Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 2 Chapters 11 19 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 2, Chapters 11–19 | Summary



Dr. Slop, it is now revealed, has forgotten his bag of medical instruments, so Obadiah must go and fetch them. Meanwhile, the doctor has gotten cleaned up and takes a seat in the parlor. By chance the conversation turns to fortification, and Toby gives a long speech on the subject, quoting from various military treatises. Walter loses his patience but then apologizes to Toby almost immediately—a common dynamic between the two brothers. The episode gives Tristram an opportunity to describe Toby as a man "patient of injuries," as memorably illustrated by his unwillingness to kill a fly that had "tormented him cruelly" by buzzing about his head. "The world," Toby had reflected as he shooed the fly out the window, "surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me."

Corporal Trim is sent to fetch one of Toby's books, by an author known as Stevinus. By the time he has returned, however, the topic of conversation has turned to trade and industry. He is about to return the book to Toby's house when a small packet of papers—a sermon—falls out from between the pages. Trim offers to read a portion of it to the gentlemen.

The sermon turns out to be a long tract on the failings of conscience—specifically, its ability to lull a person into a false sense of moral security. The listeners identify the style as that of Parson Yorick, and Tristram parenthetically offers to publish the rest of Yorick's sermons in a separate volume if enough readers are interested. Obadiah arrives with the doctor's bag, and Walter asks Dr. Slop to stick around in case the other midwife has trouble. The volume closes with Walter's very particular opinions on childbirth, including his belief that children's brains develop better if they are born feet first.


The Stevinus treatise—quoted from, interpreted, and eventually brought forth in these chapters—serves as a convenient symbol for the structure of Tristram Shandy as a whole. It is a book within a book, which, in turn, contains another written text (Yorick's sermon) on a completely different subject. Talking about it, as the Shandy brothers do here, defers the actual process of reading it, just as Tristram's discussions of literary craft serve to prolong the novel and vary its pace. Like Yorick's lost pages, digressions and extraneous anecdotes seem to come tumbling out of Tristram's narrative every time he attempts to "open" it—that is, every time he tries to resume a straightforward retelling of his life story.

Sterne's novel, however, seldom organizes itself into such neat layers as the above description might suggest. The digressions, whose topics range from baptism to buttonholes, are not introduced and resolved one after another, like a series of books opened, read, and closed. Instead, digressive topics accumulate as the novel goes on, with Tristram often referring back to the growing number of loose ends in his work.

Nor is it as easy as it might seem to identify a single "authorial spokesperson" within Tristram Shandy. Tristram himself, who has a great deal in common with Sterne autobiographically, might seem like an obvious surrogate for the author, and his "life and opinions" might be hastily conflated with Sterne's. Parson Yorick, however, also reflects important aspects of the author's life and career, such as his training as a clergyman, his carefree attitude toward controversy, and his disdain for excessively serious people. The sermon on conscience is, in fact, one of Sterne's own sermons, preached during his tenure as a canon at York Minster, hence Tristram's eagerness to find a publisher for the rest of the sermons. Given his career as a churchman and his reputation as a literary jokester, it is easy to see why Sterne's contemporaries nicknamed him "Parson Yorick," a pen name he obligingly adopted in his later works.

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