs. Eventually losing his patience, Walter calls his manservant Obadiah to go and fetch the "man-midwife," whose name is Dr. Slop. Riding furiously to fetch the doctor, Obadiah meets him in the road and frightens him off his horse. Dr. Slop arrives at Shandy Hall angry, out of breath, and coated in mud from head to foot.


In these chapters Tristram continues to jokingly comment on his own artfulness as a writer. After a "spirited" and sentimental address to Uncle Toby in Chapter 3, he asks the reader to pause with him and reflect on the "pencraft" that went into writing the speech. Tristram's metafictional commentary—i.e., writing about writing—contributes to the novel's playful mood and reinforces the "conversational" quality of the novel, as though the author is taking the reader on a behind-the-scenes tour. For Tristram, writing is an all-consuming "hobby-horse" just as fort-building is for Uncle Toby and building a library is for Walter. He tells his story with an air of obvious delight in the process, and his fixation on details of craft is not so much an attempt to show off as it is an attempt to share his enthusiasm.

The characters of Corporal Trim and Dr. Slop contrast sharply with one another and give Tristram ample scope for expressing his "opinions" about human nature. Trim is plainspoken, unpretentious, and loyal to a fault. His lack of formal schooling in no way diminishes his wisdom, which surprises and impresses the older, college-educated men in the household. Dr. Slop, on the other hand, represents all the qualities Tristram finds laughable in learned men: he is proud, pedantic, and full of sophisticated theories that fail to pass the test of the real world. To an extent these same criticisms apply to Walter Shandy, but his redeeming qualities—such as a desire to do right by his children—get a great deal of airtime, whereas Dr. Slop's positive traits are barely mentioned.

Tristram also takes a few potshots at Dr. Slop's Catholicism, which he, being, like Sterne, an Anglican, sees as a collection of outmoded superstitions: it is no coincidence that Slop is making the sign of the cross as he slips from his horse and tumbles into the mud. In general, Tristram will not attack Catholic doctrines or practices directly but will strive to make them seem ridiculous by association, invoking them at particularly awkward or silly points in the story. Nuns and monks, the figures most symbolic of Catholicism to an 18th-century Briton, will frequently appear in indelicate or risqué situations. Even Uncle Toby will occasionally get in on the act; the tune "Lillabullero," which Toby whistles whenever he is at a loss for words, has strong anti-Catholic connotations due to its use during the Williamite Wars (1688-91).

Throughout these chapters, as in much of the novel, the timeline lurches back and forth via a series of flashbacks and side stories. By playing with time in this manner, Tristram conjures up the theories of English philosopher John Locke, who emphasized the subjective aspect of time (the "train and succession of our ideas," as Tristram calls it in Chapter 8), rather than the merely chronological. For Tristram, this appeal to subjective time serves as a defense against the "hypercritic," whom he ridicules as apt to take issue with the timing of the novel's events. Such a critic, Tristram jokes, is likely "to take a pendulum, and measure the true distance betwixt the ringing of the bell and the rap at the door." If Locke's view of time as "duration" is accepted, such an analysis is not only overzealous and mean-spirited, but pointless.

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