Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Quotes

  • Literature and Writing

    As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance which is now beginning betwixt us will grow into familiarity; and that, unless one of us is in fault, will terminate in friendship.—O diem praeclarum!—then nothing which has touched me will be thought trifling in its nature, or tedious in its telling. (1.6.1)

    As we read Tristram Shandy, we're going to get to know Tristram and even come to like him (surprise, surprise). Reading a book is like making friends with the author, and, just like you want to stay up until four in the morning sharing secrets with your friends, you're going to find yourself interested in the little details of Tristram's life. Tristram's bringing the popcorn.

    —Every author has a way of his own in bringing his points to bear. (1.9.1)

    Writing is individual. It's an expression of a person's identity, so you can't use absolute rules to judge it. Every book has to be judged on its own merits and on the plan of its particular author—or so insists our very individual and idiosyncratic author.

    [W]holly intent are we upon satisfying the impatience of our concupiscence that way,—that nothing but the gross and more carnal parts of a composition will go down:—The subtle hints and sly communications of science fly off, like spirits, upwards;—the heavy moral escapes downwards. (1.20.5)

    Tristram is worried that, without instruction, his reader's going to miss the point of the story. We get so interested in the sexy bits that we forget to pay attention to the serious part of the novel. No, seriously, we're reading it for the articles.

    "'Tis for an episode hereafter; and every circumstance relating to it in its proper place, shall be faithfully laid before you." (1.21.9)

    By this point in the book, it seems like narrator-Tristram has absolutely no idea how to write a novel—he can hardly finish a sentence, let alone a book. This claim sets us up for a big laugh at his expense. But it does turn out that Tristram fulfills his promises. He writes about everything he says he'll discuss, even if it's a few chapter or a few hundred pages later. Nice follow-through, buddy.

    Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading; (1.22.8)

    Here, Tristram suggests that the digressions are the whole point of the novel. It's not that the digressions get in the way of the story so much as the story gets in the way of the digressions. Who needs plot when you can listen to Tristram go on and on about noses?

    "---Writers of my stamp have one principle in common with painters. Where an exact copying makes our pictures less striking, we choose the less evil; deeming it even more pardonable to trespass against truth, than beauty" (2.4.2)

    Truth, Tristram says, ain't always pretty (listen up, Mr. John Keats). He doesn't claim to be presenting an absolutely correct representation of events, and he's perfectly happy to fancy up a scene or manipulate the story in order to produce something more aesthetically pleasing. More proof that Tristram really does have a plan in mind.

    Writing, when properly managed, (as you may be sure I think mine is) is but a different name for conversation: (2.11.1)

    Tristram sees his book as a conversation with his readers. He might be sitting alone in a room, but he imagines that he's directly communicating with others—and this was 250 years before Facebook.

    O ye POWERS! (for powers ye are, and great ones too)—which enable mortal man to tell a story worth the hearing,—that kindly show him where he is to begin it,—and where he is to end it,—what he is to put into it,—and what he is to leave out,—how much of it he is to cast into shade,—and whereabouts he is to throw his light!—Ye, who preside over this vast empire of biographical freebooters, and see how many scrapes and plunges your subjects hourly fall into;—will you do one thing? (3.23.5)

    Poets traditionally began a long work by politely requesting help from any available god or goddess, usually a muse, and here Tristram is doing the same thing. Not only is he following in a long tradition, he's suggesting again that he's not really in control. Tristram, take the wheel!

    Ask my pen,—it governs me,—I govern not it. (6.6.1)

    So, is anyone in charge here? Tristram claims again that he doesn't have control over the story, even though he seems to say at other points that he does. Is he being disingenuous? Or does he really mean it?

    'Twas an eye full of gentle salutations—and soft responses—speaking—not like the trumpet stop of some ill-made organ, in which many an eye I talk to, holds coarse converse—but whispering soft—like the last low accent of an expiring saint—'How can you live comfortless, captain Shandy, and alone, without a bosom to lean your head on—or trust your cares to?'

    It was an eye—

    But I shall be in love with it myself, if I say another word about it. (8.25.4-5)

    Tristram is so good at writing, if he does say so himself, that he actually writes himself into love with Widow Wadman (almost). Writing is powerful, or performative—it makes things happen.

  • Fate and Free Will

    The ungracious Duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small HERO sustained (1.5.1)

    Tristram's personification of Fate as a Duchess is funny: a hoity-toity lady "pelting" a little boy like she's attacking him with rotten tomatoes. Queen of Hearts, is that you? Fate doesn't seem abstract in this characterization—it seems like someone really has it in for Tristram.

    I wish I had been born in the Moon, or in any of the planets (except Jupiter or Saturn, because I never could bear cold weather) for it could not well have fared worse with me in any of them (though I will not answer for Venus) than it has in this vile, dirty planet of ours (1.5.1)

    Since the stars and planets are said to control our destiny, he imagines that he could have a different fate if he'd been born on a different planet—although he only leaves himself Mars and Mercury as an option. (Uranus wasn't discovered until 1781—a couple decades after Tristram Shandy.)

    with the help of a little plain good sense, and some years' full employment in her business, in which she had all along trusted little to her own efforts, and a great deal to those of dame Nature,—had acquired, in her way, no small degree of reputation in the world (1.7.1)

    Genetic determinism before DNA: Tristram explains that the midwife gains the trust of the village not by herself but through "Nature," which in Tristram Shandy is closely aligned with (or maybe even identical with?) fortune and fate.

    But there is a fatality attends the actions of some men: Order them as they will, they pass through a certain medium which so twists and refracts them from their true directions. (1.10.18)

    Now Tristram gets all philosophical on us, suggesting that fate is only a problem for some guys. There are people who can be masters of their own destiny—probably, say, about 1%—while the rest are slaves to fate and/ or Wall Street.

    The two extremes are more common, and in a greater degree in this unsettled island, where nature, in her gifts and dispositions of this kind, is most whimsical and capricious; fortune herself not being more so in the bequest of her goods and chattels than she. (1.11.6)

    Nature and fortune are two different forces: one gives personality and talent, one gives wealth, and you can't do anything about any of it, so you might as well just give up now and lie in bed all day eating Doritos. Sounds like a plan to us.

    But I was begot and born to misfortunes (1.15.4)

    Debbie Downer Tristram acts like he believes his fate was sealed at the moment of conception, and there was never a chance for him to have a better life. But what about his mother's choice to interrupt his father? Could that have prevented Tristram's fate (and the novel)?

    Sport of small accidents, Tristram Shandy! (3.8.3)

    U Mad, Tristram? Actually, it isn't fate in general that gets Tristram's goat. Specifically, it's that his fate is to have lots of annoying little things happen to him. It's harder to deal with the irritants of life than major misfortunes, as anyone who has ever had a bad day can tell you. It's part of Tristram's fate that he doesn't even get the nobility of suffering tragically.

    From the first moment I sat down to write my life for the amusement of the world, and my opinions for its instruction, has a cloud insensibly been gathering over my father.—(3.28.1)

    Tristram isn't the only one who suffers. His fate is tied up with his father's, and it's not clear whether the mis-naming is Mr. Shandy's fate or Tristram's fate. That's part of the problem with fate—it doesn't let people be individuals. What happens to one happens to the whole family, and pretty soon you're all on cable TV making examples of yourselves.

    Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs? for we are got no farther yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom; and for aught I know, as my father and my uncle Toby are in a talking humour, there may be as many chapters as steps:—let that be as it will, Sir, I can no more help it than my destiny: (4.10.1)

    Writing seems to be governed by the same forces that control Tristram's life. If fate controls Tristram's pen, his status as an author comes into question. Can he really be called an author, since an "author" is just another word for creator? Or is he more of a recorder? This goes back to the question of design: is Tristram's book a coherent whole or a rambling, incomplete digression?

    The Fates, who certainly all foreknew of these amours of widow Wadman and my uncle Toby, had, from the first creation of matter and motion (and with more courtesy than they usually do things of this kind) established such a chain of causes and effects hanging so fast to one another, that it scarce possible for my uncle Toby to have dwelt in any other house in the world, or to have occupied any other garden in Christendom, but the very house and garden which joined and laid parallel to Mrs. Wadman's; (8.13.1)

    Check out fate, messing up everyone's lives once again. Tristram's concept of fate seems to work through cause-and-effect, like it's subject to the rules of physics—or maybe just karma.

  • Time

    He had made it a rule for many years of his life,—on the first Sunday night of every month throughout the whole year,—as certain as ever the Sunday night came,—to wind up a large house clock which we had standing upon the backstairs head, with his own hands:— (1.4.6)

    Mr. Shandy lives by the clock, doing everything according to a schedule that he imposes on himself. (Parents are so uncool.) Naturally, Tristram rebels by playing fast and loose with time. He's a regular James Dean.

    I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—and am not yet born:—I have just been able, and that's all, to tell you when it happened" (1.14.2)

    Writing stretches out time in a way that living doesn't. As anyone who's ever read a trashy book on a plane knows, reading (and writing) let us experience time in different ways—short, long, and—so much for time machines—even backwards.

    "Pray what was the man's name,--for I write in such a hurry, I have no time to recollect or look for it" (1.21.3)

    Writing is as a race against time. He's in such a hurry that he can't even be bothered to check Wikipedia and get his facts straight. How much do facts matter, anyway? (Don't bother asking a history teacher.)

    "It is about an hour and a half's tolerable good reading since my uncle Toby rung (sic) the bell, when Obadiah was ordered to saddle a horse … so that no one can say, with reason, that I have not allowed Obadiah time enough, poetically speaking, and considering the emergency too, both to go and come" (2.8.1)

    Tristram mixes up story-time and real-time by imagining that he's writing live: things are happening at the same time that he's jotting them down, and there's no five-second FCC delay to keep people from exposing themselves.

    Being premised, I take the benefit of the act of going backwards myself. (5.25.3)

    Sometimes a story is more clear when it's told out of order than if it's told with strict attention to chronology. And sometimes, as the makers of LOST know, it's just more muddled.

    Susannah was informed by an express from Mrs. Bridget, of my uncle Toby's falling in love with her mistress, fifteen days before it happened (6.39.1)

    Mrs. Bridget manages something that's usually reserved for writers. She can manipulate time to make things happen out of order—and, like a writer, she can actually make the things she writes about happen. Powerful stuff.

    That Lippius's great clock was all out of joints, and had not gone for some years. (7.39.2)

    Of course one of the only things Tristram really cares about seeing in Europe is broken, and of course it's a clock. When timekeeping is this unreliable, he might as well write forward and backward; no one's going to know the difference.

    —Leave out the date entirely, Trim, quoth my uncle Toby, leaning forwards, and laying his hand gently upon the corporal's shoulder to temper the interruption—leave it out entirely, Trim; a story passes very well without these niceties, unless one is pretty sure of 'em—(8.19.34)

    Again, exact time—contrary to Mr. Shandy's beliefs—just doesn't seem to matter. It's how the story is told, not when it's set, that makes a good tale. Today, we call it creative license.

    I call all the powers of time and chance, which severally check us in our careers in this world, to bear me witness, that I could never yet get fairly to my uncle Toby's amours, till this very moment, that my mother's curiosity, as she stated the affair,—or a different impulse in her, as my father would have it—wished her to take a peep at them through the key-hole. (9.1.1)

    Tristram is practically panting to get to this part of the story, but time doesn't run smoothly in the narrative. He has to tell some parts before he can tell other parts, so, again, chronology isn't the determining factor of how a story's told—and neither, apparently, is the author. The story tells itself—kinda like a clock that goes once it's been wound?

    I will not argue the matter: Time wastes too fast: every letter I trace tells me with what rapidity Life follows my pen; the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads. (9.8.8)

    Tristram uses a figure of speech, imaging that Life is chasing his pen and possibly borrowing from a famous poem by seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell, whose work was popular in Sterne's political circles. Here, it sounds like his writing is actually making time go faster, speeded up by "every letter I trace."

  • Language

    "'Twas not by ideas,---by heaven! His life was put in jeopardy by words." (1.2.15)

    Here, Tristram explains that Toby is obsessed with building fortifications because he can't figure out exactly what happened at Namur. As with any professional jargon (try talking to a computer programmer, much less an English professor), military vocabulary is incomprehensible. Words matter, maybe even more than ideas. One way of thinking about this is to consider that Mr. Shandy is so obsessed with ideas that he constantly gets everything wrong; and Toby is so obsessed with words that he can't get anything right, either. Both of them, hearing the same word, imagine two entirely different things. Maybe Tristram's novel is trying to figure out the relationship between words and the ideas (or things) that they represent.

    A woman moreover of few words and withal an object of compassion. (1.7.1)

    The woman of few words is the midwife whose story Tristram tells at the beginning of the novel. "Withal" is an old-fashioned adverb (and sometimes preposition) that means something between "also" and "because." It's not exactly causal, but it's also not not causal. So being of few words seems to help make her an object of compassion, just like it's hard to feel sorry for people who constantly post veiled self-pitying updates on Facebook.

    The many perplexities he was in arose out of the almost insurmountable difficulties he found in telling his story intelligibly, and giving such clear ideas of the differences and distinctions between the scarp and counterscarp,—the glacis and covered way,—the half-moon and ravelin,—as to make his company fully comprehend where and what he was about. Writers themselves are too apt to confound these terms (2.1.3-4)

    Here, military language prevents Toby from understanding what happened to him at Namur. Confusing battle terms make telling a story impossible, so words and language seem to prevent meaning rather than help it along. Gee, it sounds like someone's been reading Tristram Shandy.

    'Tis language unurbane,—and only befitting the man who cannot give clear and satisfactory accounts of things, or dive deep enough into the first causes of human ignorance and confusion. (2.2.5)

    Who called the language police? Tristram says bad language is the recourse of people who can't express themselves any other way. Again, language provides an important clue to what's going on in someone's head: bad language, bad man; nice language, nice man. But … really? Tristram can't possibly believe this, can he?

    O countrymen!—be nice,—be cautious of your language;—and never, O! never let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend. (2.6.7)

    Particles are functional parts of language that don't change form, including prepositions and adverbs, as well as the interjections that help move words along—like "well," "alas," "hello." Tristram insists that every part of language matters, which is sort of obvious if you think about the difference between, "First, I took the bread out of the bag; second, I spread the peanut butter," and "First, I spread the peanut butter; second, I took the bread out of the bag."

    You must know, my uncle Toby mistook the bridge—as widely as my father mistook the mortars. (3.23.2)

    Here, "bridge" and "mortar" mean two different things at the same time. To Toby, they have military meaning; to Walter, they have philosophical meaning. Some words—the good words, maybe—don't have fixed meanings and can only be understood in context. Because people provide context, language becomes individual.

    But the word siege, like a talismanic power, in my father's metaphor, wafting back my uncle Toby's fancy, quick as a note could follow the touch—he open'd his ears. (3.41.2)

    Like spells, words have power to make things happen. We know this: in a marriage ceremony, you have to agree ("I do") before it's valid. They're so powerful that Toby is helpless to change his behavior: as soon as he hears the word 'siege,' he starts thinking about fortifications.

    The best word, in the best language of the best world, must have suffered under such combinations. (6.1.34)

    Again, words don't have fixed meanings. They can change when people start using them differently or when they gain new associations. Tristram refers to this (probably ironically) as "suffering," but language can gain a lot when it changes. If it couldn't change, we'd never be able to "friend," to "tweet," or, thanks to Shakespeare, to "puke."

    There are two certain words, which I have been told will force any horse, or ass, or mule, to go up a hill whether he will or no; be he never so obstinate or ill-will'd, the moment he hears them utter'd, he obeys. They are words magic! cried the abbess in the utmost horror—No; replied Margarita calmly—but they are words sinful. (7.24.2)

    Here's another example of words being both powerful and dangerous, and maybe dangerous because they are powerful. Swearing at horses makes them move, but it might make you move—in the wrong direction—at the same time. Like rubbing your head and your tummy?

    This is not a distinction without a difference. It is not like the affair of an old hat cocked—and a cocked old hat, about which your reverences have so often been at odds with one another—but there is a difference here in the nature of things—(8.10.3-4)

    Language doesn't come after meaning but actually changes meaning when it's said. The example Tristram gives here is the word "cocked" coming before and after the phrase "old hat." He insists that the two positions change not just the meaning of the phrase but also the very thing that the phrase represents.

  • Identity

    —you have all, I dare say, heard of the animal spirits, as how they are transfused from father to son, &c. &c.—and a great deal to that purpose:—Well, you may take my word that nine parts in ten of a man's sense or his nonsense, his successes and miscarriages in this world depend upon their motions and activity, and the different tracks and trains you put them into (1.1.1)

    Tristram begins the novel by asserting that identity is fixed before birth, and that it passes directly from father to son (no word on the X chromosome). There's no room for individuality in this notion of identity. Identity depends entirely on where you come from, not where you're going.

    In writing what I have set about, I shall confine myself neither to his rules, nor to any man's rules that ever lived. (1.4.3)

    Tristram seems to find a sense of identity in his writing—and a radical one, too, where he's a lone wolf, completely adrift from society and family. But how serious is he? At other points, he complains about how difficult it is to avoid plagiarism, and lots of his writing responds to or even directly copies other writers. Like Tristram the character, Tristram the writer has a hard time telling us exactly who he is.

    It is a history-book … of what passes in a man's own mind. (2.2.7)

    If the novel is a history of what passes in a man's mind, then the novel as a whole is a key to Tristram's identity—not just what he says about himself, but what he says about everyone else and, importantly, the way that he says it. If Tristram were writing today, he'd definitely have a Tumblr.

    Now, as it was plain to my father, that all souls were by nature equal,—and that the great difference between the most acute and the most obtuse understanding—was from no original sharpness or bluntness of one thinking substance above or below another,—but arose merely from the lucky or unlucky organization of the body, in that part where the soul principally took up her residence,—he had made it the subject of his enquiry to find out the identical place. (2.5.13)

    Maybe identity is a matter of chance, after all. Since all souls are equal, individual identity has to comes from the body, not the mind, and the body (exhibit A: Tristram's penis) is subject to nature and fate. But Mr. Shandy thinks he can affect it by controlling the way Tristram is born. Honey, no.

    A man's body and his mind, with the utmost reverence to both I speak it, are exactly like a jerkin, and a jerkin's lining;—rumple the one—you rumple the other. (3.4.1)

    Peanut butter and jelly, bacon and eggs, dogs and little red wagons, body and mind: you can't have one without the other. Or, well, you could—but why would you? Identity doesn't rest in some mystical soul, but it also isn't solely material.

    His rhetoric and conduct were at perpetual handy-cuffs (3.21.1)

    Making an example out of Walter Shandy, Tristram describes identity as a perpetual conflict between what someone says and what he does. Should you judge a person by his ideals or his actions? Does it really matter if you meant well, if you still end up wrecking the car?

    Here then was the time to have put a stop to this persecution against him;—and tried an experiment at least—whether calmness and serenity of mind in your sister, with a due attention, brother Toby, to her evacuations and repletions—and the rest of her non-naturals, might not, in a course of nine months gestation, have set all things to rights.—My child was bereft of these!—What a teazing life did she lead herself, and consequently her foetus too, with that nonsensical anxiety of hers about lying in in town? (4.19.4)

    Mr. Shandy, after blaming his sperm, now blames Mrs. Shandy for the way Tristram turned out. (Not to blame? Mr. Shandy, of course.) Tristram's identity was set before birth because his mother's thoughts and concerns ruined his brain, and life, long before he came into the world. Society: blaming moms for everything since the eighteenth century.

    Nature is nature (5.10.5)

    This statement seems to indicate that people can't change who they are. But it's announced by a servant, Jonathan, who hardly has anything to do in the novel at all. Are we supposed to take him seriously? Or is everybody dropping truth bombs nowadays?

    For in my grand tour through Europe, in which, after all, my father (not caring to trust me with any one) attended me himself, with my uncle Toby, and Trim, and Obadiah, and indeed most of the family (7.27.7)

    Surprise! It turns out that all this time, Tristram has been traveling through Europe with an entourage, making us wonder if he does … anything by himself. It certainly seems like, for Tristram, identity is collective. There's no Tristram without the whole cast of characters. Tristram is Vince and Toby is Turtle.

    The soul and body are joint-sharers in every thing they get (9.13.6)

    Separate but equal, but are they? Instead of the mind, Tristram talks here about the "soul." Is the "soul" the same thing, or are there really three parts to identity—mind, soul, and body? Does Tristram Shandy or Tristram Shandy really seem to think the mind and body are equal?

  • Knowledge

    "All I contend for, is the utter impossibility, for some books, that you, or the most penetrating spirits upon earth, should know how this matter really stands" (1.18.12)

    Despite how it seems, Tristram is going to keep his lips zipped. Writing allows readers to gain knowledge about events and character, but a good book has to gradually unveil itself, and Tristram, like a regular Agatha Christie, prides himself on keeping knowledge from even the cleverest reader.

    "our minds shine not through the body, but are wrapt up here in a dark covering of uncrystallized flesh and blood; so that if we could come to the specific characters of them, we must go some other way to work" (1.23.4)

    The truth about people isn't in their exterior but in the interiors, and in fact bodies just get in the way. This is kind of odd, because (thanks again, Facebook) it suggests that the best way to gain knowledge about people isn't actually to interact with them.

    "the desire of knowledge, like the thirst of riches, increases ever with the acquisition of it" (2.3.3)

    This statement makes knowledge seem like something that you can own and hoard, which suggests that after a certain point it's just superfluous. All the money in the world is great, but it just stops mattering after a while—we hear. (We sure wouldn't know from experience.) Someone like Walter Shandy, who hoards knowledge, can't actually use it in any meaningful way.

    "stop!—go not one foot further into this thorny and bewildered track;--intricate are the steps! intricate are the mazes of this labyrinth! intricate are the troubles which the pursuit of this bewitching phantom KNOWLEDGE will bring upon thee." (2.3.8)

    Knowledge is deceitful. It's great to have a little, but too much leads people on and eventually ends up confusing them. It seems like Tristram is suggesting it's better not to know too much—exactly the opposite stance taken by Sterne's contemporary, Alexander Pope: "A little learning is a dangerous thing/ Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."

    The advantage of prying and peeping continually into his master's plans, &c., exclusive and besides what he gained HOBBY-HORSICALLY, as a body servant, Non Hobby-Horsical per se,—had become no mean proficient in the science; and was thought, by the cook and chamber-maid, to know as much of the nature of strongholds as my uncle Toby himself. (2.5.8)

    Spying: a time-honored way of gathering knowledge. We see characters spy a few times in the novel (particularly Mrs. Shandy), and here we learn than Trim has a super high security clearance. The problem is that knowledge you get from spying is, well, incomplete. The cook and the chamber-maid probably aren't the best judges of how much Trim knows about fortifications.

    I should have added, nor are we angels, I wish we were,—but men clothed with bodies, and governed by our imaginations;—and what a junketing piece of work of it there is, betwixt these and our seven senses, (5.7.10)

    In the seventeenth century, John Locke insisted that the best way to learn about the world was through the senses. Not so, Tristram says, who would no doubt throw out all eyewitness testimony.

    The difference between them was, that my uncle Toby drew his whole knowledge of projectils from Nicholas Tartaglia—My father spun his, every thread of it, out of his own brain,—or reeled and cross-twisted what all other spinners and spinsters had spun before him, that 'twas pretty near the same torture to him. (5.16.1)

    If sensory info isn't working for you, you can pick up a book or just plop down in your armchair and philosophize. Yeah, that's working out well for Toby and Walter. Really, Tristram doesn't leave us with much of a feeling that there's any point in trying to learn anything.

    "It is with Love as with Cuckoldom--the suffering party is at least the third, but generally the last in the house who knows any thing about the matter: (8.4.1)

    Even knowledge about love has to be found out from someone else—senses aren't good enough on their own, especially when it comes to figuring out if that guy in Calculus actually likes your or just wants to copy your homework.

    A daughter of Eve, for such was Widow Wadman, and 'tis all the character I intend to give of her— —"That she was a perfect woman," (8.8.3-4)

    Of all the unknowable things in Tristram Shandy, women are perhaps the most mysterious. There's no understanding them, and there's no characterizing them. They're just … women. (Maybe you should just talk to them like normal people, Tristram.)

    My uncle Toby knew little of the world; and therefore when he felt he was in love with widow Wadman, he had no conception that the thing was any more to be made a mystery of" (8.27.1)

    Toby's such an innocent that he doesn't even know he's supposed to make a big deal of being in love. He has no idea how to flirt—he just tells Mrs. Wadman he likes her and figures that's the end of it. If he were more knowledgeable, he'd probably just make a mess of it. Poor guy needs some lessons from the Pickup Artist.

  • Foolishness

    I frequently ride out and take the air;—though sometimes, to my shame be it spoken, I take somewhat longer journeys than what a wise man would think altogether right.—But the truth is,—I am not a wise man;—and besides am a mortal of so little consequence in the world, it is not much matter what I do; so I seldom fret or fume at all about it: (1.8.1)

    Tristram is in on the joke. He admits here that he has his own hobby-horse and that he doesn't always act wisely when pursuing it. This is a good articulation of Shandyism: "it is not much matter what I do; so I seldome fret or fume at all about it." We can get down with that philosophy.

    He chose rather to join in the laugh against himself (1.10.8)

    Tristram describes Yorick's attitude towards his own folly, which is shockingly similar to Tristram's and, we bet, Sterne's—he laughs at it. This seems to be the right approach throughout the novel, and probably for life: better to laugh with than be laughed at.

    "would be the most grave or serious of mortal men for days and weeks together;—but he was an enemy to the affectation of it, and declared open war against it, only as it appeared a cloak for ignorance, or for folly" (1.11.6)

    Yorick hates seriousness not for itself but because people use it to hide their foolishness (folly). He wants everyone to celebrate folly and enjoy being foolish—basically, the class clown of the novel.

    Nothing in the whole affair provoked him so much as the condolences of his friends, and the foolish figure they should make at church the first Sunday (1.16.3)

    Mr. Shandy's major preoccupation on the journey back to Shandy Hall from London after Mrs. Shandy's fake pregnancy isn't his wife's health but the fact that people are going to think he's foolish. Of course, being afraid of looking dumb just makes you act dumber. Just think, if Mr. Shandy hadn't wanted to get back at his wife by making her give birth in the country, Tristram's nose would never have been broken.

    I would sooner undertake to explain the hardest problem in Geometry than pretend to account for it, that a gentleman of my father's great good sense,—knowing, as the reader must have observed him, and curious too in philosophy,—wise also in political reasoning,—and in polemical (as he will find) no way ignorant,—could be capable of entertaining a notion in his head, so out of the common track (1.19.1)

    Good sense and learning won't keep a person from foolishness, so you might as well just embrace it—even someone as learned as Mr. Shandy can have crazy ideas. (Although—it does seem like Tristram is gently making fun of his father, here. Are we really supposed to believe that Tristram thinks his father has good sense? Doesn't seem likely.)

    but as a warning to the learned reader against the indiscreet reception of such guests who, after a free and undisturbed entrance, for some years, into our brains,—at length claim a kind of settlement there,—working sometimes like yeast;—but more generally after the manner of the gentle passion, beginning in jest,—but ending in downright earnest. (1.19.5)

    Here's a little warning that foolishness can sneak up on a person. Over the years, jokes can gradually turn someone into a full-fledged nut; one cat can turn into 550; and the story of your life can turn into a nine-volume masterpiece of digression.

    So much for my chapter upon chapters, which I hold to be the best chapter in my whole work; and take my word, whoever reads it is full as well employed, as in picking straws. (4.10.9)

    Even the reader can't escape being a fool. By reading his chapter, Tristram says, you, the reader, have been "picking straws," engaged in a useless task. Gotcha: the very act of reading Tristram Shandy is a folly.

    He shall neither strike, or pinch, or tickle—or bite, or cut his nails, or hawk, or spit, or snift, or drum with his feet or fingers in company;—nor (according to Erasmus) shall he speak to any one in making water,—nor shall he point to carrion or excrement.—Now this is all nonsense again, quoth my uncle Toby to himself.— (6.5.6)

    Mr. Shandy is a fool because he combines ideas from too many people. He is so wrapped up in his reading that he completely loses common sense when he's trying to decide what kind of tutor he wants for Tristram. The result? A mishmash of qualities that can't possibly exist in one person.

    And the five following, a good quantity of heterogeneous matter be inserted, to keep up that just balance betwixt wisdom and folly, without which a book would not hold together a single year: (9.12.1)

    If Tristram Shandy were all wise and serious, it would be an extremely dull book. Tristram here announces that he's carefully mixed wisdom with folly in order to produce a book that's fun to read but can also teach you something about life, like a little chocolate powder mixed in with your protein shake. Foolishness has its place in the world, just like wisdom.

    A COCK and a BULL, said Yorick—And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard. (9.33.17)

    In the last line of the book, it seems like Tristram (or Yorick, really) is dismissing the entire thing as a joke. Is he being serious? Well, how much do you trust Tristram as an author? Does he know what he's doing, or is the whole book just one big Shandyean hobby-horse?

  • Education

    A curious observer of nature, had he been worth the inventory of all Job's stock—though by the bye, your curious observers are seldom worth a groat—would have given the half of it, to have heard Corporal Trim and my father, two orators so contrasted by nature and education, haranguing over the same bier. (5.6.5)

    This passage shows how nature (what you're born with) and education (what you learn) are essential-but-different parts of someone's style. Education seems to be something that takes you away from nature—but is that good or bad?

    On Lady-day, which was on the 25th of the same month in which I date my geniture,—my father set upon his journey to London, with my eldest brother Bobby, to fix him at Westminster school (1.4.9)

    Bobby is away at school for the whole first half of the book, and he dies at school without ever coming home. It's interesting that Tristram can figure out when he was conceived because it happened around the same time that Bobby went to school. There's almost something lethal about school in Tristram Shandy: Bobby's education sets the stage for Tristram to supplant him. Although we wouldn't recommend trying that excuse with your teachers.

    You are a person free from as many narrow prejudices of education as most men. (1.19.4)

    Education replaced empty minds with open minds—but not in Tristram Shandy. Instead, education brings us grammar sticklers and people who can't stop saying, "Well, actually …" Rather than enlarging your mind, education closes it off.

    What is more astonishing, he had never in his whole life the least light or spark of subtilty struck into his mind, by one single lecture upon Crackenthorp or Burgersdicius or any Dutch logician or commentator. (1.19.6)

    When Mr. Shandy takes Tristram to school, the teachers are surprised that he's able to argue at all because he's never had formal education. But since we already know that formal education doesn't improve logic, it's not clear who's more foolish: Mr. Shandy for thinking he doesn't need formal education, or the teachers for thinking that he does.

    I often think that I owe one half of my philanthropy to that one accidental impression. This is to serve for parents and governors instead of a whole book (2.12.8-9).

    Tristram remembers seeing Toby free a fly that was buzzing around his nose, an example of Toby's good nature that was more effective at teaching him to be a good person than reading a whole book of similar examples. This incident suggests that book-learnin' isn't good for much at all—that true education comes from experience. (Again, probably shouldn't try this one on the truant officer.)

    The first thing which entered my father's head, after affairs were a little settled in the family, and Susannah had got possession of my mother's green satin night-gown,—was to sit down coolly, after the example of Xenophon, and write a TRISTRA-paedia, or system of education for me; collecting first for that purpose his own scattered thoughts, counsels, and notions; and binding them together, so as to form an INSTITUTE for the government of my childhood and adolescence. (5.16.1)

    The Tristra-paedia is Walter Shandy's attempt to educate his son. God forbid he actually interact with Tristram; instead, he's going to write everything down and have Tristram read it. Someone give this guy a trophy.

    It is either Plato, or Plutarch, or Seneca, or Xenophon, or Epictetus, or Theophrastus, or Lucian—or some one perhaps of later date—either Cardan, or Budaeus, or Petrarch, or Stella—or possibly it may be some divine or father of the church, St. Austin, or St. Cyprian, or Bernard, who affirms that it is an irresistible and natural passion to weep for the loss of our friends or children (5.3.2)

    There's nothing more natural than crying when your first-born son dies—unless, that is, you're Mr. Shandy. Before he can let himself go, he has to find proof that it's okay to cry by reading ancient writers. Heck—he probably had to find proof that it was natural before conceiving his son.

    The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.—And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,—or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?—Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?—Or hypothetically,—If it was; If it was not? What would follow? (5.43.2)

    Mr. Shandy is so obsessed with auxiliary verbs (helping verbs, like "would" or "could") that he thinks they're the only subject a child needs to understand. Algebra? History? Basic personal hygiene? All worthless, as long as Tristram can conjugate properly.

    Every word, Yorick, by this means, you see, is converted into a thesis or an hypothesis;—every thesis and hypothesis have an offspring of propositions;—and each proposition has its own consequences and conclusions; every one of which leads the mind on again, into fresh tracks of enquiries and doubtings.—The force of this engine, added my father, is incredible, in opening a child's head.—(6.2.1)

    Mr. Shandy claims that the best way to teach kids is to show them formal argumentation—logic, like, "If … then" statements. Of course, since Mr. Shandy is saying it, the whole thing sounds absurd. He seems to think of a child's head as a nut that needs to be cracked open. With that philosophy, it's surprising Tristram didn't perish under Mr. Shandy's system of education.

    As soon as my uncle Toby had laid a foundation, and taught him to inscribe a regular polygon in a circle, he sent him to a public school, where, excepting Whitsontide and Christmas, at which times the corporal was punctually dispatched for him. (6.12.2)

    This passage refers to Le Fever's son, the boy that Toby takes under his wing. Le Fever's son, whom we never meet, is one of the nicest characters in the book: he's dutiful, courageous, and really just a great guy. So it's worth pointing out that he doesn't make a big fuss about being educated. He learns the basics, he goes to school, and then he moves on with his life. No Kanye West here.

  • Science

    "Dr. Slop … had expressly wrote a five shillings book upon the subject of midwifery, in which he had exposed, not only the blunders of the sisterhood itself,--but had likewise superadded many curious improvements for the quicker extraction of the foetus in cross births" (1.18.1)

    Why does Dr. Slop think that he knows better than midwives who have been practicing their arts for centuries? (Yeah, lots of women used to die in childbirth—but that number went way up once doctors and their filthy hands took over.) Including the price of the book makes it sound more like a money-making venture than an actual step forward in safety.

    What, therefore, seemed the least liable to objections of any, was that the chief sensorium, or headquarters of the soul, and to which place all intelligences were referred, and from whence all her mandates were issued,—was in, or near, the cerebellum,—or rather somewhere about the medulla oblongata, wherein it was generally agreed by Dutch anatomists that all the minute nerves from all the organs of the seven senses concentered (2.5.17)

    Here's an example of scientific thinking mixed up with something we like to call magical thinking. Mr. Shandy has read all the latest anatomy textbooks, but none of them agree about where the body starts and the mind begins (this is way before neurology and freaky experiments on mice). Maybe science can help sort things out—but more likely, it'll just confuse the issue.

    "When my father had got so far,—what a blaze of light did the accounts of the Caesarian section, and of the towering geniuses who had come safe into the world by it, cast upon this hypothesis? (2.5.25-26)

    Mr. Shandy's scientific explorations have gotten so absurd that he's decided C-sections are better for babies than natural births, because natural births squish babies' brains. Given the lack of sterilization and antibiotics at the time, C-sections were not too great for the moms. (Life in general was not great for babies.) Mr. Shandy's enthusiasm for the operation shows just how much common sense gets lost when science takes over.

    Directing the buccinatory muscles along his cheeks, and the orbicular muscles around his lips, to do their duty—he whistled Lillabullero (3.6.2)

    One thing science is good for is writing, because it gives us lots of awesome new words. Plus, anatomy opens up new ways to describe simple actions. Toby can whistle whether or not he knows what the muscles are called, but Tristram gets a kick out of new-fangled expressions.

    The instruments, it seems, as tight as the bag was tied above, had so much room to play in it, towards the bottom, (the shape of the bag being conical) that Obadiah could not make a trot of it but with such a terrible jingle, what with the tire-tête, forceps, and squirt, as would have been enough, had Hymen been taking a jaunt that way, to have frightened him out of the country; (3.7.3)

    Dr. Slop's instruments make so much noise that Obadiah has to tie them up to keep them from clanging. Really, all they're good for is getting in the way—if you don't count crushing Tristram's little nose and nearly slicing Dr. Slop's thumb off, of course.

    —Upon my honour, Sir, you have tore every bit of the skin quite off the back of both my hands with your forceps (3.16.1)

    Dr. Slop's instruments are so dangerous that they tear up Toby's hands. Also—just a thought—why is he demonstrating on Toby if he really should be tending to Mrs. Shandy? Who's the real baby in this picture?

    Sciences May Be Learned by Rote But Wisdom Not. (5.32.13)

    Tristram contrasts science and wisdom: science is something you can memorize, but wisdom is something you have to understand. Tristram Shandy seems to be saying that they're opposed. Mr. Shandy knows a lot of science, but he doesn't have any wisdom at all; Toby is kind of a dunce, poor thing, but he knows a lot about human nature. (And the one science he does understand, fortifications, makes him foolish.)

    The whole secret of health, said my father, beginning the sentence again, depending evidently upon the due contention betwixt the radical heat and radical moisture within us (5.36.1)

    Mr. Shandy starts on about his theories of radical heat and moisture while young Tristram is upstairs wailing because he's just been brutally circumcised. We're sure it's a great comfort to Tristram to know that his father's learning is so helpful in times of crisis. Not.

    Vain science! thou assistest us in no case of this kind—and thou puzzlest us in every one. (6.29.2)

    Science, Tristram says, doesn't help anyone—it just throws people for a loop. He's said this a lot, by now, but the language here is worth noting. The archaic language ("thou," "assistest," "Vain science!") makes the sentence stand out, as if Tristram doesn't entirely mean it.

    Now, of all things in the world, I understand the least of mechanism—I have neither genius, or taste, or fancy—and have a brain so entirely unapt for every thing of that kind, that I solemnly declare I was never yet able to comprehend the principles of motion of a squirrel cage, or a common knife-grinder's wheel (7. 30.3)

    Unlike Mr. Shandy, Tristram claims that he doesn't know anything about science (although, well, he actually does—since he has to write everything that Mr. Shandy says). The implication, though, seems to be that he knows a lot about other kinds of motion—human motion. He may not understand a knife-grinder's wheel, but he can analyze the heck out of human character.

  • Sex

    "Surely, Madam, a friendship between the two sexes may subsist, and be supported without---Fy! Mr. Shandy:--Without any thing, Madam, but that tender and delicious sentiment which ever mixes in friendship, where there is a difference of sex" (1.18.12)

    Sure, men and women can be friends—they can share a "tender and delicious sentiment" that seems even more attractive than sex, at least as it's represented in the novel. Notice that it's the woman, Tristram's imaginary companion, who expects him to say something dirty.

    How do the slight touches of the chisel, the pencil, the pen, the fiddle-stick, et cetera,—give the true swell, which gives the true pleasure! (2.6.7)

    It's hard to keep our minds out of the gutter when Tristram is writing lines that combine "slight touch" with "swell" and "pleasure." Tristram links writing (or any kind of art) to sex and says that both acts give the same kind of pleasure. Um, okay, Tristram.

    "My total ignorance of the sex … has given me just cause to say, That I neither know, nor do pretend to know, anything about 'em, or their concerns either" (2.7.3)

    Toby's lack of interest in sex means that he has no interest in women, either. Women seem to be important only for sex in Tristram Shandy. They're rarely mentioned in any other context except when they're giving birth, sneaking around, or, in Mrs. Shandy's case, sitting at home knitting a pair of breeches, which, let's face it, are kind of a sexy piece of clothing.

    My brother does it, quoth my uncle Toby, out of principle.—In a family way, I suppose, quoth Dr. Slop.—Pshaw!—said my father,—'tis not worth talking of. (2.13.1)

    For Walter, sex is about procreation—it's a family duty that he does systematically and according to a rigid schedule. You have to wonder if he was always this way, or if his nasty attitude killed his ability to enjoy love-making.

    He would shake her by the hand, or ask her lovingly how she did,—or would give her a ribban,—and now and then, though never but when it could be done with decorum, would give Bridget a— (3.24.4)

    Just what is Trim giving Bridget with decorum? We'll never know, because, like most of the mentions of sex, Tristram cuts us off right at the good part. We're left to imagine the worst (or the best), even though Tristram continually tells us to keep our minds clean. We're sure he's a perfect saint.

    Can you tell me, Gastripheres, what is best to take out the fire? (4.28.1)

    Before penicillin, a bout of syphilis, a very common STD back in the day, could be really nasty. When a hot chestnut lands on the scholar Phutatorius's lap, it makes his crotch burn with fire: in other words, he's got the pox. These high-falutin' scholars are whoring around with everyone else, and Tristram gets to make an extended dirty joke about it.

    It had ever been the custom of the family, and by length of time was almost become a matter of common right, that the eldest son of it should have free ingress, egress, and regress into foreign parts before marriage,—not only for the sake of bettering his own private parts, by the benefit of exercise and change of so much air—but simply for the mere delectation of his fancy (4.31.7)

    One of the only people who seems to enjoy sex ("the mere delectation of his fancy") in Tristram Shandy is Bobby, Tristram's older brother who lives and dies offstage. The association between 'foreign parts' and fun sexy times shows up again, when Tristram remembers having a good time with a peasant named Nanette in the south of France.

    What signifies it, brother Shandy, replied my uncle Toby, which of the two it is, provided it will but make a man marry, and love his wife, and get a few children. (8.33.2)

    Like Walter, Toby thinks sex is for procreation. Ever the romantic, he also acknowledges that love has something to do with it. Of course, it's all abstract for Toby, who's never gotten close enough to a woman to test out his theories. One word, Toby: deodorant.

    The more she rubbed, and the longer strokes she took—the more the fire kindled in my veins—till at length, by two or three strokes longer—than the rest—my passion rose to the highest pitch—I seized her hand— (8.22.17)

    Welcome to one of the book's the most explicit passages. Trim is telling Toby how a young nun used to rub his leg, but, well, it seems a lot like she's rubbing something else. Notice, though, that Trim doesn't get to finish. Like every other sex act, it's coitus (or something) interruptus.

    Mrs. Wadman naturally looked down, upon a slit she had been darning up in her apron, in expectation every moment, that my uncle Toby would go on. (9.25.7)

    Tristram never misses a chance for a dirty joke. A "slit" in her apron? You might as well just call it a vagina and be done with it.