Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 3 Chapters 31 42 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 3, Chapters 31–42 | Summary



For the past four generations, Tristram informs the reader, the Shandy men have been cursed with short, flat noses. This has caused them difficulty in marriage: Tristram's great grandmother, for example, demanded a large share of her husband's estate as recompense for marrying a man with "little or no nose." Naturally, Shandys of later generations came to view long noses as a desirable trait—a belief that, for Walter, becomes an obsession. Like Toby with his fortifications, Walter accumulates all the books he can find on noses and their relationship to a person's fortunes.

Tristram embarks on a survey of the most important authors of nose literature, including Bruscambille, a real French playwright who wrote a "prologue upon long noses" and "the great and learned Hafen Slawkenbergius," a fictional scholar and storyteller who supposedly lived during the 17th century. The discussion is interrupted by two pages of marbled paper without text, which Shandy describes as the "motley emblem of my work."

The summary of nose treatises resumes with a dialogue between Pamphagus ("Glutton") and Cocles ("The One-Eyed One"), two characters in a real work by Desiderius Erasmus. Cocles, as Tristram notes, describes a long nose as a having many practical uses, e.g., as a makeshift grappling hook during sea battles and as a substitute for bellows "to stir up the fire." Slawkenbergius, however, is the most prominent writer on noses, having written an entire folio on the subject. Tristram promises to share a partial translation from the work later on.

The novel shifts back into scene, with Uncle Toby and Walter conversing in the parlor some years prior to Tristram's birth. Walter is attempting to explain the different theories of noses to Toby, who is half-listening, half-daydreaming. A silly but well-intentioned question from Toby—"Can noses be dissolved?"—causes Walter to bite a pincushion in half in a fit of pique. Tristram closes the volume by asking the reader to stay tuned for a story from Slawkenbergius in Vol. 4.


The closing chapters of Vol. 3 are one of Tristram Shandy's comic tours de force. By combining real and fictional authors in his overview of nose literature, Tristram shows, in effect, that truth is just as strange as fiction. None of the authors mentioned in his roundup wrote extensively about noses, which partly explains Walter Shandy's difficulty and frustration in getting a comprehensive view of the subject. Bruscambille's remarks, for example, consist of a mere half-page in which he sings the praises of large noses as better able to "receive the odiferous vapors" necessary for the sense of smell. "In a word, Sirs," he concludes, "if it is a beautiful, a good, a commendable thing to have a nose, it is all the more so to have a large one." Slawkenbergius's fictionalized commentary, as "reported" by Tristram, fits in perfectly with Bruscambille's mock-heroic style of oration. Walter, characteristically, ignores the comedy and seeks a deeply serious meaning in both works. "Learned men," he admonishes Toby, "don't write dialogues upon long noses for nothing" (Vol. 3, Chapter 37).

With all due respect to Walter, however, learned menincluding Tristram and, by extension, Sterne—do write long dialogues for their own amusement. By and large, Tristram's constant allusions to noses are simply an extended exercise in innuendo: for him, as later for Sigmund Freud, the nose has strong phallic connotations. Hence all the talk of the relationship between nose length and manhood, and of the role played by a long and shapely nose in guaranteeing a happy marriage. Naturally, Tristram doesn't say any of this outright; instead, he affects a false prudishness and urges the reader not to read too much into what he says about noses. He even includes a warning, ostensibly to prevent the reader from getting the wrong idea: "by the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses ... I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less."

Tristram has another kindred spirit in Desiderius Erasmus (1469–1536), a Dutch Renaissance thinker who, like many of Sterne's literary heroes, often used absurd humor to make a philosophical point. Pamphagus and Cocles are characters in a colloquy (a literary dialogue) entitled De captandis sacerdotiis (On the Pursuit of Benefices, 1522), in which Erasmus lampoons the tendency of priests to seek out lucrative and prestigious positions within the church. Like Erasmus, Sterne scorned such careerist behavior; his role model is Yorick, the simple country parson who tends his flock and moonlights as an author. In Erasmus's dialogue, as in the dramatic writings of Bruscambille, noses are a merely incidental subject—however much they might mean to Walter Shandy.

An earlier and better-known work by Erasmus, Moriae encomium (In Praise of Folly, 1509), is even more sympathetic to Tristram's style of wit. In this prose monologue a personified Foolishness boasts of her own popularity and proclaims her usefulness to humankind. Throughout his rather rambling autobiography, Tristram, too, has been concerned with the relationship between wisdom and folly, eagerly reminding his readers that fools can sometimes tell profound truths. By inserting a sheet of "motley" (i.e., marbled) paper between the pages of his novel, Tristram signals once more his affinity with the figure of the court jester, who traditionally wore a "motley" or multicolored costume.

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