The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
by Laurence Sterne
In the eighteenth century, especially in plays, it was common to give characters "emblematic" names (like the awesome "Sir Fopling Flutter" from The Man of Mode). In other words, you knew exactly what a character is like from his name. In other words, that'd be exterior characterization. Dr. Slop is sloppy. Trim is trim and militaristic. Yorick is melancholy, befitting a dead court jester. You get the picture.
But there are also names that don't signify much of anything. What's a guy named Walter like? For that matter, what's Tristram like?
Tristram is an interesting case, because Walter wants his name to be emblematic. Trismegistus, Walter's intended name for Tristram, was "the greatest … of all earthly beings—he was the greatest king—the greatest lawgiver—the greatest philosopher—and the greatest priest" (4.11.1). By giving his son the name of a great man, Walter wants to endow him with the same characteristics. Instead, the boy is named Tristram, which sounds a lot like the Latin for "sorrow" (tristes). Walter assumes that the name will cast a cloud over his life and blames it for everything that Tristram does wrong. Uh, way to be supportive.
But does it really matter? After all, Tristram's bad luck starts nine months before his birth. So Tristram Shandy seems uncertain about what power names actually have.
Toby loves his pipe. Trim loves his hat. Tristram loves his pen. Dr. Slop loves those creepy forceps.
All three of these characters are mentioned with their props more often than not. Each signifies something important about its owner: Toby's pipe indicates his gentleness and good humor, and possibly, if Freud's right, some frustrated sexuality; Trim's hat indicates his sentimentality and foolishness; and Tristram's pen indicates his sexual insecurities.
Okay, so Tristram doesn't really know how to characterize people. Is everything exterior? Do we only know about people through the things they do and carry, or can we learn about people through their interior thoughts and feelings? It's a toughie, but Tristram's attacking it head-on.
Speech and Dialogue
The first sentence of the book is perfectly typical—or is it? Check it out:
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost (1.1.1).
The string of conjunctions—"Or," "had," "that," "but," "and," and so on—show the way Tristram's mind jumps from one subject to another without any clear ordered logic. He writes by association rather than argumentation. "Association" in fact turns out to be a good way to understand the book. The book doesn't move through causality—that is, stuff doesn't happen because other stuff happens—but through association. Tristram tells a new part of the story becomes one idea reminds him of another. He's as jumpy as a second-grader on Pixie Stix.
Shandy Knows Best
Mr. Shandy likes nothing better than to dole out advice based on his extensive reading. When Dr. Slop cuts his thumb, he tells him, "Small curses … are but so much waste of our strength and soul's health to no manner of purpose." This characteristic philosophy sustains Walter through Tristram's bad luck and provides a big fat clue to his character. Know-it-all.
Toby and WoW
Toby's speech goes from militaristic and adorably sweet. When he lets the fly out the window, he says, "go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me" (2.12.7) This speech pattern, archaic even in the eighteenth century, signals Toby's isolation from the rest of the world. He lives in a fantasy of good-hearted war games…minus the Xbox.
Wash Your Mouth Out With Soap
Dr. Slop's speech, fitting for his violent profession, is violent and coarse. When he can't get his bag open, he yells, "The deuce take it! I can make nothing of it either way" (3.10.2). His bedside manner, you might say, is a little lacking.
Mrs. Shandy hardly says anything, and when she does she mostly agrees: "Order it as you please, Mr. Shandy" is a typical statement (6.28.36). But her few words pack a mighty punch. When she interrupts Mr. Shandy at the beginning of the novel, she sets in motion the series of unfortunate events that leads to Tristram's blighted life. And, fittingly, she sets up the novel's last line. She's not just some yes-girl.