What do you call a main character who takes a backseat role in almost every scene? Tristram Shandy is all too happy dig up the dirt of other people's lives, all the while hovering around in the background. He's a sly trickster, that Tristram.
Where's Tristram? Much like his stripes-wearing friend, Tristram shows up at random—and for that matter, halfway through the book. Narrator-Tristram is planning to tell the story of character-Tristram from conception all the way to the present, the time that he's writing in. We never hear him say anything directly, even when he's accidentally circumcised (and there's never a better time to yelp in agony).
Tristram's absence is significant because Tristram Shandy as a novel is very much about absences—the potential absence of Toby's penis; the absence of Tristram's foreskin; the absence of plot. Tristram even makes himself disappear from his own circumcision, since he more than once refers to it as "Susannah's accident" (6.13.2, 6.14.2). We're getting really good at picking apart Tristram's words to find out where he's hiding—good thing he's so conspicuous.
We know more about Tristram the narrator, although he never sets out to describe his personality the way he does Yorick, Toby, or his father. He's clever, well-educated, good-humored, easily distracted, a little mournful, a little silly, and a lot sentimental. Take this example:
In less than five minutes I shall have thrown my pen into the fire, and the little drop of thick ink which is left remaining at the bottom of my inkhorn, after it—I have but half a score things to do in the time—I have a thing to name—a thing to lament—a thing to hope—a thing to promise—and a thing to threaten … This chapter, therefore, I name the chapter of THINGS—and my next chapter to it, that is, the first chapter of my next volume, if I live, shall be my chapter upon WHISKERS, in order to keep up some sort of connection in my works (4.32.1)
This passage occurs right after Bobby's death, when Tristram has suddenly become the Shandy family heir. His reaction to telling the story is dramatic: he's going to throw his pen into the fire. This action signals to the reader that change is a' comin' (although, knowing Tristram, it's not going to happen in the way we expect). But he keeps going, complaining about all the things he has to do/ write, and he does it in a way that shows his education and wit: by mimicking the language of the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes and anticipating Pete Seeger.
He's not done, either. From Biblical language and style, he moves to heavy philosophical stuff. That's right, he's got a chapter of "things" on the way—as in, the nature of things. Here, Sterne is gesturing at the philosophical concept of "phenomenon"—things as they are in the world rather than things as they are in themselves ("noumenon").
Tristram's got a couple more tone shifts up his sleeve. He playfully insists that his next chapter is going to be about "whiskers," then wonders aloud if he'll live to make it happen.
With a narrator whose shifts in tone are so dizzying, it's tough to figure out Tristram's goals and motivations. He wants to tell the story of his life and opinions, but he seems more interested in explaining why and how he became who he is. In other words, we don't get action—we get thought and feeling. And even then, it's not really clear whose thoughts and feelings are getting hashed out in Tristram's life.
Tristram's position as an individual surrounded by a family is important. Rather than a singular identity, he seems to be expressing a—wait for it—collective identity.
One way of making sense of the characters in Tristram Shandy is to think about them all as aspects of Tristram himself. For whatever reason (we bet it has something to do with his penis), Tristram can't talk about himself directly. Instead, he transfers qualities to other characters. Walter Shandy is foolish, argumentative, and overly academic. Tristram introduces him to us as a bad-tempered sort of fellow: he's "pettish" and "out of all kind of patience" and continually "fretting" (1.16.1, 3, 5).
These are characteristics Tristram doesn't have, but Walter's obsession with books and learning is something Tristram—and Sterne—toss around freely, like in this description of Mrs. Wadman's attempts to discover the nature of Toby's injury: "She had accordingly read Drake's anatomy from one end to the other. She had peeped into Wharton upon the brain, and borrowed Graaf upon the bones and muscles" (9.26.3). Of course, to talk about all these difficult anatomical textbooks (Mrs. Wadman could "make nothing of" Graaf), Tristram has to admit that he's a little more clued in than he says he is.
Tristram may be worldly, but he's also got a soft, sentimental side that smacks of Toby. He's not as innocent—he tumbles a peasant on his journey in Europe, so clearly he knows the right end from the wrong end of a woman—but he does talk with real sentiment to his "dear Jenny" about love and life, saying, "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 … every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make" (9.8.8). We've said it before: Tristram knows how to woo a woman.
Of course, we can't forget Yorick, whose "wit and his humour," "gibes and his jests," and impatience with people who are needlessly serious (like Mr. Shandy) are pure Tristram (1.11.9). All these characters—Walter, Toby, and Yorick, as well as the servants who all repeat these characteristic in exaggerated ways—reflect aspects of Tristram's character, as if he can only understand himself by writing about others.
Tristram's trying desperately to get his voice heard, y'all. He talks to the reader constantly, partly as though he's afraid that there's no one out there after all and partly as though he just assumes that the reader is interested in whatever he's interested in—like his mother's marriage settlement, which he investigates "in order to satisfy myself and the reader" (1.14.1). (Yeah, he really scratched that itch.) He writes as though his book is a sort of contract, saying that he has "a small account to settle with the reader" (5.8.1). Tristram is trying to fulfill some kind of debt, and it's not just because he keeps messing with our heads.
He also assumes certain things about the reader's background ("As the reader … has a thorough knowledge of human nature, I need not say more" (1.12.2).) Of course, the reader is someone whose ideas and opinions just happen to coincide with Tristram's own—and that's because the reader is completely a character of Tristram's own invention, both a friend and a business partner who reflects back on Tristram himself. Slow down there, Tristram, we're just getting to know you.
At the beginning of the book, he notes that the reader is a stranger. Not for long! He says, "As you proceed farther 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 … Therefore, my dear friend and companion, if you should think me somewhat sparing of my narrative on my first setting out—bear with me,—and let me go on" (1.6.1).
But remember that Tristram himself is creating this reader, almost as though the reader is becoming a character in the story. Could it be that, more than anything else, all Tristram wants is a friend? (Cue the "awing" sounds.)