HomeLiterature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 4 Chapters 12 21 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 4, Chapters 12–21 | Summary

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Summary

Still making their way down the stairs, Walter and Uncle Toby remark on the way the women of the household seem to become an inch taller when their mistress is about to have a baby. Toby finds this admirable ("God bless 'em all!"); Walter finds it annoying ("Duce [i.e., devil] take 'em all!"). Frustrated at the slow pace of his own narrative, Tristram calls for a literary critic "to get my father and my uncle Toby off the stairs." At the current rate, he complains, his life is unfolding faster than his autobiography can capture it.

While Tristram is pondering this issue, Walter and Toby retire to their respective bedrooms. Walter, however, does not rest long before Susannah bursts into the room: the baby is doing poorly and must be baptized immediately in case the worst should happen. While dressing, he asks Susannah to tell the priest (Yorick's assistant) to christen the baby Trismegistus; the name gets jumbled up in the retelling, and the baby is named Tristram. Walter hears of the mistake at breakfast the next morning. He grabs his hat, walks calmly out of the house, and stands silently by the fishpond.

Corporal Trim arrives and immediately disavows any role in the baby-naming fiasco. At length, Walter returns from the fishpond and gives a dramatic speech on the evil which has befallen his poor, misnamed infant. Toby offers to send for Yorick, to see if the baby can simply be renamed.

Analysis

There's an element of casual but undeniable sexism in Walter's remarks on the staircase (Vol. 4, Chapter 12). In general, his views concerning women are about as sophisticated as those of a typical sitcom dad: "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." There's more going on here, however, than the brevity of the scene might imply. Walter's annoyance at the audacity of his female servants reflects his self-image not just as a man, but as the man in charge. As the patriarch of the Shandy family, he resents any encroachment on his authority—not only by women, but by socially inferior men (e.g., Trim) and those outside the family (Dr. Slop). On the one hand, Walter is more likely to ascribe a woman's vexing behaviors to her sex, while seeing a man's foibles as a result of ill-breeding, lack of education, or religious difference. On the other hand, his little outburst—"Duce take 'em!"—could easily apply to anyone who diminishes his own authority within the household. Toby's "God bless 'em!" is patronizing, perhaps, but it lacks any sense of ill-will or insecurity.

Tristram's cheerful exposition of the Shandy brothers' personalities is cut short by a startling realization in Chapter 29: "I am this month one whole year older," he complains, "than I was this time twelve-month." In itself, this statement seems so obvious that it might appear to be just another stroke of Shandean silliness. For Tristram, however, the passing of another year drives home his failure to write at the pace of life; the more he reflects on the passage of time, the more dauntingly apparent becomes the sheer scope of his project. With "three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when [he] first set out," Tristram is unlikely ever to catch up to the present—especially given how many chapters it takes for him to narrate a single day.

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