Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 5 Chapters 12 22 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 5, Chapters 12–22 | Summary



In attempting to get his story back on track, Tristram gets drawn into an exploration of the literary sources of Walter's funeral speech for Bobby. Mistaking a line from Socrates —"I have three desolate children"—for an autobiographical statement, Mrs. Shandy bursts through the door and demands an explanation. Walter leaves the room and his wife follows him, learning of her son's death offstage. Later, Walter begins writing a Tristrapedia to serve as a guide to the education of his surviving child. He soon finds that Tristram is growing up faster than he can complete the book.

Tristram now attempts, in as delicate a manner as possible, to tell of another formative childhood experience. In this scene Tristram is five years old and is attempting to urinate out the nursery window. The window sash falls, instantly circumcising him, and Susannah the chambermaid runs to Uncle Toby's house in a panic. She calls for Trim, who considers himself guilty of Tristram's "murder," having taken the weights from the windows to build model cannons for Toby. The two then inform Uncle Toby, who nobly agrees to take the blame, since Trim built the miniature cannons at his request. Together with Yorick, the three head back to Shandy Hall to break the news to Walter.


Like the "misnaming" episode in Vol. 4 Walter's eulogy for Bobby is deflated by the other characters' failure to understand his grandiose way of speaking. Toby is familiar enough with Walter's fondness for Socrates to be in on the joke, and even to humor his brother in his harmless little flight of grandiloquence. He recognizes Walter's outpouring of wordiness for what it is: a coping mechanism.

Mrs. Shandy, however, is not up to speed on her Greek classics. When she hears Walter claiming to have "three desolate children," her curiosity gets the better of her, and she rushes in demanding to know about this mysterious third child of his. "They are Socrates's children," Toby says in an attempt to clarify, but this only leads Mrs. Shandy to retort that "[Socrates] has been dead a hundred years ago." At this point Bobby's death has been drained of any emotional impact it might have had, and the whole scene is teetering on the brink of farce. Tristram, like an embarrassed stage manager, hastily closes the curtain by changing the subject in Chapter 15.

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