Sunday, November 13, 2011

For Credit: Volume VIII of Tristram Shandy

A few things to know about this volume:
  • At this point in the novel, the narrator has been promising, for hundreds of pages now, to tell the story of Uncle Toby's amours with the Widow Wadman (which took place before Tristram was born).  Now at last he can digress no longer but has to start the narrative, which will take him through to the end of the novel (we'll read Volume IX for Thursday).
  • Uncle Toby lives next door to Walter Shandy, with his loyal servant, Corporal Trim.  Toby and Trim spend their days building miniature military fortifications on the grounds of the Shandy manor (you will recall that it was their need of metal to melt down that caused the weights and pulleys to be removed from the window that fell, circumcising wee Tristram).
  • Uncle Toby was prompted to this labor in part by the number of people asking him, as he convalesced from the groin wound that ended his military service, "Where did you get wounded?"  The question is motivated by prurient curiosity: people want to know if his genitals are still whole and potent.  Toby, however, who is modest and clean-minded, interprets the question to mean "Where on the field of battle did you get wounded?"  He's found maps and diagrams inadequate to explain--hence the miniature fortifications. 
  •  Note the "Reading Guide" linked to over there under "Required Reading" in the sidebar!  It has an outline of the chapter.
 Some issues to consider as you read (feel free to address any of them--just specify which):

1.  What kind of commentary is Sterne making on fiction in general and love stories in particular?
2.  What's going on with The Story of the King of Bohemia and His Seven Castles?
3.  How would you describe the advice Sir Walter give his brother in the letter he writes him on p. 536 - 538?  What does it tell you about Sir Walter?
4.  What questions do you have?
5.  Would Tristram agree with the sexist humor of the image below, which has been circulating on Facebook?

Deadline: Tuesday (11/15), start of class.


  1. 3. I found the "advice" very calculating and strange. It's kind of ridiculous in that it's so self-protective. He has to pray that he won't be tempted by the evil one. He must "recommend thyself to the protection of the Almighty God." (531) It kind of goes along with what Tristram thinks of love. "Devilish affairs of life- the most" "misgiving" "ridiculous" "pragmatical" (500-501)
    Walter Shandy seems to be calculative with a lot of things and tries to form theories and formulas on life and procreation.

  2. And yes, haha! I think Tristram would agree with the picture above. :P

  3. 3. The advice Sir Walter gives to his brother, Toby, is ridiculously hilarious. Walter cautions his brother to ensure his pants aren't too lose or too tight so as to avoid completely obscuring or showing off his manhood, the justification being to "prevent all conclusions" (494 - my page numbers are off). Walter also suggests that Toby shave his head to hide any evidence of baldness (because baldness somehow corresponds to sexual impotency or a lack of sexual desire), and to limit the conversation to a minimum (especially on the widow's end), being sure that anything that does get said is spoken in only the softest of bedroom voices. In typical Tristam-Shandy fashion, Walter takes himself just serious enough to taint his advice with irony and humor.
    The strangest aspect of the advice, in my opinion, was that, after taking the time to explain how to best seduce the widow, Walter then offers helpful suggestions for how to minimize sexual desire via the use of herbal remedies. Now, unless I've misread or misinterpreted something here, this seems completely contrary to the way the letter opens. Why is it that, after urging his brother to perfect his bedroom voice and make sure that both he and his lover treat lust with the utmost respect (no laughing at books or any of that nonsense), Walter then offers up solutions to lust like vervain and hanea?

  4. 3 & 4:

    Taylor mentions it briefly, but I was particularly struck by the segment of this little advice column wherein Walter suggests Toby shave his head to hide any baldness. Speaking personally, when I read it I immediately hearkened back to an old Seinfeld episode where Elaine is dating a guy who routinely shaves his head, and has been doing so for years, only to start growing out his hair per her request. After a few weeks though, it starts to come in patchy and he realizes he's unknowingly been going bald for years, something that causes Elaine to then abandon him in short order.

    My question then is Walter generations ahead of his time in suggesting that baldness might be unfavorable to women? Or was that not really a factor in his suggestion at all, and did it have more to do with the notions Taylor mentioned like impotency or a lack of any sexual desire at all?

    That was just something that struck me as interesting the first time I read it.

  5. I find the baldness and patches to signify the limited basis for sexual desire from the 18th century. In my opinion this is a very limited world compared to ours, and the sexual desire is limited by what falls into place. As for the picture, I personally found it hilarious and believe that Tristram would as well.