Study Guide

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Science

By Laurence Sterne

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.