Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Homosociality in Tristram Shandy (?) - Jesse Colin

I noticed in recent passages, that the most tender moments of connection between two people are those between Toby and Trim.  Tristram seems to view homo-social relationships much more positively than he does romantic relationships.  The affair between Widow Wadman and Toby is difficult, largely because Toby is so slow to pick up on Mrs. Wadman’s affection.  Also, the way she goes about seducing him is compared, openly, to battlefield combat.  On the contrary, Toby and Trim’s dialogue is never characterized by that same combative win/loss approach. 

                The relationship between Tristram’s father and mother is a difficult one as well.  His father blames his mother for the supposedly botched conception of Tristram and he is always speaking apparently without consideration for the feelings of his wife—who seems to be always sitting in the corner of the room biting her lip. 

                Trim’s amour with the fair Beguine seems like a more romantic one but understanding it as so gets complicated.  First, the woman claims that she is taking care of Trim out of her love for Christ.  This replaces Trim as the actual object of her affection.  Also, (though the passage is somewhat cryptic and censored) Toby says outright “It was not love.”  (pp519)

                The interactions between Toby and Trim are the most amicable ones in the story and they seem to have the most genuine affection for each other.  In fact, the two are a highly functional household and something like a family unit.  In Volume VIII, Trim says he thinks that he was meant to be wounded in battle so that he would wind up in the service of Toby “where I should be taken so much better care of in my old age.”  Toby replies, “It shall never, Trim, be construed otherwise.”  Tristram then notes, “The heart, both of the master and the man, were alike subject to sudden overflowings.”  (pp 115).

                The novel’s attitude towards romantic relationships can be called cautious at best.  But it does provide an alternative where men can find life-long companionship and even something functioning less like a master-servant relationship and more like a traditional family.  Do you think it is a major concern for Sterne to make a statement about the nature of relationships?  If so, what do you think is his general attitude toward them? 


  1. "Cautious" is a very good description of the certain relationships we see in the novel. Especially with Toby and Widow Wadman.. Toby seems to be a gentleman but is too focused in his inner world to see the major battle between women and men, although, to Walter, it's pretty evident. Tristram, the narrator, from my view of the readings, seems to have a very cynical view of relationships. And Toby being displeased when he finds out that Widow Wadman was curious about his "injury" to know if he was impotent shows how men in those times didn't like to be "messed with" (especially by women). I don't know if I'm making sense,.. but I guess we see a better example with Walter and his wife. The wife doesn't have a strong presence in the story, because Walter is always the louder one. And Walter's instructions for Toby in having sex... shows that he believes that men should dominate over women. It's like a battle. And Widow Wadman being curious about Toby and his injury, kind of emasculates him.

  2. Oh and I agree that in the story, men seem to get along fine with eachother. But when they get involved with the opposite sex, there seems to be much mind games and fear of vulnerability..

  3. I agree that the heterosexual relationships in the novel are treated tentatively. Both Christina and Jesse have pointed out the primary examples of this, primarily Widow Wadman and Uncle Toby. What I find more interesting, however, is what Jesse described as the homosocial relationships. Toby and Trim are probably the best example of this, and exemplify what today we would call a "bromance." The men of this story rely heavily on each other for advice, venting, and general confidence. Trim has to gently point out to Toby why Widow Wadman was curious about his injury, Walter has to give Toby "instructions" on sex, etc.

    I'm not sure if Sterne is making a sweeping comment about relationships or simply trying to frame Toby as a man hapless in relationships and dependent on the aid of his male friends. If he were making a statement, however, it may be that romantic relationships are secondary to friendships, and in some cases not worth the trouble. Keep in mind all of this part of the novel is exposition before Tristram's birth. The fact that his birth is what all of this is leading to seems a little anticlimactic; the product of his parents' romantic relationship is a bit of a letdown.

  4. Ah, 18C bromances. Helping a guy out 300 years before it was cool. I find Toby and Trim to be more like brothers than friends. Their interactions and how they get along definitely makes them seem like they have more than just a friendship (I'm talking blood relation here, not romantic) between them. I would agree that the novel seems to take the cautious road with relationships. Even from the interactions we saw with Toby and Widow Wadman and Trim and Beguine, we can see that while one party is smitten, the other is out to get something out of the situation. Beguine is just getting info for Widow Wadman, not that Trim minds necessarily, and Widow Wadman just wants to know if Toby is capable.

    I think something Sterne is getting at is that we put so much expectation into relationships that they constantly end up disappointing us. We think they're going to be these wonderful, magical, forever blissful situations and most of the time, they aren't. I think that Sterne is also attempting to show that relationships require work, they don't just happen. While Widow Wadman may have fancied Toby because he sort of blended in with the furniture, "true" happiness probably would never have come.

  5. The "battle" concept is a good one because it seems like many of the texts we've read have opposing points to make about the different sexes. Male protagonists typically have a strong moral compass, and female protagonists are in need of guidance. Each novel presents sexual tensions in a different way, and I believe that Stern is trying to portray the stability of males as opposed to females. He is continuing the stereotypes other novels have presented, but in a different way. Rather than focusing on moralizing some characters, his focus is on the gender relations. I think it is a concern because it seems to me as if he is done with attempting to moralize female characters to male ideas and suggesting to live in bromance as an alternative if one cannot find a suitable, moral female.

  6. I think that maybe Sterne was trying to make a statement about the difference between sexual/romantic relationships and the relationships between the friends of the same gender, such as Trim and Uncle Toby. Looking at all the romantic relationships between men and women in Tristram Shandy, they all seem to have some sort of issue that prevents them from being ideal; Sir Walter and Mrs. Shandy never seem to be on the same page, Tristram has problems in his physical relations with Jenny, and Widow Wadman will only peruse a relationship with Uncle Toby if she can confirm that he is able to be sexually active. The homosocial relationships in the novel, on the other hand, seem to be much more functional. Given this, I think that perhaps Sterne was trying to make the argument that relationships between men and women will somehow always come back to a sexual matter. The friendship between Uncle Toby and Trim on the other hand, seems to be very drama free. I think that, like Jesse suggested, perhaps Sterne is suggesting that a satisfying and life-long relationship can be of a non-sexual nature.