As one of two protagonists of The Wanting Seed, Tristram shares a lot of the limelight with his wife, Beatrice-Joanna. Even so, his character is much more fully developed than hers, and as the novel goes on, Tristram takes his place as its picaresque hero.
If you aren't familiar with Lawrence Sterne's rollicking eighteenth-century novel Tristram Shandy, maybe you've heard of the medieval romance Tristan and Iseult—most recently adapted by the folks behind the James Franco flick Tristan & Isolde. Whatever your fancy, "Tristram" is a name with a long history in Celtic, British, and Continental literatures, and Anthony Burgess is definitely gesturing to that history here.
Like the Tristan of Tristan and Iseult ("Tristan" and "Tristram" are cognates), Burgess's Tristram is a star-crossed lover, albeit comedically so. The use of the name in The Wanting Seed signals that Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna are each other's true mates, and so the allusion emphasizes the comedic conventions that shape the novel's plot and themes.
Tristram's surname alludes to another English figure: John Foxe, the sixteenth-century author of Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Foxe was a Protestant living in a time when the Catholic church and the Church of England were radically at odds, and his Book of Martyrs gives an account of persecutions faced by those who shared his desire to reform the nation's religious practices. By alluding to Foxe, Burgess may be suggesting that Tristram could play a similar role in advocating for social change—but, then again, the allusion could also be ironic.
Like most adults in his world, Tristram wears dentures, as full sets of natural teeth aren't very common anymore. As the narrator describes him, he has "a n****id kink" to his hair, and "blue half moons" half-hidden by his cuticles (1.2.8). We also know that Tristram and his brother Derek look a lot alike, and although the narrator never tells us the color of Tristram's skin, we learn that the color of Derek's is "crust-brown, delicate russet" (1.9.13).
There are troubling implications to some of this language, for sure, but it's worth asking why Tristram's racialization is significant. One answer is that, in a dystopian world where some characters think that racial hybridity is part of the problem, a protagonist with a hybrid heritage might help to dispel readers' suspicions that the novel itself is racist.
Let's take a closer look at how this plays out on the page. As Beatrice-Joanna walks along the Brighton coast at one point in the novel, the narrator channels her thoughts like so:
This was the British people; rather, to be more accurate, this was the people that inhabited the British Islands—Eurasian, Euro-African, Euro-Polynesian predominated, the frank light shining on damson, gold, even puce; her own English peach, masked with white flour, was growing rarer. Ethnic divisions were no longer important: the world was split into language-groups. Was it, she thought in an instant almost of prophetic power, to be left to hear and the few indisputable Anglo-Saxons like her to restore sanity and dignity to the mongrel world? Her race, she seemed to remember, had done it before. (1.3.5)
Yikes. This is some terrifying white supremacism, and if you felt tempted to close the book and wash your hands (and eyeballs) at this point, we wouldn't blame you.
But, thinking back to the narrator's descriptions of Tristram, it's worth asking: if the novel implies that there's African heritage somewhere in Tristram's hereditary line, does his status as protagonist/hero help to counteract other characters' racism? We'll leave that one for you to decide.
Okay, so Tristram isn't exactly a tailor or a spy, but he is a teacher and a soldier at various points throughout the novel, not to mention an incarcerated "intellectual," a hitchhiking vagabond, and an army deserter.
When the novel begins, Tristram is thirty-five years old, and an instructor of modern history at the South London (Channel) Unitary School (Boys) Division Four. Although he's clearly passionate about his subject, Tristram isn't particularly good at his job: he speaks "too fast for his pupils," uses words they don't understand, and mumbles (1.2.3). Tristram also tends to make comments that aren't in keeping with State policies—a habit that gets him into more than one sticky situation, especially once he's conscripted into the British Army, and ordered to instruct the troops.
Although Tristram starts out as a not-too-great teacher, by the end of the novel, he's proved his willingness to teach critical thinking skills rather than State propaganda, even if doing so puts him in danger. When he gets a new job teaching the history of warfare in the very last pages of the novel, we can feel pretty sure that he'll continue to sow seeds of resistance in his student's minds.