Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 9 Chapters 12 22 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 9, Chapters 12–22 | Summary

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Summary

Feeling that his story has gotten too linear and plot-driven, Tristram promises half a dozen pages of digressions to maintain the "balance betwixt wisdom and folly" in his writings. The trouble, he says, will be to find something suitably off-topic and fanciful to fill the pages. He racks his brains for something to write about until, eventually, the search for a topic becomes the topic: "in talking of my digression—I declare before heaven I have made it!"

Toby and Corporal Trim march back up the walkway to Mrs. Wadman's house. Trim puts his hand on the door rapper and prepares to knock, despite Toby's obvious agitation. Mrs. Wadman, meanwhile, sits "breathless behind the window-curtain of her bed-chamber," and Bridget stands ready to open the latch the moment a knock is heard. Finally, this anxious "slow-motion" passage is brought to a close as Trim knocks, and Bridget admits the two visitors.

Tristram skips Chapters 18 and 19, leaving a blank page for each. The missing text, it is implied, contains the beginnings of the conversation between Toby and Mrs. Wadman. When the narration resumes in Chapter 20, Mrs. Wadman is asking Toby where exactly he was wounded. Toby, misunderstanding the question, promises to show her "the very place" and to let her "lay [her] finger" upon it. She blushes furiously at this insinuation. Trim, meanwhile, goes to fetch a map of Namur, the town in which Toby received his injuries.

In a series of farfetched metaphors, Tristram spells out what Mrs. Wadman really wants to know: has Toby been left impotent by the wound to his groin? The narrator answers in the negative: Toby may have had his pelvis smashed by a chunk of falling masonry, but his "donation" to his future wife was not "defeated" by the injury.

Analysis

Here, as throughout the novel, Tristram puts on the costume of the "wise fool," a figure in whom a foolish exterior conceals a hidden wisdom. In past volumes, Tristram has cajoled his reader by acknowledging the outward foolishness of his tale but promising a wise message for those with the patience to seek it. In these late chapters a new and opposite situation arises: Tristram fears his work is getting too overtly wise and will therefore run the risk of boring the reader. Fortunately, Tristram seldom has trouble coming up with a silly topic that is sufficient to fill a few chapters and delay the main plot just a little bit longer. His apparent struggle to find such a topic here is actually an elaborate show, like the tumbling of an artful jester who always lands on his feet. The "ta-da" moment comes when Tristram realizes what, in fact, he has known all along: the search for a digression can be entertaining in itself.

Similarly, when it comes to the matter of Toby's "donation," Tristram's attempts to avoid being crude end up being funny in their own right. Both the narrator and the Widow Wadman are extremely self-consciously dainty in approaching the subject of Toby's supposed impotence. Mrs. Wadman's strategy is to do a bit of medical detective work, asking numerous questions about the extent, location, and symptoms of the wound. Tristram, as usual, adopts a series of wacky metaphors to talk around the subject, using highly abstract, academic-sounding speech to further distance himself from this sensitive issue. "Nature," he lectures, has not only made Toby "gentle, generous, and humane," but has also equipped him to fulfill "the other causes for which matrimony was ordained." Mrs. Wadman, Toby delicately implies, is at least as interested in these "other causes" as she is in Toby's emotional support and companionship.

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