Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 6 Chapters 31 40 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 6, Chapters 31–40 | Summary

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Summary

Uncle Toby is disappointed by the Treaty of Utrecht, but Walter believes his brother merely wants an excuse to keep building miniature forts. Fearful of being misunderstood, Toby gives a long speech explaining his "principles and conduct in wishing to continue the war." In this "apologetical oration," Toby professes his awareness of war's evils and his sympathy for its victims. He argues, however, that war is necessary for peace-loving people "to keep the ambitious and the turbulent within bounds." Nevertheless, Toby and Trim are somber as they dismantle the model fort. When the job is done, Toby becomes quiet and listless, lacking a "hobby-horse" to occupy him. This will not last long: Uncle Toby is about to fall in love.

Before he tells of Toby's courtship of the Widow Wadman, however, Tristram stops to survey various ancient and medieval theories on love. Plato, he says, sees love as "one great Devil," but Ficinus (Marsilio Ficino, 1433–99) thinks it is a mixture of the divine and the demonic. The medieval scholar Bernardus Gordonius offers rough prescriptions for "curing" lovesick individuals. All these authors Tristram points out, will be closely consulted by Walter Shandy as his brother's love affair progresses.

He then invites the reader to come up with his own description of the Widow Wadman: "Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—as like your mistress as you can—as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you." He leaves a blank page for this purpose then praises the reader's depiction as "sweet" and "exquisite" on the next page. Meanwhile, the Shandy household is abuzz with rumors that Toby will marry Mrs. Wadman—though Toby has not yet made any plans in this regard.

Tristram concludes the volume with another one of his typographical tricks: a set of squiggly lines intended to sum up the plots of Vols. 1–5. A straighter line, in this scheme, means a simpler, more linear plot. Unsurprisingly, the lines for Vols. 1–4 are a tangle of curlicues and switchbacks; in Vol. 5, however, Tristram maintains he has been "I have been very good," not taking "the least frisk of a digression" for several chapters on end. He semi-sarcastically promises to be even less digressive in later volumes, until eventually his plot can be captured by a perfectly straight line.

Analysis

Anytime a big issue (e.g., love, war, death, religion) comes up, Walter can be counted on to consult his library of cherished classics, seeking out the advice of the ancients in order to pass it on—usually unsolicited—to anyone who looks like they might need it. This time Tristram helpfully provides a digest of the different books from which Walter has assembled his patchwork view of love.

"Ficinus" (Ficino) was one of the major Renaissance-era interpreters of Plato, whose works he attempted to reconcile with the Christian theology of his day. Plato, in turn, had written extensively on the nature of love in his Symposium, a philosophical dialogue that imagines various ancient Athenian thinkers giving their views on the subject. Several of the participants in the Symposium attempt to differentiate love into two contrasting types, with Socrates eventually sketching out a gradation between them. In his view, love of merely physical beauty is not bad or wicked but has the potential to function as a stepping stone to higher, more philosophical kinds of love. This argument is, with an added layer of Christian morality, transmitted by Ficino in his translations and commentaries then distilled by Walter into a "Devil vs. Angel" view of love. Walter's core position, which might be summarized as "pro-love but anti-lust," is a radical simplification of the attitudes presented in Plato. Tristram's own view of love is evidently contrary to both Walter's and Plato's: he objects even to the phrase "fall in love," since it seems to imply "that love is a thing below a man." From Tristram's perspective, such a demeaning attitude toward love is "damnable and heretical."

Bernardus Gordonius (alias Bernard of Gordon), the other author mentioned here, was a French physician and medical scholar who lived at the beginning of the 14th century. His works are less well known in modern times than those of Marsilio Ficino, but they are much more concrete and thus provide an interesting counterpoint to Ficino's more abstract views. His prescriptions for healing a variety of illnesses, including venereal diseases, are given in the Lilium medicinae ("Lily of Medicine"), a medical treatise composed c. 1303.

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