Tristram Shandy takes the tone of a golden retriever puppy: boisterous, full of life, and a little bit out of control. Tristram talks to his readers as though they're right beside him, reminding them about something that happened in the last book or sharply telling them to get their minds out of the gutter. Above all, Sterne seems to celebrate language, capitalizing on the double meaning of words and playing around with the way his book looks on the page. Even when he's writing about death, it's hard to take Tristram too seriously. Consider the way he talks about his brother Bobby's death: "My father had certainly sunk under this evil [of deciding how to spend his money] … had he not been rescued out of it as he was out of that, by a fresh evil—the misfortune of my brother Bobby's death" (4.31.17).
Here, Tristram compares the evil of not knowing how to spend money to the evil of Bobby's death, as if they're just two misfortunes of about the same weight—and he even makes Bobby's death "rescue" Mr. Shandy. And he takes it even further. He continues: "What is the life of man! Is it not to shift from side to side?—from sorrow to sorrow?—to button up one cause of vexation!—and unbutton another!" (4.31.18) Up and down and all around—someone needs to get a leash on this puppy.
The obvious answer to "What genre is Tristram Shandy" is "Autobiography." It is, after all, called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
Wouldn't it be nice to have it be that simple? The problem is, as we've talked about, that Tristram Shandy has hardly any Tristram Shandy in it. It's got dirt on just about everyone except our beloved hero.
So maybe it's just a big satire? Tristram is one crazy comedian, laying into sermons, ancient writers, soldiers, love affairs, philosophers, theologians, women, London, landowners, writers, critics, and readers. He parodies one writer after another, sometimes so subtly that you'd have a hard time figuring out what he's going after without a really good set of annotations.
Then again, Tristram Shandy gets philosophical in no time flat—even though it's a weird brand of Shandean philosophy. Shandyism is an attitude toward life exemplified by "a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book" (6.17.8). The digressions, dirty jokes, and sentimentality are all part of a philosophy of life that Tristram is trying to get across. So the book does turn out to be The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, just much more roundabout than it seems. Leave it to Tristram to make up his own genre.
At first glance, the title (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman) seems like a joke. Tristram Shandy hardly appears in his narrative at all, and when he does he mostly complains about how hard it is to write his story. But by the end of the novel he's actually managed to give us a lot of information about his opinions.
And what about that "gentleman" word tacked onto the end? Tristram's not overly preoccupied with social status. A "gentleman," in the middle of the eighteenth century, meant a guy who didn't have to do much of anything. His money came from the rents on his land rather than from working a job or investing in any kind of stock market. By adding the word "gentleman" to the end of the title, Tristram distinguishes his book from novels that might be about men who have adventurous, exciting lives. If you're looking for action, go find that Robinson Crusoe dude.
The Shandys put the Ringling Bros. to shame: the ending is one crazy circus. Obadiah got married on the same day he took his cow to be impregnated by Mr. Shandy's bull, after his wife has already given birth. Since babies and calves gestate for about the same amount of time, Obadiah figures he's owed a cow as well as a baby. In the last chapter, Obadiah accuses Mr. Shandy's bull of being sterile. The poor bull has to service all the cows of the parish, and he's not up to it—so to speak—at all.
The company—Toby, Obadiah, Dr. Slop, and Yorick—try to figure out if Obadiah's baby was early by how much hair it has on its head. They argue until Mrs. Shandy interrupts asking what this story is all about. "A cock and a bull," says Yorick, "And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard" (9.33.17).
If you feel like putting on your detective hat, the ending provides a clue as to whether Sterne actually finished the novel. Tristram talks a lot about his big plans—he's going to write two novels a year; he's going to write for forty years; he's going to write until he catches up the present—but Sterne stops after only nine books and eight years. Did he stop because he was too sick to write any more (he died in 1768, not too long after publishing Tristram Shandy's final book)? Or did he stop because he'd gotten his story out?
Clue #1: In this closing scene, almost all the story's major players are gathered together around the table. Plays often end with the whole cast, or nearly the whole cast on stage—it gives finality and wraps up all the relationships. The fact that everyone's on the page at the same time hints that Sterne wanted to bring things to an end.
Clue #2: The cock and bull. Yeah, it's a dirty joke, because it's actually about a bull's penis. But it also says something about the novel as a whole. A "cock and bull" story is a rambling, directionless story—exactly what we've been reading for the past nine books and 700-odd pages. Yorick's closing line sums up the whole novel as nothing but a rambling story without an end (that's why it's so hard to analyze the plot).
Clue #3: The cock. Tristram Shandy is obsessed with penises. From Mr. Shandy's concern about the size of his "nose" to his worries about Dr. Slop's forceps tearing off Tristram's penis, to the circumcision, to Toby's ambiguously injured groin, to Tristram's wandering pen, penises are scrawled all over the novel—it might as well be a middle school bathroom stall.
When you add up all these clues, it seems likely that this last scene is Sterne's curtain call. He may have known he was dying, or maybe he was just tired of writing. It doesn't really matter why; what matters is that he cleverly finds a way to bring an end to all the digressions and rambling in a wry, sly, and satiric way: he dismisses the entire novel that he's just spent eight years of his life writing. It's a truly Shandean move and the perfect ending for a Shandean book.
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.
Book 3: Multitudinis imperitae non formido judicia; meis tamen, rogo, parcant opusculis—in quibus fuit propositi semper, a jocis ad seria, a seriis vicissim ad jocos transire.
"I do not fear the opinions of the ignorant crowd; nevertheless, I ask they spare my little work, in which it has always been my purpose to pass from humour to seriousness and from seriousness back to humour."
Sterne adapted this epigraph from Rabelais, who borrowed it from the Bishop of Chartres, who lived in the 12th century. Those names don't really matter. Tristram's just messing with an old tradition that requires authors to make humble-pie. See, over-the-top epigraphs like this are pretty standard in old books. The author directly addresses the audience, asking that readers approach the work with an open mind. What's different about this epigraph is that Sterne adds the last bit about how his plan is to move from being funny to being serious. He's priming the reader to expect the book to be melancholy and lighthearted at the same time—a tragicomedy with a twist.
Book 5: Dixero si quid fortè jocosius, hoc mihi juris/ Cum venia dabis.—Horace
"If in my words I am too free, perchance to light, this bit of liberty you will indulgently grant me."
Si quis calumnietur levius ese quam decet theologum, aut mordacius quam deceat Christianum—non Ego, sed Democritus dixit.—Erasmus
"If I have overshot myself in this which hath been hitherto said, or that it is, which I am sure some will object, too fantastical, too light and comical for a Divine, too satirical for one of my profession, I will presume to answer with Erasmus, in like case, 'Tis not I, but Democritus"
These two epigraphs come from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy, a major book about depression from 1621, well before the days of Prozac and Abilify.
It's evidently one of Sterne's favorite books, since parts of Book 5 and 6 are practically plagiarized from it. Like the previous epigraph, they ask the reader to approve of his work and give the reader some hints at the tone of the book. Sterne was a priest in the days before church services featured slideshows and drum sets. He may have thought that (like Yorick) people would think the book wasn't exactly an appropriate side project. Drop in a vaguely apologetic epigraph, though, and we're doing business.
Book 7: Non enim excursus hic ejus, sed opus ipsum est. (This is not a digression, but his main work.) Pliny the Younger, Epistles.
Book 7 launches into the European journey, taking us far away from Shandy Hall. Not to worry, Sterne tells us in this epigraph, because the digression is actually the most important part.
You know who talks about digressions a lot? Tristram. It's worth thinking about where Sterne ends and Tristram begins, and epigraphs—which are a kind of what scholars call paratexts, the framework for a book—are a good place to start.
Book 9: Si quid urbaniusculè lusum a nobis, per/ Musas et Charitas et omnium poetarum/ Numina, Oro te, ne me malè capias.
"Though you might prefer a somewhat more polite amusement, by the Muses and Charities and the grace of all poets, do not think badly of me."
Sterne picks up his Burton again, although this epigraph is a combination of a couple of lines rather than a direct quote. He asks the reader to accept that the story he's about to tell is a little bawdy (not "polite")—after all, this is the climax (or not) of Toby's courtship.
These epigraphs have one thing in common: they force the reader to read the book in a certain way. It's almost as though Sterne doesn't trust the reader to figure it out on his own—like he's writing for a bunch of clueless Tobys.
Tristram Shandy actually turns the Tough-o-Meter to 11. Not only is it old, but it's rambling, digressive, and idiosyncratic to boot. Don't bother looking for a plot, because you won't find one. Instead, we get chapters about whiskers, chapters about digressions, chapters about noses (okay, lots of chapters about noses), chapters about French geography, chapters about buttonholes and, of course, chapters about chapters—plus a lot of dirty jokes.
Tristram (our narrator) constantly interrupts himself and lets other people, including the characters whose story he's telling, interrupt him. He leaves people stranded on a staircase and only comes back to them five chapters later; he introduces three different versions of himself; and he writes entire chapters in Latin. What's it all about, Alfie?
Let's just say we don't want to spoil the ending.
If pens had to breathe, Tristram's pen would have suffocated to death before he finished his first chapter. He writes like someone who won't stop yammering long enough to breathe or someone who never lets you get a word in. One thing leads to another by a train of associations so bizarre that you might start walking down the stairs and end up by talking about a chambermaid's buttonhole. Whole chapters are written as responses to other writers or philosophers, like Robert Burton, who wrote a long book about depression called The Anatomy of Melancholy in 1621; or John Locke, a philosopher whose ideas about sensory knowledge and the human mind as a blank slate are responsible for a lot of current political and educational thought. Here's a representative example:
Call down Dolly your chambermaid, and I will give you my cap and bell along with it, if I make not this matter so plain that Dolly herself shall understand it as well as Malbranch.—When Dolly has indited her epistle to Robin, and has thrust her arm in to the bottom of her pocket hanging by her right side;--take that opportunity to recollect that the organs and faculties of perception can, by nothing in this world by so aptly typified and explained as by that one thing which Dolly's hand is in search of.—Your organs are not so dull that I should inform you,--'is an inch, Sir, of red seal-wax (2.10).
What's going on here? you might ask. Who is Tristram talking to? Who's Dolly? (And what has it gots in its pocketses?)
Sterne is ever-so-gently making fun of Locke's ideas, but he's also doing something typically Shandean: addressing his reader directly with a casual "Call down Dolly." And then he describes Dolly in detail, from her boyfriend (Robin) to her dress—despite the fact that Dolly doesn't exist. And the point of all this is to make sure that, despite his bizarre writing style, his point becomes utterly clear.
Basically, Sterne's writing style in Tristram Shandy combines obsessive attention to detail with big-picture thinking about the nature of the world and the meaning of life. His digressions and rapid writing let him link up the two, so the contents of a chambermaid's pocket turn out to be crucial to understanding the meaning of life.
A nose is a nose is a nose. Yeah, right—if we've gotten anything from Tristram Shandy, it's that a nose is anything but a nose.
Tristram swears up and down that "nose" doesn't mean "penis," saying that he's depending "upon the cleanliness of my readers' imaginations" and insisting that he is taking the "clean" rather than the "dirty" sense of nose (3.31.4-5). But let's get real. When Tristram's great-grandmother is able to rewrite the marriage contracts because her soon-to-be husband has "little or no nose" (3.31.2), it's pretty clear that she means he has a tiny penis.
Or is it? You can ask a pretty big question here—not just, "What does this particular literary symbol mean," but "What do literary symbols mean in general?" That is, how do symbols work? How do we know when something is a symbol and when it's just a prop?
One reason noses (or penises) matter is that, for Mr. Shandy, they're the source of all potency, not just sexual but political, economic, and marital. The constant threat to noses and penises suggest that they're linked, and that masculinity is constantly being undermined.
Tristram finds a novel (ha!) way of dealing with the threat to his manhood. Remember, both his nose and penis have been injured. In place of the penis, Tristram uses another symbol of power: the pen.
Pens, as you can probably figure out from the spelling, are a common substitution for penises. Tristram spends a lot of time thinking about and describing his pen (typical guy). He acts almost like his pen has its own personality—it gets tired, and has moods: "in one mood giving rash jerks and hair-brain'd squirts" and in another "spurting [his] ink about [his] table and [his] books" (2.21.2). It gets "fatigued" describing his European journey (7.43.7), and affected by Tristram's ill health, when "the thoughts rise heavy and pass gummous through [his] pen" (9.13.1).
Basically, the pen is an extension of Tristram's body. Okay, so maybe it's not his penis (sometimes a cigar is just a cigar—but, let's be honest, usually it's not)—but that's a lot of love for your standard-issue BIC. He transfers his own feelings onto it, blames it for being tired when he's the tuckered one and accuses it of going astray when his thoughts are running wild.
Without a nose or a complete penis, Tristram turns to the pen as a symbol of his masculinity, and his masculinity is a symbol of his ability to write—or maybe, his writing is a symbol of his masculinity. This scribbling masculinity is different from the kind that Mr. Shandy appreciates. Remember, he approves of his stud bull because the bull goes about his business—mounting cows—with absolute seriousness. But Tristram can't do anything seriously.
"Tick tock, on the clock, but the party don't stop." Ke$ha could just as well be singing about the ubiquitous clock that pops up all the way through Tristram Shandy. After all, Tristram's the way that he is because his father forgot to wind the clock. Time-keepers seem to stand in for a kind of order that links up with masculinity, potency, and plain, straight-up storytelling. Tristram is conceived under a stopped clock, which might explain why his sense of time is screwy.
And his obsession with clocks persists the whole way through the book. On Tristram's trip to Europe, one of the only things he wants to see is "the wonderful mechanism of this great clock of Lippius of Basil" in Lyons (7.30.2). Of course, once he gets to the cathedral, he learns that "Lippius's great clock was all out of joint, and had not gone for some years" (7.39.2). (BTW, the Lyons cathedral does have a centuries-old astronomical clock, dating back to the 1300s.) This second appearance of a stopped clock tips us off that time—and keeping it—really matters to Tristram.
All those stopped clocks link up with the theme of—Captain Obvious, here— "TIME." Tristram is constantly trying to catch up with himself through writing, but the process of writing is so digressive that he just falls farther and farther behind. You might say that clocks represent a harmonious union between time as it's passing and time as it's told. But Tristram Shandy doesn't run on clock time—it runs on narrative time, which never quite lines up. Life is lived faster than Tristram can write.
Think about that one thing that you're totally, head-over-heels obsessed with. That's a hobby-horse. Everyone has one (ahem, Perez Hilton) that's a little embarrassing to admit.
When Tristram introduces hobby-horses, he identifies them as a linked pair, almost like body and soul: "A man and his HOBBY-HORSE, tho' I cannot say that they act and re-act exactly after the same manner in which the soul and body do upon each other: Yet doubtless there is a communication between them of some kind … so that if you are able to give but a clear description of the nature of the one, you may form a pretty exact notion of the genius and character of the other" (1.24.2). Hobby-horses are not exactly a man's soul (women don't seem to have hobby horses in Tristram's world), but they're almost one step up from obsession.
If we're going to talk hobby-horses, Uncle Toby's obsession with building fortifications has to come up. This hobby-horse is so weird that Tristram freely wonders "whether he was really a HOBBY-HORSE or no" (1.24.3), our first clue that the toys aren't a simple symbol for an obsession or a hobby. Toby is so into fortifications that they begin to define his identity. And who wants to be friends with War Guy?
Then we've got Walter Shandy's penchant for arguing. The guy won't shut up, and it's not like he's arguing about anything in particular—anything will do. Minor characters have their hobby horses, too. Finally, we've got Dr. Slop and his ridiculous forceps. Keep those far away from us.
Surprisingly, Sterne is totally okay with hobby-horses. In fact, he flat out states that "so long as a man rides his HOBBY-HORSE peaceably and quietly along the king's highway, and neither compels you or me to get up behind him,--pray, Sir, what have either you or I to do with it?" (1.7.3) Tristram has nothing but good things to say about Uncle Toby, and, although he does seem to think his dad's a little cuckoo, he still respects Mr. Shandy's learning. Hobby-horses can actually bring people together, because one of the major tenets of Shandyism is that you have to accept people on their own terms. There's no sense in expecting Uncle Toby to be interested in abstruse theological arguments, and there's no sense in expecting Walter Shandy to care much about fortifications. But they can (usually) accept each other's idiosyncrasies—their hobby-horses, or, more powerfully, their very inner being.
So, what about Tristram? As he tells us near the end of the book, he's got one too: "my hobby-horse, if you recollect a little, is no way a vicious beast; he has scarce one hair or lineament of the ass about him—'Tis the sporting little filly-folly which carries you out for the present hour" (8.31.4). In other words—the very book you're reading. A hobby-horse about other hobby-horses? It's like a bunch of Russian nesting dolls.
Tristram's like the Wizard of Oz, pulling strings and making his marionettes (i.e. family) dance. By now you shouldn't be surprised that, even though the book is called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Tristram isn't a central narrator. He tells everyone else's story: his parents' marriage, Uncle Toby's love affair, and Slawkenbergius's opinions on noses. He's also got a little too much info for his own good—like what his parents were doing when they conceived him. He's "indebted for the preceding anecdote" to his uncle" (1.3.1), but come on: how does he know this stuff?
And there are lots of non-Tristram voices clamoring to be heard. We've got long passages from sermons, books, and even rites of excommunication, as well as stories from the always-entertaining Trim and Toby. Is Tristram insecure about his own voice? He quotes his mother's marriage settlement because the point "is so much more fully expressed in the deed itself, than ever I can pretend to do it, that it would be barbarity to take it out of the lawyer's hand" (1.15.1).
When he begins Slawkenbergius's tale, he generously says that "they are to be looked upon by the learned as a detail of so many independent facts, all of them turning round somehow or other upon the main hinges of his subject, and collected by him with great fidelity" (3.42.2). Both times, he gives up many pages of his own story to allow someone else to speak, and both times he praises the other writer. You might say that Tristram is a very generous narrator. You also might say that he's got an agenda.
One thing's for sure: Tristram's itching to write his crazy story. He doesn't really give a clear-cut reason, but check out the dedication for a clue: he says I live in a constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth (dedication.1). Sure, the dedication was technically written by Sterne, not Tristram. But narrator-Tristram definitely has a bit of Sterne in him—not only does he share the author's opinions, but his circumstances as well. Scholars have figured out that, a lot of times, when the narrator-Tristram talks about being sick or in pain, Sterne was also ill while he was writing. Tristram's having something of a midlife crisis, so to speak.
If you're looking for a roadmap to Tristram Shandy, take a look at the end of Book 6 (6.40). He's completely incapable of getting from point A to point B without looping wildly along the way to talk about everything but his life and opinions. It's actually a feature of quest narratives to digress—in The Odyssey, for example, Odysseus checks out from the main story he hangs out with the nymph Calypso for a while, before getting on his way. In The Aeneid, Aeneus spends some quality time with Dido before she sets him free by conveniently killing herself. But Tristram takes digression to an extreme. Instead of a narrative journey, he takes us offroading for five full books. That's dedication to digression.
In this stage of the Quest plot, the hero inches closer to his goal. Around Book 4, Tristram is finally born, and—even more important—his older brother bites the dust. What's more, Book 5 contains a biggie: the accidental circumcision. After a circumcision and a broken nose, the world's not really rolling out the welcome mat for baby Tristram. You could say that, after Book 5, Tristram realizes that he can never fully become the center of his own life because these two major signs of power—the nose and the penis—are permanently wounded. Double ouch.
Tristram gets a little sidetracked from his own story when Toby's life takes an interesting turn. If he can get through this story, he'll at least have achieved one narrative goal. Of course, he has trouble following through. Tristram runs into the same trouble he had telling his own story, and it all seems to stem* from the same cause: a missing penis. True, Tristram's penis is still there, and it turns out that Toby's is, too. But they're both suspected of missing a penis, and that seems to be just as bad as not having one at all.
*When you're writing about Tristram Shandy, everything becomes a double entendre.
Tristram can't seem to score. He fails to make the last free throw, so to speak, and the book just ends abruptly. Yeah, it's a fitting conclusion for the last of a series of failed climaxes. The story begins with an interrupted sex act and ends with a failed sex act—and a failed narrative act (see "What's Up With the Ending?" for more about this). Tristram doesn't reach his goal… unless, that is, it turns out that his goal all along was to avoid giving us the satisfaction of a plot. In that case, get ready for the Gatorade dump—he's been spectacularly successful.
The full title of Tristram Shandy is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. And it's not the first to give someone's life the royal treatment: Sterne is drawing from a long string of serious English novels that claim to tell the story of someone's life. Check out Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana; Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews and The History of Tom Jones for examples. Lots of these books start with a little story about their protagonists' parents, just the way a biography or autobiography might today. But as always, Tristram is a horse of a different color. He's bringing the story all the way back to his conception, and he can't even tell that properly. We've got philosophical views, a marriage contract, and a whole cast of wacky people that wouldn't fit into Mr. Roger's neighborhood. There's no straight trajectory, and Tristram likes it that way.
Tristram's churning out pages like a factory. He's only born halfway through the book, and he's afraid that he's going to have to keep writing until he dies, and even then his story will never be complete (you know, because he's going to die before he can write the end). You get the sense that Marty McFly's going to show up with his time machine at any second.
Tristram's got a motor mouth that's running a mile a minute. He starts talking about one thing and ends up talking about something else; he interrupts himself to tell a story that he insists absolutely necessary in order to understand the current story; he constantly tries to summarize the plots of movies or tell other people's jokes—at least, the eighteenth-century equivalent of jokes—and, basically, he never shuts up about anything except the story at hand. The real conflict here seems to be between Tristram's desire to tell the story of his life and the fact that he can't do it.
Tristram Shandy is one anti-climax after another. From Mr. Shandy's interrupted ejaculation to the constant penile threats to the basic lack of an ending, the story never reaches a fever pitch. Even when something does seem about to happen—for example, you could maybe say that Tristram's accidental circumcision is something of a climax—the chapter breaks constantly to interrupt the moment.
Not that there's much plot in Tristram Shandy, as we've already said. But what plot there is—the love affair that Tristram keeps insisting he's going to tell us—gets put on hold for an entire book so he can write a twisty-turny travel narrative. Tristram's no Sunset Magazine, that's for sure. He keeps the whole vacay under wraps and makes a point to avoid the major sights. Tristram's cool with frustrating the reader's expectations again—and again—and again.
Bam! Toby gets hit by Cupid in another possible climax for the book. If Toby's trip down the love canal is the climax of the book, his elaborate, military courtship would be the denouement. If you were looking at the book as a whole, you could also say that the whole love story is the denouement, because Tristram has been promising to tell it from almost the beginning of the novel. The affair is first mentioned in Book 1, chapter 32, so finally reaching it does bring the novel a sense of wrapping up.
What do you expect of a novel with no real plot and no main character? The end of the novel wraps back on itself, spending an entire two books narrating something that happened even before Tristram was born. We haven't moved forward in time at all; we've actually moved backward. And we also find out that the whole novel is just a big fat joke—see "What's Up With the Ending?" Anti-climactic…and surprisingly awesome.
Patching together a linear plot from Tristram Shandy requires some Memento-style maneuvering. If the point of Tristram Shandy is for the narrator to tell the story of his life, then Act 1 would take us up through about the middle of Book 6, at which point Tristram's wounded penis has finally been bandaged and his father has resolved to hire him a tutor. Now the heir to the family, the way seems clear for him to become the hero of his own story.
Tristram shifts gears near the end of Book 6 to turn his attention to Toby. Next thing you know, he's narrating his Grand Tour through Europe.
Toby's love affair seems like it's going to bring the story to an end, because Tristram has been promising to tell us the story since Book 1. Of course, the love affair fizzles out, and we never get a resolution at all.
We're going to need a bigger list: this is a lot of shout-outs. All books—all respectable books, at least—from around Tristram Shandy's era contained a lot of shout-outs. That's how the author proved that he knew his stuff. But this is Tristram Shandy, and we ought to know by now that Sterne never does anything just like everyone else. He mixes all these in with references to made up authorities, possibly poking fun at the whole idea of having to stuff your work full of ancient philosophers and historians.