Reading Guide: Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne by Sir Joshua Reynolds

“Nothing odd will do long.   
Tristram Shandy did not last.
(Samuel Johnson in conversation with James Boswell, March 21, 1776)

"The writings of Sterne particularly form the best course of morality that was ever written."
(Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787)

Unlike any other Great Novel, Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is best taught in bits and pieces, rather than in its entirety.  Sterne didn't write it for C21 college students to read frantically in the two weeks allotted on a syllabus.  He wrote it, a few volumes at a time,  over a span of ten years,  which is the rate at which its first readers encountered it.  For this reason, we will not be reading the whole novel, but we'll be discussing excerpts from it throughout the semester.  You will need to be familiar with the parts we talk about  and how they fit into the whole, but you will not need to read (much less write about) the entire novel.

Some background to help orient your reading:

Tristram Shandy is the narrator of this novel, the full title of which is The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. "Gentleman" signifies "land-owning"--the land in question is centered around Shandy Hall, where Tristram's father, Sir Walter Shandy, lives and ineffectually manages his large estate.  Sir Walter has strong and eccentric opinions and spends most of his time buried in abstruse research to confirm his old views and develop new ones. Sir Walter has taken in his younger brother (Tristram's beloved Uncle Toby), a former military officer who has retired from active service due to injuries sustained in battle. Uncle Toby, aided by his sidekick, Corporal Trim, spends his time building miniature military fortifications on the grounds of his house, which abuts Shandy Hall.  Tristram is largely raised by his mother, with the help of the household servants. Mrs. Shandy makes only a few appearances in the novel (she spends substantial parts of the first few volumes giving birth to Tristram), but she is the only person in the household with a lick of common sense. Tristram has an older Brother Bobby who dies while Tristram is very young.  Parson Yorick is the local vicar (he is also the narrator of Sterne's only other novel, A Sentimental Journey); Doctor Slop is the doctor whom Sir Walter has hired for the birth of Tristram, even though Mrs. Shandy has insisted on being attended by a midwife. Susannah and Obadiah are servants.  The Widow Wadman and her servant Bridget live next door to Shandy Hall, and figure prominently in volumes VIII and IX. 

A few general guidelines for reading this book:
  • The footnotes are not always as helpful as one would like, but they are worth looking at, if only to become familiar with Sterne's patterns of allusion.  If you use a post-it note or bookmark to note your place in the footnotes (as well as the main text), it's easier to flip back and forth.
  • Early on in the novel, Sterne rebukes “a vicious taste which has crept into thousands…—of reading straight forwards more in quest of the adventures than of the deep erudition and knowledge which a book of this cast, if read over as it should be, would infallibly impart with them….” (I.xx.52).  Whether this taste for action is “vicious” or not, the sooner you are able to stop looking for a plot (“the adventures”) that isn’t there, the more you will enjoy the book. 
  • The book may lack a plot, but it does not lack structure.  Below you will find an "Outline" of the novel, which can help to keep you oriented to the events that take place and their relation to one another.
    • Sterne also advises his reader, “courteously give me credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon my outside;--and as we jogg on, either laugh with me, or at me, or in short, do any thing, only keep your temper” (  If you find it difficult to “keep your temper” as you read, think about why that is. 
    • If you find yourself thinking, as you read along, “Is Sterne talking about X?” where X = something smutty, you are probably right.


        Outline of Tristram Shandy[1]

         (Vol. 1, 1760)

        I.               Conception and factual announcement of birth, I:1 – I:5 (5 – 11)

        II.             Backgrounds of the birth—to prepare for the story of “how” Tristram was born, I:6 – I:19 (11 – 51)
        1.     Prologue: Tristram states his purposes, I:6 (11)
        2.     The midwife’s story—ostensibly—but mostly digressions
        a.     Digression on hobbyhorses, I:7 (12 – 13)
        b.     Mock dedication, I:8 – I:9 (14 – 17)
        c.     The history of Parson Yorick, I:10 – I:12 (15 – 32)
        3.     Parents’ marriage and marriage contract, I:13 – I:15 (33 – 39)
        4.     Mrs. Shandy’s false pregnancy of the previous year (which destines Tristram to be born in the country, I:16 – I:17 (39 – 41)
        5.     Parents debate whether to have a midwife or man-midwife, finally agreeing to have Dr. Slop in the house in case of emergency; otherwise the midwife will be in charge, I:18 (41 – 46)
        a.     The first digression on Tristram’s dear Jenny, I:18 (45 – 46)
        6.     Walter’s character as a man of hypotheses, which explains his interest in having a man-midwife present, I:19 (46 – 51)
        7.     Digression on Madam, the inattentive reader (includes the memorandum by the doctors of the Sorbonne on baptisms before birth), I:20 (51 – 56),

        III.           Birth scenes, I:21 – IV:13 (56 – 257)
        1.     Walter and Toby in the parlor hear the commotion upstairs as Mrs. Shandy’s labor begins (the brother’s remain together throughout the birth scenes I:21 (56)
        2.      Uncle Toby’s character, part 1: his modesty (the first of three long descriptions of him), I:21 – I:23 (58 –  67)
        a.     Includes story of Aunt Dinah, I:21 (58 – 62)
        b.     Includes digression on digressions, I:22 (63 – 64)
        3.     Uncle Toby’s character, part 2: his hobby, the explanation of which involves the history of his wound, his convalescence in Walter’s London house, where he begins his military studies in order to explain where and how he was wounded, I:23 – I:25 (64 – 70)

        (Vol. 2, 1760)

        4.     Uncle Toby’s character, continuation of part 2 (his hobby): the story of how Trim suggests a move to Toby’s cottage in Yorkshire next to his brother’s estate, Shandy Hall, so that they can build model fortifications on the bowling green (this earliest of the campaigns on the bowling green, terminating with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, will be taken up in more detail in volumes VI [399 – 427] and VII [506 – 522]; it is not to be confused with the later campaigns being waged in 1718 when Tristram was born, II:1 – II:5 (73 – 88)
        5.     Mrs. Shandy’s waters break, the midwife is fetched, and Dr. Slop arrives, II:6 – II:13 (88 – 102)
        6.     Symposium I (Walter, Toby, Slop, Trim), II:14 – II:11 (102 – 163)
        a.     Includes Trim’s reading of Sterne’s sermon The Abuses of Conscience, Considered, terminating in an “advertisement” for a collection of Sterne’s sermons, II:17 – II:27  (108 – 127)
        b.     Includes Walter’s theories on the brain and birth, taken largely from the medical works of Dr. John Burton, the model for Dr. Slop, all of which explains why Walter has insisted on Slop’s presence during the birth, II:19 (128 – 137)

        (Vol. 3, 1761)

        c.     Includes Dr. Slop’s reading of the anathema of Bishop Ernulph in order to curse Obadiah for so tightly tying up Slop’s bag that the doctor has cut his thumb when cutting the knot, III:10 – III:11 (150 – 163)
        7.     Dr. Slop is called upstairs to deliver the child, III:13 (166 – 170)
        8.     The Shandy brothers fall asleep; Tristram is born while they doze; Tristram the narrator makes use of the situation to present his “Author’s Preface,” III:18 – III:20 (170 – 182)
        9.     A squeaking hinge awakens the brothers; they learn of the birth and then of the baby’s crushed nose, III:21 – III:28 (182 – 194)
        10.  Walter Shandy falls on his bed in pain; his brother comforts him; they talk, III:29 – IV:5  (194 – 249)
        a.     Includes a digression on noses in the Shandy family and on misleading words, III:31 – III:33 (196 – 199)
        b.     Includes a description of Walter Shandy’s studies of noses, III:34 – IV:Slawkenburgius’s Tale (200 – 244)
        i.               Apostrophe to Uncle Toby, III:34 (202)
        ii.              Digression on learning and reading that concludes with the marbled page, III:35 (203 – 206)

        (Vol. 4, 1761)

        iii.            Slawkenburgius’s Tale (the prize item in Walter’s collection of nose lore), IV: 220 – 244.
        11.  The brothers rise, come downstairs, talking the while, IV:6 – IV:12 (244 – 256)
        a.     Digression on the making of chapters, IV:10 (253 – 254)
        12.   Tristram’s dissertation on time in writing and living, IV:13 (256 – 257)

        IV.           Baptism scenes, IV: 14 – IV:29 (259 – 297)
        1.     Susannah wakes Walter: the child in a fit is rushed to the curate and by error baptized with what his father thinks is the worst of all Christian names—Tristram, IV:14 – IV:19 (258 – 267)
        a.     A digression on sleep, IV:15 (259 – 262)
        b.     Walter’s “Lamentation,” IV:19 (266 – 267)
        2.     A digression on naming; the story of Francis I, IV:20 – IV:21 (268 – 270)
        3.     Tristam’s comment on the purpose of the book: wrote against spleen, IV:22 (270 – 271)
        4.     The vain attempt to change the child’s name; gathering legal opinion at the visitation dinner (with additional details in the history of Parson Yorick), IV:23 – IV:30 (271 – 298)

        V.             Death of Brother Bobby, IV:31 (298 – 301)
        1.     Walter ponders Bobby’s education and its cost IV:31 (298 – 301)
        2.     The death announced, IV:31 – IV:32 (301 – 303)
        3.     Tristram explains true Shandeism, IV:32 (303 – 304)

        (Vol. 5, 1762)

        4.     Tristram on writing and borrowing, V:1 (309 – 310)
        5.     The “Fragment on Whiskers” offered as a comment on the instability of words, V:1 (310 – 314)
        6.     Walter’s oration—his response to the news of Bobby’s death, V:2 – V:4 (314 – 322)
        7.     Mrs Shandy begins to listen from outside the door, V:5 (322 – 323)
        8.     The response of the servants in the kitchen and Trim’s oration, V:6 – V:11 (323 – 331)
        9.     Walter concludes his oration, Mrs. Shandy accuses him and learns of her son’s death, V:12 – V:14 (332 – 334)
        10.   Tristram on writing, which is like fiddling, V:15 (334 – 335)

        VI.           Rituals of initiation, puberty, education, V:16 – VI: 20 (336 – 399)
        1.     Walter writes a book on how to educate his son, the Tristrapoedia, V:16 (336 – 339)
        2.     The accidental circumcision of Tristram and Walter’s reaction, V:17 -  V:29 (339 – 350)
        3.     Symposium 2 (Walter, Toby, Yorick, Trim, Slop) on education, V:30 – VI:13 (350 – 390)
        a.     Includes Walter’s strictures on rote learning occasioned by Trim’s reading of the catechism, V:32 (353 – 354)
        b.     Includes Walter’s theory that the auxiliary verbs are the Northwest Passage to the intellectual world, V:42 – VI:2 (363 – 371)

        (Vol. 6, 1762)

        c.     Susannah and Dr. Slop, having been fighting instead of bandaging Tristram’s wound, accuse each other before Walter, VI:3 – VI:4 (372 – 373)
        d.     Includes the “Story of Le Fever” introduced because Le Fever’s son has been mentioned as a possible tutor for Tristram, VI:5 – VI:10 (373 – 385)
        e.     Yorick’s funeral sermon for Le Fever and the history of Le Fever’s son as Uncle Toby’s protégé, VI:11 – VI:14 (385 – 391)
        4.     Gossip about the circumcision leads the parents to debate (in the “beds of justice”) and then decide on putting Tristram into breeches—a sort of puberty rite, VI:15 – VI:19 (391 – 399)

        VII.         Uncle Toby’s campaigns on the bowling green—a preparation for the story of his amours of the Widow Wadman (these are the original bowling green campaigns, chronologically earlier than those that were going on when Tristram was born), VI:20 – VI:40 (399 – 427)
        1.     The progress of the hobby, VI:21 – VI:24 (399 – 406)
        2.     Trim invents a cannon that puffs, VI:24 – VI:28 (406 – 410)
        a.     A flash-ahead to the deaths of Trim and Toby, VI:25 (407 – 408)
        3.     Uncle Toby’s modesty, VI:29 (410 – 411)
        4.     The Treaty of Utrecht pputs an end to the campaigns, VI:30 (411 – 412)
        5.     Uncle Toby’s “Apologetical Oration” on military service, VI:31 – VI:32 (412 – 416)
        6.     Tristram tells us how to tell a story, VI:33 (416 – 417)
        7.     A prologue to the commencement of Mrs. Wadman’s campaign against Toby, which will be told in volume 8, VI:34 – VI:39 (417 – 425)
        8.     Tristram draws diagrams of his narrative and its digressions, VI:40 (425 – 427)

        (Vol. 7, 1765)

        VIII.       Tristram’s flight from death, channel crossing, trip through France, a narrative told chronologically but interspersed with satires on travel and travel literature and Tristram’s musings on life, VII:1 – VII:43 (431 – 486)
        1.     Includes the story of the abbess of Andouillets and her novice, Margarita, VII:21 – VII:25 (453 – 459)
        2.     Includes the Auxerre scene in which four Tristrams are discoverable, VII:27 – VII: 28 (461 – 465)
        3.     Includes the reverie in which Tristram implies that he is sexually impotent, VII:29 (465 – 466)
        4.     Includes the story of the ass and the commissary, VII:32 – VII:35 (470 – 476)
        5.     Includes the story of the lost remarks, VII:36 – VII:37 (476 – 477)
        6.     Includes the account of dancing with the peasants, VII:43 (482 – 486)

        (Vol. 8, 1765)

        IX.          Uncle Toby’s amours, part I: Mrs. Wadman wins Uncle Toby, VIII:1 – VIII:35 (489 – 539)
        1.     Tristram on love, and on writing and reading about it, VIII:1 – VIII:5 (491 – 493)
        2.     Mrs. Wadman falls in love, VIII:6 – VIII:10 (494 – 498)
        3.     Tristram continues to talk about love, VIII:11 – VIII:13 (499 – 501)
        4.     Mrs. Wadman plans an attack, VIII:14 – VIII:17 (501 – 505)
        a.     Contains a flash-back (flash-ahead?) to Symposium 1—Walter and Dr. Slop talk about the blind gut, VIII:15 (502)
        5.     Uncle Toby and Trim complete the destruction of Dunkirk in accordance with the Treaty of Utrecht and fall into a conversation, VIII:18 – VIII:22 (506 – 522)
        a.     Contains the unfinished story, “The King of Bohemia and His Seven Castles,” VIII:19 (506 – 517)
        b.     Contains Trim’s story of the fair Beguine who nursed him, VIII:20 – VIII:22 (517 - 522)
        6.     Mrs. Wadman makes her attack, VIII:23 – VIII:26 (522 – 526)
        7.     Uncle Toby in love; he and Trim prepare a counterattack, VIII:28 – VIII:31 (527 – 530)
        8.     Symposium 3 (Walter, Toby, Yorick, Slop, Mrs. Shandy, Trim), on love, VIII:32 – VIII:33 (531 – 534)
        9.     Walter Shandy writes his brother advising him about love, VIII:34 (534 – 538)
        10.  Toby and Trim continue preparations for the counterattack, VIII:35 (538 – 539)

        (Vol. 9, 1767)

        X.            Uncle Toby’s amours, part II: Mrs. Wadman loses Uncle Toby, IX:1 – IX:33 (545 – 588)
        1.     The counterattack—on Mrs. Wadman’s house, observed by Walter and Mrs. Shandy, IX:1 – IX:11 (545 – 559)
        a.     Includes the story of Trim’s brother Tom and the Jew’s widow and that of the black girl, IX:4 – IX:7 (549 – 554)
        b.     Includes the digression on time, dear Jenny, and the swiftness with which life passes, IX:8 (554 – 556)
        2.     Tristram discourses on the need for a balance in fiction of wisdom and folly, IX:12 – IX:15 (559 – 563)
        3.     The courtship commences in Mrs. Wadman’s parlor, IX:16 – IX:25 (563 – 578)
        a.     Includes two blank chapters, IX:18 – IX:19 (565 – 566)
        b.     Includes a digression on Uncle Toby’s potency, IX:22 (569 – 570)
        c.     Includes an “Invocation” to the spirit of Cervantes, which becomes the story of Tristram’s meeting mad Maria in France—an “advertisement” for A Sentimental Journey, IX:24 (571 – 574)
        d.     The two blank chapters now supplied, IX:25 (575 – 578)
        4.     Mrs. Wadman makes inquiries about Toby’s health, IX:26 (578 – 580)
        5.     Trim begins his own courtship of Bridget, Mrs. Wadman’s maid, and discovers how anxious Mrs. Wadman is about Toby’s potency, IX:27 – IX:29 (581 – 583)
        6.     Uncle Toby’s eyes are opened: he goes to his brother for advice, IX:30 – IX:32 (583 – 586)
        7.     Symposium 4 (Walter, Toby, Yorick, Slop, Mrs. Shandy, Trim), also on love, IX:33 (586 – 588)

        [1] Adapted from Arthur H. Cash, “A South West Passage to the Intellectual World” in Approaches to Teaching Tristram Shandy, edited by Melvyn New (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1989): 36 – 40.