Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 4 Chapters 1 11 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 4, Chapters 1–11 | Summary



Having shared Slawkenbergius's Tale with the reader, Tristram returns to his description of Walter, still abject from the news of his son's damaged nose. After an hour and a half, Walter begins to stir, to the great relief of Uncle Toby, who is sitting in an armchair and keeping watch over his brother. Walter complains of the "lashes" dealt to him by fortune, which leads Toby to recount the story of a grenadier who was severely whipped for a suspected theft. Too tired even to get angry, Walter collapses back into a motionless heap. Toby rings for Trim to come up, and the two military men commiserate about the falsely accused grenadier. Walter gradually revives once more.

Feeling a little better, Walter explains to Toby his philosophical views on the "hidden resources," which allow a person to bear afflictions patiently. Human beings, he says, have a "great and elastic power," which allows them to rebound against adversity, "like a secret spring in a well-ordered machine." In order to counterbalance this particular evil (i.e., the squashed nose), Walter proposes to give his newborn son the powerful, glorious name of Trismegistus. In attempting to get down the stairs, Walter is clobbered by Uncle Toby's crutch, adding to the "chapter of chances" that have befallen him.

The word "chapter" reminds Tristram of all the unwritten chapters he has promised the reader, and he sets out to start crossing some of these off his list. He begins with a "chapter upon chapters," in which he decides not to offer the reader a "sententious parade of wisdom," but instead to point him to ancient authors who discussed the craft of fiction. Back at Shandy Hall, Walter takes a single step down the stairs while explaining the merits of the name Trismegistus.


Most of Walter's favored names for his son, such as Caesar and Archimedes, refer to famous figures from Greek and Roman history. The name he eventually chooses, Trismegistus, is a little obscurer. Also spelled "Trismegistos," it means "thrice-great" in Greek, an etymology that no doubt appeals to Walter all on its own. A further reason for choosing the name is its association with Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary scholar and alchemist reputed to have lived during the 2nd century BCE and the alleged author of the Hermetic Corpus, a collection of ancient Greek and Latin writings on the occult. This biographical detail perfectly captures Walter's own obsession with obscure knowledge and his pursuit of it via rare books. Walter would, no doubt, be immensely pleased with a son whose writings unraveled the secrets of the universe.

The other characters' reactions to the name are similarly telling. Toby, hearing of Trismegistus's great deeds, naturally assumes such a man must also have an illustrious military record, since for him this is the most proper measure of a person's greatness. Susannah, in later chapters of this volume, will fail to recognize "Trismegistus" as a name at all, providing a comic foil to Walter's extensive book learning. An awkward game of telephone will ensue, with Susannah misremembering the name as "Tristram-gistus." The curate who baptizes the child may have heard of Trismegistus, but he is unlikely to be familiar with "Tristramgistus." He thus balks at giving the baby such a weird name: "There is no 'gistus' to it, noodle!" he indignantly tells Susannah. "[Tristram] is my own name."

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