Literature Study GuidesTristram ShandyVol 9 Chapters 23 33 Summary

Tristram Shandy | Study Guide

Laurence Sterne

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Tristram Shandy | Vol. 9, Chapters 23–33 | Summary



Invoking the "Spirit of sweetest humor" to give him strength amid his failing health, Tristram supplies the missing chapters (18 and 19) from earlier in the volume. In them Toby arrives at Mrs. Wadman's house, clumsily confesses his love for her, and takes a seat on the sofa. After a long, awkward silence Mrs. Wadman brings up the subject of marriage. Toby proposes on the spot then quietly reads a Bible while Mrs. Wadman thinks over his offer. Still curious about Toby's injury, she asks him several questions with the aim of establishing where—on his body—the wound was received. He obtusely promises to show her where—on the battlefield—the injury took place.

Out in the kitchen Bridget grills Corporal Trim about Toby's injury in her own less subtle way. He answers her questions then woos her with kisses and flattering remarks. At home, a few days later, Toby expresses his fondness for Mrs. Wadman, who has been so attentive and kindhearted in asking about his war injuries. Unable to keep quiet Trim explains to Toby why Mrs. Wadman is so concerned about his wounds. Toby abruptly suggests paying a visit to Shandy Hall, where the other family members are hanging out in the parlor with Yorick and Dr. Slop. Having heard of Toby's difficulties in wooing Mrs. Wadman, Walter inveighs against the lustfulness of women and of humankind in general. "Provision should be made," he concedes, for continuing the human race, but sex is in his view a demeaning and disreputable thing.

Obadiah, Walter's manservant, rushes in and complains about the town bull, which has seemingly failed to impregnate his cow. Obadiah took the cow on a "pop-visit" to the bull on the same day he got married, and his wife gave birth weeks ago. Thus, by Obadiah's reasoning, the cow should have calved as well, unless the bull is infertile. Dr. Slop interjects and asks whether Obadiah's baby "has hair upon his head." The baby, Obadiah replies, is extremely hairy. Walter whistles with relief: apparently the bull is not sterile after all!


Fittingly, Tristram Shandy ends with a "cock and bull story," a proverbial term applied not only to tales concerning livestock, but to absurd and implausible narratives of all kinds. In this case, Obadiah's story seems to imply that his wife has been impregnated by the bull; hence the exceptional hairiness of the baby. This raises an awkward question: who impregnated—or tried to impregnate—the cow?

This is an odd moment for the novel, which has so far relied on eccentric characters and unlikely, but not wholly impossible, events. True, there have been a few moments which required considerable suspension of disbelief, as when Tristram is circumcised, rather than, say, maimed, by the falling window in Vol. 5. On the final page, however, the novel abandons even the loosest ties to realism, and Obadiah is implied to be the stepfather of a minotaur or some similar creature. His child's parentage is also linked to that of King Minos, the Greek mythical figure whose mother was impregnated by Zeus in the form of a white bull. One element of the story—the timing of the two births—is not as absurd as it might seem: humans and cattle do, in fact, have nearly the same gestation period.

Mrs. Shandy's confusion and Yorick's amused reaction serve to further dismantle the "fourth wall." On one level Mrs. Shandy is simply asking what Obadiah's story is about, and Yorick is punningly, but still accurately, describing the anecdote as a "cock and ... bull" story. This exchange, however, could just as easily be taken to apply to the novel as a whole, with Mrs. Shandy asking, in effect, "What were these past six hundred pages about?" Yorick's reply is then the verbal equivalent of a shrug: "The novel is a bunch of nonsense! It sure was entertaining, though." Multilayered and self-referential, the comment might even be seen as a microcosm of Tristram Shandy's overall style, in which every symbol has at least two meanings and imaginary events blend freely with those of the real world. It is, as Mark Loveridge argued in his 1992 essay "Stories of Cocks and Bulls," a "conclusion 'in which nothing is concluded,'" leaving the novel almost as open-ended as when it began.

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