Tristram Shandy Book 1, Chapters 20-25 Summary

Laurence Sterne

Book 1, Chapters 20-25 Summary

In these chapters, which end the first volume of the story, the narrator continues his commentary on his birth. Digressions in the telling, which the narrator points out are not truly digressions as the story moves forward not just in spite of them but more precisely because of them, often interrupt the storyline. Among the digressions is the inclusion of two long letters written entirely in French.

Eventually, Tristram returns to his description of his Uncle Toby's character. Toby and Tristram's father, Walter, are sitting downstairs while Tristram's mother is upstairs about to give birth to Tristram. The narrator states that his uncle has a special type of humor, one that "does honor" to the British wit. All of the males in the Shandy family, according to Tristram, have unique gifts, although Tristram's father never acknowledges this fact. The women of the family, however, have no special traits at all, except for Tristram's Aunt Dinah who, at the age of sixty, had a love affair with the family coachman.

In describing the personality traits of his Uncle Toby, Tristram claims that the most predominant one is that of modesty. Tristram is not sure if his uncle is modest by nature or if he acquired this characteristic as he grew older. No matter how his uncle learned to be modest, he did so to such a pure and honest degree that he outshone even the most modest women of his time. Tristram suggests that most readers might assume that his uncle's modesty was honed by women, with whom Toby might have spent much time in conversation. In this way, Toby might have gained an uncommon knowledge of women and might have learned to imitate the "fair examples" of female modesty.

However, Tristram then points out that Toby rarely spoke to women, so this could not be the cause. The truth of the matter is this: Tristram's Uncle Toby was endowed with modesty from a blow he received when a large chunk of stone fell directly onto his groin. When Tristram gets to this point of his story, he breaks off the narrative, stating that the details of how this injury contributed to his uncle's modesty will be provided in later episodes of the book. The only part of the story that Tristram discusses is the fact that whenever this accident and its subsequent injury to his uncle was mentioned during family gatherings, especially in the company of women, Tristram's Uncle Toby would take Tristram's father aside and beg him not to tell the rest of the story.

Although Tristram claims that his father has great compassion for his brother, Walter Shandy is torn between his brother's need for privacy and his own stubborn desire to explore truth. For Tristram's father to remain honest, he must be allowed to discuss Toby's injury openly, Walter Shandy believes. This naturally caused many "squabbles" between the two brothers.