Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Identity

By Laurence Sterne

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?