Summary

Tristram Shandy, in telling the story of his earliest years, says that he has always believed that most of the problems of his life were brought about by the fact that the moment of his conception was interrupted when his mother asked his father whether he had remembered to wind the clock. Tristram knows the exact date of his conception: the night between the first Sunday and the first Monday of March, 1718. He is certain of this because his father’s notebook indicates that before that Monday he had been seriously inconvenienced by an attack of sciatica, and immediately after that day he had set out for London.

Another complication of Tristram’s birth was caused by the marriage settlement of his parents. According to this settlement, which Tristram quotes in full, Mrs. Shandy had the privilege of going to London in preparation for childbirth. If Mrs. Shandy were to put Mr. Shandy to the expense of a trip to London on false pretenses, however, then the next child was to be born at Shandy Hall. The circumstance of a needless trip to London had occurred some time before, and Mr. Shandy stoutly insisted that Tristram should be born at Shandy Hall; the birth would be in the hands of a country midwife rather than in those of a London doctor.

As Tristram tells the story, on the night of his birth, his father, Walter Shandy, and Tristram’s uncle Toby, Walter’s brother, are sitting in the living room engaged in one of their interminable debates. Informed by Susannah, the maid, that Mrs. Shandy is about to deliver her child, they send for the midwife. As an extra measure of safety, they also send for Dr. Slop, a bungling country practitioner whom Mr. Shandy admires because he has written a five-shilling book on the history of midwifery.

Uncle Toby, who has been called the highest compliment ever paid human nature, was a soldier until he was wounded during the siege of Namur in 1695. The wound, the exact position of which is to play a large part in Tristram’s story later on, has forced him to retire to the country. At the suggestion of his faithful servant, Corporal Trim, he has built a large and complicated series of model fortifications and military emplacements on a bowling green behind Shandy Hall. Uncle Toby now spends all his time playing soldier and thinking about this miniature battlefield. Mr. Shandy is not impressed with his brother’s hobby and keeps him from discussing it by violently interrupting him, so that he can continue, or start, one of his own long and detailed digressions on obscure information.

As the two brothers await the arrival of the midwife and her rival, Dr. Slop, Mr. Shandy asks a rhetorical question on the subject of Mrs. Shandy’s preference for a midwife rather than a male doctor. When Uncle Toby suggests naïvely that modesty might explain her choice, Mr. Shandy launches into a long discussion of the nature of women and of the fact that everything has two handles. Given his naïveté, it is impossible for Uncle Toby to understand such affairs.

By the time Dr. Slop finally arrives with his bag of tools, the midwife is already in attendance...

(The entire section is 1280 words.)

Summary

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. is a long, challenging, and delightful work. Written serially over nine years, it does not exhibit unity of action or tell a single, identifiable story. Rather, it is unified by an overriding purpose—to tell the title character’s life and opinions as honestly and completely as possible—and a unique style, whereby that purpose is thwarted and diverted by digressions and embellishments that grow out of the life and opinions themselves.

“Life and Opinions” was an acceptable autobiographical format for an eighteenth century gentleman. Sterne set out both to use it and to ridicule it through the character of Tristram Shandy. “Old Tristram” was the name given to a statue of a bearded beggar at the Halifax parish church from Sterne’s adolescence. “Shandy” was Yorkshire slang for “odd” or “crazy.” Together they suggest an offbeat character; Sterne added gentility, charm, and an incapacity for direct thought or action. Tristram is the first-person protagonist of the nine volumes of the book, and in his life and opinions he introduces an array of other characters: his pompous father Walter, his gentle Uncle Toby, the Corporal Trim, Parson Yorick, the servant Susannah, his brother Bobby, his beloved Jenny, the Widow Wadman, his friend Eugenius, and a variety of other learned gentlemen.

If Tristram Shandy can be said to have a plot, it has two: Walter Shandy’s...

(The entire section is 525 words.)