The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
by Laurence Sterne
Where It All Goes Down
Although most of the novel takes place on the Shandy estate, Tristram and everyone else (except his mother) jet off to Europe in the seventh book.
Welcome to the 1760s—a time not altogether unlike the shagadelic 1960s in the U.S. of A. That is to say, Tristram Shandy's setting isn't afraid to be a little bit radical. Tristram brings in current philosophical and scientific knowledge to make his book a product of what he calls up-to-date "knowledge physical, metaphysical, physiological, polemical, nautical, mathematical, enigmatical, technical, biographical, romantical, chemical, and obstetrical" (1.21.4). That's one big mass of ideas to fit into a (relatively) little book. Then again, it was a big time.
We're talking about the Enlightenment, a system of knowledge sweeping across Europe, America, and England. Voltaire and Rousseau were taking down intolerant churches and oppressive states and laying the foundation for major innovations like the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Enlightenment also promoted a scientific—even scientifically methodical—approach to knowledge, as scientists like Isaac Newton began to discover and explain natural phenomenon. Even though Tristram is poking fun, we know based on his criticisms of the stuffy "school-divines" of chapter four that he (and Sterne) are jazzed by this new knowledge. Groovy.
That's not all: industrialization was about to hit the water. It hadn't happened when Sterne was publishing, but it was on the brink—and some of the social changes had already begun to take place. Landlords were taking control of the "common" land and charging up the wazoo for rent. So poor farmers headed out to cities, where the textile trade was beginning to boom. The county-estate life seen in Tristram is a thing of the past. Who would want to deal with it?
If Shandyland was an amusement park, it would consist of one beat-up rollercoaster. The house has probably been in the family for a long time, what with all the breaking stuff. You can see Toby's house from part of the lawn, and Mrs. Wadman's house is right near Toby's. The village is near enough that you can walk or ride.
The place that Tristram sets up is an idealized English country estate (check out Mary Leapor's "Crumble-Hall" for a breakdown on what one of these would look like. Walter Shandy is gentry: he doesn't have to work (see the discussion of "gentleman" in "What's Up With the Title?"), but he's not part of the aristocracy, either. He's wealthy enough to have a lot of servants and go to London every once in a while, but he doesn't have enough money to do everything he wants, like fix his field and send Bobby to Europe at the same time.
For a long time in England—since "Queen Elizabeth's time," according to Tristram Shandy (1.18.4), people got worked up about landowners who spent all their time in London. A landowner was supposed to live on his estate, take care of his tenants, and spend his money in the village. The story went that if landowners decided to go live in London, their houses would lie empty, their tenants would suffer, the French would take over, and society would crumble. Walter Shandy's on the same page. He believes "that the current of men and money towards the metropolis, upon one frivolous errand or another,—set in so strong,—as to become dangerous to our civil rights" (1.18.4). He's a winner, that Walter.
But hold up. We learn that Walter Shandy used to be in business in London, and he's actually named a "merchant" in the marriage settlements. He's not a gentleman at all—in fact, he may even have bought Shandy Hall rather than inheriting it. The guy is phonier than an iPhone.
In Book 7, Tristram is all about being a hoity-toity world traveler. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and at the end of the seventeenth century, it was common for (rich) young men to take a Grand Tour, traveling around Europe to refine their social skills, pick up some culture in Greece and Italy, and study the political systems of other countries. Blame the Enlightenment for this one: learning from experience was the only way to go. It wasn't enough to read a book about Italy; you had to go get yourself some authentic gelato.
Travel narratives about Grand Tours were common—too common, according to Tristram, who doesn't want to waste our time writing "what no one needeth to tell you, for you will read it yourself upon the portico of the Louvre" (7.19.26). We're pretty sure the textbook version doesn't include bedding a peasant girl.
So, a travel narrative is exactly what we don't get in Book 7—in fact, Tristram seems to spend most of his time in coaches. He counts each and every street in Paris, closing by saying, "when you have seen them with all that belongs to them, fairly by daylight—their gates, their bridges, their squares, their statues … and to crown all, have taken a walk to the four palaces, which you may see either with or without the statues and pictures, just as you choose—Then you will have seen—but, 'tis what no one needeth to tell you" (7.20.24-26). And later, in the middle of a dirty joke about some nuns and mule, he looks up to say "how many fair and goodly cities have I seen, during the time you have been reading, and reflecting, Madam, upon this story! There's Fontainebleau, and Sens, and Joigny, and Auxerre, and Dijon … and a score more" (7.26.1).
In other words, if you actually want to know anything about France, don't turn to Tristram. He's not coming home with 1,527 pictures of the Louvre or some bridge in Venice. All he's bringing back is words—the same thing he started with.
There's a lot going on in Tristram's blessed noggin. He imagines the reader setting out on a journey with him, asking him to "bear with me,--and let me go on, and tell my story my own way" (1.6.1). We get it—Tristram has to tell the story "his own way," thereby letting us into the mad workings of his mind. That's the one thing we can count on: no matter whether he's telling Slawkenbergius's tale or narrating Toby's affair, he's always telling the story in his own digressive way.
Tristram isn't just the resident brain. He's way more interested in what's inside rather than what's outside—or is that just a pickup line? It works on Jenny: "This is the true reason that my dear Jenny and I … have such eternal squabbles about nothing," he says. "She looks at her outside,--I, at her in--. How is it possible we should agree about her value?" (3.24.14). He's a smooth talker, that Tristram.