Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 7 Chapters 23 33 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 7, Chapters 23–33 | Summary



Tristram concludes his tale of the abbess and the novice. Panicked at the mules' refusal to move, the novice offers a suggestion: there are two "certain words" that "will force any horse, or ass, or mule, to go up a hill whether he will or no." These words are "sinful" and thus inappropriate for a religious woman to pronounce, but as the abbess points out, it's not a sin to say half of a dirty word. Accordingly, the abbess starts saying "bou" repeatedly, while the novice chants "ger." Then they switch off: the novice says "fou" and the abbess says "ter." The mules fail to budge.

In the course of telling his story, Tristram has crossed another half-dozen French cities. Most of these he passes over without comment, but he cannot resist recounting his father's trip to Auxerre to see a collection of mummified saints. Then, pausing for a moment to collect himself, Tristram moves onward to Lyons, arriving on foot after his carriage literally falls apart. He sells the carriage parts for scrap and plans to continue his French tour by boat.

First, however, Tristram wants to take in some of the sights of Lyons, starting with the famous mechanical clock in the city's cathedral. Next on the itinerary is the library of the Jesuits, which contains a 30-volume history of China written in Chinese characters (such works were then a rarity in Europe). The final stop on Tristram's planned tour of Lyons is a local landmark known as the Tomb of the Lovers. Before the tour can get underway, however, Tristram is stopped by a French official who presents him with a bill.


The two "sinful" words in the abbess's story are a pair of French verbs. "Fouter" is an older spelling of a French expletive still widely used in the 21st century and still widely considered offensive. "Bouger," which literally means "move" (cf. English "budge") is no longer regarded as offensive, but it isn't an especially polite word either. Tristram's aim here is to show the silliness and hypocrisy of the two women, who are too saintly to swear but not too delicate to shout "bou bou bou" and "fou fou fou" repeatedly. This, like the digression on "baptism by injection" in Vol. 1, Chapter 20, and the caricatural presentation of Dr. Slop throughout Vol. 2, is part of a broad anti-Catholic current in the novel's satire.

Tristram turns the tables, however, in telling of his father's trip to Auxerre. Walter has nothing but contempt for Catholic traditions in general; moreover, he thinks "a monk and the very smell of a monk worse than all the devils in hell." He thus enters the abbey of St. Germain determined to make a mockery of both the monks living there and the saints entombed there. He interrupts the story told by the sacristan, the Benedictine monk who serves as the tombs' caretaker and tour guide. He deliberately mixes up the names of the deceased for comical effect. He even interjects his own rude remarks, insinuating that some of the saints at Auxerre were involved in an illicit relationship. In short, Walter is a pretty boorish guest. Ultimately, however, he is "disarmed" by the piety and reverence of the sacristan, who patiently explains the abbey's history to the English tourists. Sectarian differences, Tristram seems to suggest here, are no excuse for abusing the good faith of others.

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