Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 5 Chapters 34 43 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 5, Chapters 34–43 | Summary



Tristram describes his father's bizarre theories on health and medicine, which are framed as an attack on the medical teachings of "Lord Verulam" (i.e., Sir Francis Bacon) and the famous Greek physician Hippocrates. In Walter's view, health depends on the balance of "radical heat" and "radical moisture." Too much heat, and the body simply dries out; too much moisture, and "dropsies" (i.e., edema or abnormal fluid retention) will result. Toby listens with unusual fascination to his brother's theory, which reminds him of his experiences in fighting off an illness during the Siege of Limerick (1690).

Dr. Slop "waddles" into the room, and Walter offhandedly inquires about Tristram's condition. The prognosis, Slop says, is poor. Trim ventures his own opinions on radical moisture and heat, which he says are "nothing but ditch-water—and a dram of geneva." Dr. Slop is about to offer a pedantic lecture on the subject when he is called out to attend his patient. Sensing that the reader may be growing weary, Tristram likens himself to a sea captain and promises to bring everyone ashore soon.

The last two chapters of Vol. 5 set forth Walter's eccentric views on education, which he sees as "entirely [depending] ... upon the auxiliary verbs." If a child can master such words as "have," "had," "should," and "could," Walter maintains, he will be able to speak intelligently—and at length—on any topic that happens to come up in conversation.


These scenes show Walter Shandy at his most gloriously absurd. In formulating his medical theories, Shandy is picking a fight with two authors whose works, though influential, are much too old and outmoded for a normal 18th-century person to take seriously. Hippocrates (c. 460–375 BCE) is often considered the founder of Western medical tradition, and his "how-to" medical writings are very astute for their time. His theories about anatomy and physiology, however, are largely speculative. Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who lived and wrote two millennia after Hippocrates, benefited from the wealth of knowledge amassed through the dissection of cadavers, a practice that flourished during and after the European Middle Ages. Consequently, his theory of anatomy (the parts of the body) was much more developed and accurate than that of the ancient Greeks.

Bacon's ideas concerning physiology (how the body works), however, were still far from the mark. A modern theory of circulation, for example, would not be established until two years after Bacon's death, and explanations of nerve function in his time still relied on the idea of "animal spirits" traveling along the nerve fibers. It's thus not surprising to find Bacon accepting along such vague, musty concepts as "radical moisture" and "innate heat," even though these have no established meaning in modern medical discourse. Walter's tendency to seek wisdom in old books serves him well when it comes to subjects like philosophy and human nature, but it does him no favors in understanding the natural sciences.

The Siege of Limerick, which Toby mentions almost in passing, was likely a significant event for Sterne, as it marked a decisive but temporary turning point in the Williamite Wars (1689-91). The Irish troops headquartered at Limerick, loyal to James II, successfully repelled an all-out invasion by the Williamites, British troops loyal to William III. The siege was a grueling one for both sides and would likely have made a deep impression on such a sensitive soul as Toby, who indeed speaks with horror and pity of the soggy, disease-ridden condition of his fellow soldiers. Toby's latent anti-Irish bias (as indicated by his habit of whistling "Lillabullero") is perhaps a consequence of this demoralizing campaign. Sterne, who was Irish by birth but also a member of the Anglican clergy, is sometimes described by biographers as "Anglo-Irish." In Tristram Shandy, however, his attitudes toward Ireland and its people are presented only ambiguously.

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