Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Fate and Free Will

By Laurence Sterne

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.