Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 3 Chapters 1 10 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 3, Chapters 1–10 | Summary

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Summary

Tristram continues, at his leisurely pace, to describe the conversation taking place in the downstairs parlor while he was being born. Uncle Toby attempts to steer the discussion back toward military matters, but when Walter grumbles impatiently and wipes his brow with a handkerchief, Toby backs off from his pet subject. Likening himself to his uncle, Tristram asks the reviewers of his book to have a little more charity and to share in Toby's "live and let live" outlook.

Walter offers some remarks on the dangers of childbirth, casting a momentarily somber tone over the conversation. Dr. Slop, meanwhile, hastily attempts to undo his doctor's bag, which has been tied up in knots by Obadiah. In trying to cut the knots with a penknife, he slashes his thumb instead and falls into a fit of cursing. Walter, in a mocking show of helpfulness, offers Dr. Slop a pamphlet containing "fit forms of swearing suitable to all cases." The work is actually a Catholic formula of excommunication, written in Latin by a medieval bishop.

Analysis

The opening pages of Vol. 3 nicely illustrate Tristram's tendency to get lost in trivialities: three chapters, almost in their entirety, are devoted to Walter Shandy's movements as he reaches for his handkerchief, takes off his wig, and dabs at his brow. In a fit of gleeful over-narration, Tristram critiques Walter's decision to remove his wig with his right hand and retrieve his handkerchief from his pocket with the left. If he had done the opposite, Tristram says, Walter would have been "easy—natural—unforced." The critique of Walter's "ungraceful" movements is an instance of situational irony, since Tristram himself is busily leading the reader into a deliberately awkward and contrived discussion of a minor detail.

Meanwhile, Dr. Slop's struggles with the knotted bag offer another fitting symbol for the process of reading Tristram Shandy, a work whose narrative strands crisscross in a manner sometimes hard to separate. Try as one might, however, there is no straightforward way of "cutting" the narrative into simple pieces, as Slop does the bag. Instead, reading the novel is a game of gradual disentanglement, as later volumes resolve some—but certainly not all—of the many lingering questions concerning plot, character, and motivation.

These chapters also offer a further contrast between Walter and Toby, who occasionally strains his brother's patience with his single-minded focus on military matters. While Walter is sometimes irritable and quarrelsome, Toby is infinitely patient; when the one brother insists on insulting, the other brother remains silent, except to whistle "Lillabullero." This is neither the first nor the last time Toby will whistle the tune during a stressful moment, a habit that sometimes (see Vol. 2, Chapters 1-10) does double duty as a jab at Slop's Catholicism.

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