Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 5 Chapters 1 11 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 5, Chapters 1–11 | Summary



Tristram complains loudly of the "pitiful—pimping—pettifogging" nature of other authors, who imitate original works (including, by this point, Tristram Shandy itself) rather than using their own creativity. He then turns, regretfully, to the "chapter upon whiskers" he has promised. In a short tale supposedly taken from the court of Margaret of Navarre, he shows how a harmless word ("whiskers") can acquire indecent connotations merely from the manner and context in which it is said.

Walter Shandy is calculating the expense of Bobby's European tour when the letter arrives announcing the young man's death. He manages his grief by composing a long oration about death and dying, quoting from several ancient authors in the process. Mrs. Shandy, who happens to be passing by the door as Walter speaks, stops to listen but does not yet learn that Bobby has died.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, news of Bobby's death is spreading among the household staff. Corporal Trim gives his own short, somber speech on the transience of life, to the admiration of his coworkers. He also expresses his worries that Uncle Toby, his employer and former commanding officer, will take the death of his nephew too much to heart, just as he did when Lieutenant Le Fever died. The others join him in praising Toby for his gallant and warmhearted nature. Susannah asks to hear about Lieutenant Le Fever, a wish that Trim is glad to oblige. Before he can tell his tale, however, Tristram insists on returning to the topic of his mother and her reaction to Bobby's sudden demise.


Like his playful quibbling with the "Anti-Shandeans" in Vol. 3, Tristram's allegations of copycat works are grounded in real life. Shortly after the first two volumes of Tristram Shandy were published, imitations and other unauthorized Shandy books began to crop up at a remarkable rate. Some claimed to be written by Sterne, others insinuated as much by posing as sequels to Tristram Shandy, and a few frankly admitted to being critical commentaries on the novel. René Bosch covers this phenomenon in detail in Labyrinth of Digressions: Tristram Shandy as Perceived and Influenced by Sterne's Early Imitators (2007). "That the hacks [i.e., low-quality writers] should jump on Tristram Shandy," he points out, "was to be expected. What nobody could have foreseen, however, was the scale on which it happened."

Walter's response to Bobby's death is, characteristically, a bookish one, but this does not necessarily make it shallow or insincere. As previous volumes have shown, Walter is deeply invested in literary learning—his "hobby-horse"—and looks to it as a source of consolation in all kinds of hardships. Nonetheless, Bobby is a decidedly marginal character in the novel, and Tristram will not spend much time mourning his brother, or describing his family's reaction to Bobby's death. Mrs. Shandy will not even be present when the news of her son's demise is broken to her. In essence, Bobby is less a character than a plot device; with his death Walter is forced to put all his eggs in one basket and focus on educating Tristram.

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