Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 5 Chapters 23 33 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 5, Chapters 23–33 | Summary

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Summary

With Toby leading the way, the group arrives at Shandy Hall. Walter, as Tristram now pauses to remind the reader, often reacts unpredictably to an "untried occasion or occurrence of life." His reaction to the news of Tristram's accidental circumcision—an "untried occurrence" if ever there was one—is understated. Instead of sending for a doctor, which he leaves Mrs. Shandy to do, he goes down to his library and reads up on the prominence of circumcision among ancient cultures. Satisfied that the custom was widespread among the Hebrews, the Egyptians, and others, he decides not to "fret or fume one moment about the matter."

Joking about Tristram's accident, Walter wonders whether an astrological phenomenon is not to blame for his son's misfortunes. He and Yorick fall into a discussion of the theology surrounding circumcision, and Toby—initially worried about the child—gets drawn in as well. Yorick tells a story about two acrobatic horsemen, which Toby finds dull on account of its lack of fighting. Walter then describes his plans for the Tristrapedia, beginning with the chapter on family relations and respecting one's parents. This leads to a discussion of the precepts on parents and children in the Anglican Catechism, a work which, Toby proudly announces, Corporal Trim can recite from memory.

At Toby's urging, Trim indeed recites the Catechism, one step at a time, in a parody of a military drill. Unimpressed with this rote approach to religious instruction, Walter asks whether Trim really understands what is meant by "honoring thy father and mother." Trim, with his usual simplicity and earnestness, replies that it means "allowing them ... three halfpence a day out of my pay, when they grew old." Yorick finds this answer deeply moving, but Walter, embarrassed, proceeds to explain his Tristrapedia chapter on health and longevity.

Analysis

Trim, along with Mrs. Shandy to a lesser extent, serves as the voice of down-to-earth practicality throughout the novel. Placing him in a dialogue with Walter and Dr. Slop—both theorists by nature—is bound to create some comical conflicts. Here, however, Tristram also makes a larger point about the contrast between appearance and reality. By any conventional definition, Trim has not had much in the way of education, religious or otherwise. Nor is the bar in this scene set particularly high: the Catechism, a series of questions and answers intended for the instruction of the faithful, was and is a fundamental part of an Anglican upbringing, touching on such topics as the sacraments, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. Children were expected to commit it to memory, an accomplishment that most educated adults would have regarded as trivial. Trim, however, recalls his Catechism awkwardly and by rote—like a child who has memorized his times tables but is not truly fluent in basic arithmetic.

Nonetheless, Trim's answer to Walter's follow-up question reveals a deep sense of his spiritual obligation "to love, honor, and succor [his] father and mother," just as the Catechism decrees. Walter, a much more privileged man than Trim, can likely discuss Anglican doctrine with ease and may even be in the process of helping the young Tristram to learn to recite the Catechism for himself. In fact, Walter has a keen appetite for theological learning and enjoys asking Yorick and his colleagues about matters of obscure religious doctrine. Evidently, however, he lacks Trim's intuitive sense of the requirements of Christian charity. Although he seldom shirks his responsibilities as a father and husband, he often performs them grudgingly, as when he carts Mrs. Shandy to London and then grumbles all the way back home about the expense and inconvenience of the trip (Vol. 1, Chapter 17). The present scene, in which he picks on Trim for an apparent lack of religious sophistication, is not one of Walter Shandy's prouder moments.

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