The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
by Laurence Sterne
Walter Shandy is Tristram's dad, and, more than anyone except Toby, Walter Shandy gets Tristram's attention. Tristram spends a lot of time and ink detailing his father's character. Here's what we know about him: he's well-read, he's got a temper, he's a little full of himself, he loves philosophical argumentation, he's generous and honest, and he's willing to change his mind. In Tristram's own words, he has an "acute and quick sensibility of nature, attended with a little soreness of temper; tho' this never transported him to any thing which looked like malignancy:—yet in the little rubs and vexations of life, 'twas apt to shew itself in a drollish and witty kind of peevishness:—He was, however, frank and generous in his nature;—at all times open to conviction" (12.10)
But he's also dafter than the Mad Hatter. He knows so much that he doesn't see what's right in front of him. So how does he perform in his various roles?
World's Worst Hubby
As a husband, Mr. Shandy is kind of the worst. He has, as Tristram says, "extensive views of things" (1.18.3)—in other words, he's got an opinion about everything, including realms that he really shouldn't. He checks out at the birth of baby Tristram because, you know, childbirth is a woman's area of concern. Do we need to chat about the birds and bees, Mr. Shandy?
He also seems to think that allowing women autonomy in anything, including childbirth, is a short step from anarchy. He believes strongly in hierarchy, and he thinks that allowing any control to slip from his fingers "would, in the end, prove fatal to the monarchical system of domestic government established in the first creation of things by God"
(1.18.16). In other words, Shandy Hall is a kingdom and Mr. Shandy is its king. We wouldn't mind Elizabeth Cady Stanton showing him a thing or two.
He's also a big believer in science, so he arranges to fulfill his marital duties with as much precision as possible. This guy sounds like a real hoot.
One thing you can say for Mr. Shandy is that he does take his duties very seriously. From conception to naming to education, Mr. Shandy pays a lot of attention to Tristram. But he may be paying the wrong kind of attention. Once Tristram is born and named, Mr. Shandy basically neglects him. Does he play with him? Talk to him? Read to him? Nope. "The first thing which entered my father's head" after the birth, Tristram says, is "to sit coolly down … and write a Tristra-paedia" (5.16.1). He doesn't even bother instructing Tristram in person. Instead, he turns Tristram's education into an opportunity to show off his own learning.
And neglect is at least partly responsible for Tristram's accident, because Mr. Shandy decides after it that the boy has been spending too much time with women: "You see 'tis high time … to take this young creature out of these women's hands" (6.5.1). In other words—without male attention, Tristram (almost) becomes unmanned.
No wonder Tristram has daddy issues. He's obvious got a lot of his dad in him—they both go off on long-winded digressions; they both like to pontificate—but Mr. Shandy lacks an important quality: humor. If Mr. Shandy is as aspect of Tristram's character, then Mr. Shandy is responsible for everything boring and incomprehensible about Tristram Shandy.
Mr. Shandy comes off best in his relationship with Toby. He seems to be a really good brother. When Toby is injured, he stays with Mr. Shandy, and Mr. Shandy looks out for him. Toby consults Walter when he's confused, and although Walter does sometimes get irritated with Toby, he always apologizes. As Tristram himself says, "My father, I believe, had the truest love and tenderness for my uncle Toby, that ever one brother bore towards another" (1.21.15)—that is, as long as "true love and tenderness" involves telling your bro that he would "try the patience of the Job" (2.7.3). Actually, their relationship seems pretty true to life: like any pair of loving siblings, they're half on each other's nerves and half best of friends.
Mr. Shandy's class status is important to understanding his motivations. We learn that he used to be a "Turkey merchant" (1.4.6)—that is, he bought and sold goods from the Middle East—but he also has a paternal estate where he's come to "retire … and die upon" (1.4.6). (Gee, Tristram, don't sound so excited.)
This uncertain class status might explain why Mr. Shandy is so interested in making sure that Tristram is raised exactly right. Like parents today who sign their kids up for violin lessons before they can talk, Mr. Shandy wants Tristram to have every advantage. After all, Marcus Antoninus (or Aurelius, as he's better known) "provided fourteen governors all at once to superintent his son Commodus's education" (6.5.1)—and why should Tristram have an education less elite than an emperor? (Commodus, better known as Joaquin Phoenix, was Emperor of Rome from 180 to 192.)
Now that Mr. Shandy has retired to his estate, maybe he just wants to leave his merchant past behind by playing the great country landlord. When his sister leaves him money, he considers improving a field—that is, making agricultural improvements to his land. He waxes poetic on the English countryside, imagining that, if only people stayed where they belonged (in the country) "the meadows and corn-fields of my dominions should laugh and sing… good cheer and hospitality flourish once more (1.18.9). Shandy Hall is crucial to Mr. Shandy's identity—and Mr. Shandy is crucial to Tristram's.Timeline