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Shandy Hall

Shandy Hall. Tristram’s chief misfortune is to be born in Shandy Hall, a world ruled by his father, Walter Shandy, who is determined to give Tristram, his only child, the best possible chances of success in life, only to be defeated at every turn. A botched conception, birth, and christening are the genesis of Tristram’s lifelong misfortunes, but they also mirror and mock the activities of those who attempt to control destiny with arcane lore, esoteric learning, and harebrained schemes.

Walter Shandy’s hodgepodge of philosophical and psychological ideas, formal logic, and theories of child-rearing form a comic opera in which his best plans are overturned, throwing Shandy Hall into constant turmoil. Within this microcosm, classical rhetoric, medieval literature, and biblical references mingle with allusions to astrology, alchemy, bridge-building, and fortifications. Citations in Latin, Greek, French, and Italian mingle with a technical vocabulary borrowed from science, medicine, and the legal profession. A dissertation on whiskers mingles with a long tale about a man’s nose. All of these disparate elements create a rich muddle that symbolizes not only Walter Shandy’s fecund mind but also the larger world of human affairs, which is marked by endless misunderstanding and ubiquitous charlatanism.

The events that take place within Shandy Hall represent, by implication, Tristram’s version of human history, a tragicomedy in which good-hearted simpletons and well-intentioned schemers continually collide with common sense, and high-toned discourse is constantly undercut by coarse humor, coarse talk, and bawdy innuendo. What drives Shandy Hall, and what continually defeats Walter Shandy’s schemes, is the same force, or Fate, that directs human affairs.

Uncle Toby’s battlefield

Uncle Toby’s battlefield. Probably no other place in this novel so well represents the way language can lead to mishap and misunderstanding as Uncle Toby’s miniature fortification. It symbolizes the problematic interplay of language and learning and of human character and its relation to events. In this miniature world, mock warfare mirrors the assault by the Widow Wadman against Uncle Toby’s resolute bachelorhood, and her failure to engage him in a frank discourse symbolizes the power of innocence to blind and the power of language to obscure and mislead. Uncle Toby’s battlefield, with its overtones of a child’s game and harmless pastime, reflects his childish nature and benign spirit—he could not hurt a fly, we are told—as well as the essential childishness of adult warfare.

Widow Wadman’s parlor

Widow Wadman’s parlor. Climactic place in which the romantic Widow Wadman lays her siege. Her parlor is the arena in which one of the book’s principal themes—the unreliability of language as a medium of communication—is most central and where one of the book’s other themes, that impotence imbues the individual with a kind of potency, is played out before the reader’s eyes in a comic climax of cross-purpose and miscommunication. The parlor also represents the polite world of decorum and propriety as this world is undercut by the physical behavior of servants below stairs. In the parlor, too, Sterne’s double meanings and double entendres proliferate more quickly than the characters themselves can manage.

Tristram the narrator glories in the ambiguous properties of his chief weapon, language, which gives him the power to control the events of his narrative and, at the same time, to demonstrate the equivocal nature of language and the unequivocal power of those who know how to use it well. The widow’s parlor is the place where she parlays with Uncle Toby and discovers that there is more to communication than simple talk.

(This entire section contains 605 words.)

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Booth, Wayne. “Did Sterne Complete Tristram Shandy?Modern Philology 48, no. 3 (February, 1951): 172-183. Draws on extensive biographical and textual evidence to dispel the notion that Tristram Shandy is a careless, haphazard book without logical structure. Claims that Sterne intended to end with Uncle Toby’s story from the novel’s inception.

Jefferson, D. W. “Tristram Shandy and the Tradition of Learned Wit.” In Laurence Sterne: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Traugott. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Locates Tristram Shandy in the satirical tradition of François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. Studies how Sterne juxtaposes the discourses of medieval cosmology, medicine, physiology, law, religion, and military science with human folly.

New, Melvyn. “Tristram Shandy”: A Book for Free Spirits. New York: Twayne, 1994. A helpful introduction designed for students. A discussion of the historical milieu, literary importance, and critical reception of Tristram Shandy precedes five different, often contradictory, readings of the novel. Includes a brief annotated bibliography.

Traugott, John. Tristram Shandy’s World: Sterne’s Philosophical Rhetoric. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954. Asserts that Sterne’s rhetorical project subverts John Locke’s rationalist doctrine of the association of ideas by positing the moral value of wit and human feeling. A valuable treatment of Sterne’s philosophy.

Zimmerman, Everett. “Tristram Shandy and Narrative Representation.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 28, no. 2 (Spring, 1987): 127-147. Engages eighteenth century historical scholarship to balance Sterne’s moral vision and the limitations of viewpoint, narrative, and representation as they are reflected in Tristram Shandy.


Critical Essays