Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 4 Slawkenbergiuss Tale Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 4, Slawkenbergius's Tale | Summary

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Summary

Vol. 4 opens with a tale from Slawkenbergius's book De Nasis (Of Noses). Tristram prints a few pages of the "original" Latin alongside an English translation then tells the rest of the story in English. In plot the tale is as nonsensical as many of the other digressions in Tristram Shandy: it tells of a stranger with a prominent nose entering the town of Strasburg and being surrounded by curious citizens who wish to touch his nose. Some believe the nose to be false, while others think it is genuine. Unable to stay in Strasburg undisturbed, the stranger leaves for Frankfurt, promising to return in a month.

While the stranger is away, a debate ensues about the nature and origin of his nose. All strata of Strasburg society, including the clergy, the academics, and the aristocracy, are swept up in the madness. Those lucky enough to see the nose deliver public lectures about it, and medical experts write dissertations on the maximum possible size to which a man's nose may grow. Eventually, a religious controversy erupts, with the Nosarians insisting on God's power to make a nose as big as he wants and the Antinosarians arguing "he can do nothing ... which implies contradictions."

At length the stranger leaves Frankfurt and begins his journey back to Strasburg. Partway through his trip, however, he meets a fellow traveler named Fernandez who happens to be the brother of his former lover Julia. Fernandez entreats the stranger, whose name is Diego, to return to Spain and reconcile with Julia. He agrees, and the two set out by a route which avoids Strasburg altogether. The disappointed Strasburgers, who had been waiting on the road for a glimpse at the stranger, return to their city, only to find it has been captured by the French.

Analysis

In this off-kilter and somewhat risqué narrative, Sterne rounds up several of his favorite subjects for mockery. On one level, by crediting Slawkenbergius with the authorship of 100 such stories, Sterne is doing a send-up of medieval collections such as the Decameron (c. 1350) and the Canterbury Tales (late 14th century). Unlike these frame stories, however, Slawkenbergius's second book is focused exclusively on stories about noses. It thus echoes Walter Shandy's own single-minded devotion to the topic and mirrors the hyper-specialized treatises which Tristram names—and mocks—elsewhere in the novel. Perhaps more strongly than any other part of the novel, Slawkenbergius's Tale also echoes the writings of François Rabelais, which are rich in both religious satire and bawdy humor of the sort presented here.

Within the tale clergymen (religious scholars in particular) are lampooned at length, setting the reader up for the ridiculousness of the baptism debate in Vol. 4, Chapters 26–29. Both Catholic and Protestant theologians are laughed at here, since both are involved in the absurd, hair-splitting debate over the nature of the stranger's nose. The "Nosarian/Antinosarian" conflict—"Can God make an infinitely big nose?"—notably involves scholars from two rival universities, one Lutheran and one "Popish" (i.e., Catholic), as if to imply that neither side has a monopoly on pedantry. Similar disputes over God's omnipotence were carried out, often quite passionately, throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Tristram, as the Yorick episode in Vol. 1 illustrates, is unsympathetic to the hierarchy of the Anglican Church, which he sees as out of touch and perhaps even oppressive. As usual, however, there is a detectable anti-Catholic edge to his satire here. The abbess of Quedlingberg, for example, is a cartoonish figure who, in her patently lustful desire to touch the stranger's nose, makes a mockery of the celibacy expected of nuns. In fact, all the sisters in her order—and, indeed, all the convents in Strasburg—are said to suffer from sleeplessness and agitation on account of their dreams of the stranger's nose. The notion of monks and nuns as sexually repressed—or, worse, as frauds who did not live up to their vows of celibacy—is a staple of anti-Catholic humor in Tristram Shandy.

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