Tristram Shandy begins his autobiographical tale with the story of his conception, in which his mother interrupts the sexual moment by asking an irrelevant question about the winding of the clock. The author speculates that the circumstances in which a child is conceived profoundly influence its eventual mind, body, and character. He laments his parents' careless demeanor at this decisive juncture: "had they duly consider'd how much depended on what they were then doing...I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world." As it stands, he blames his own "thousand weaknesses both of body and mind" on their negligence. Tristram reveals that the whole circumstance of his coming into the world occurred as a series of such accidents and misfortunes. Stating succinctly that he was born on November 5, 1718, he promises to give the full details of his birth eventually, but only after a detour through his "opinions." He admits from the beginning that his narration will be unconventional, and he begs the reader to be patient and to "let me go on, and tell the story in my own way."
Meandering through the history of the town midwife, Tristram takes the opportunity to satirize the obscure legal language of her license document. He also introduces the character of Parson Yorick, whom he relates to the jester Yorick in Hamlet and to Cervantes's Don Quixote. At the suggestion of his wife, Parson Yorick sponsors the training of the midwife as a service to the town. The parson actually stands to benefit personally from this benevolent gesture, since the townspeople were frequently borrowing his fine horses to ride the seven miles to the nearest doctor. In order to secure himself against charges of ulterior motives, he has vowed always to ride the decrepit old horse on which we now see him. Yorick's constant joking and acid wit make him many enemies; his unpopularity eventually drives him to a miserable early death.
The transition from the satire of legal language to the story of Yorick and his horses takes place by means of a brief, essayistic account of "hobby-horses": the narrow and often esoteric pursuits (hobbies, essentially) that interest people--often, to the point of obsession. The stories of Yorick and the midwife are also interrupted by the Dedication in Chapter 8, and by a passage in which Tristram forecasts his own literary fame. Tristram again defends his digressive style, promising "to go on leisurely, writing and publishing two volumes of my life every year" until he dies.
The marriage settlement between Tristram's parents stipulates that Mrs. Shandy could choose to bear her children in London, where she would find superior medical care. It also states, however, that if she made the trip to London on any false alarms, the husband could require her to stay in the country on the next occasion. This is the clause Walter Shandy invokes at the time of Tristram's birth. While Tristram thinks the legal arrangement, on the whole, a fair one, he thinks it "hard that the whole weight of the article should have fallen entirely, as it did, upon myself." He chalks this up as another one of his misfortunes, since it led him to be born with a flattened nose (the explanation about how this came to pass is deferred). Mrs. Shandy, since she cannot have "the famous Dr. Maningham" of London, insists on employing the midwife to deliver the baby--out of peevishness, Tristram suggests. Walter feels strongly that she should have Dr. Slop instead, and they finally agree to pay him to wait downstairs, in case of emergency.
Tristram introduces his father's theory that "there was a strange kind of magick bias, which good or bad names, as he called them, irresistibly impress'd upon our characters and conduct." The most disadvantageous name of all, and the one Walter most detests, is Tristram. The narrator declares that he cannot yet tell the story of how he came to be called Tristram, appealing to the necessity that "I should be born before I [am] christened." He follows this statement with a more academic version of the same argument (about the proper order of the rituals surrounding birth), quoting a long and abstruse document dealing with the question of whether fetuses can be baptized in the womb.
Walter and Uncle Toby sit downstairs while Mrs. Shandy is going into labor. Before any dialogue gets properly underway, Tristram interrupts to give an account of Toby's character, promising to return to their conversation subsequently. Toby, we learn (after a few asides about the English climate and the scandalous marriage of Aunt Dinah) is notable for his overweening modesty, the fuller explanation of which Tristram, as usual, reserves for later, telling us only that it stems from a wound to the groin that Toby received during the siege of Namur.
Tristram then enters into a digression on digressions, explaining that his work is both digressive and progressive. Though the story may sometimes seem to be sidetracked or standing still, he claims that it is actually moving forward all the while. He then returns to Toby's character, which he says will be best illustrated by means of his uncle's strange hobby-horse. He relates how Toby, after being wounded, spent four years confined to his bed, where he was frequently called upon by sympathetic visitors. They usually wanted to hear the story of his injury, a fact that caused Toby some consternation--for reasons that Tristram declines to supply until the next volume.
Tristram's story begins ab Ovo ("from the egg"), in defiance of the Homeric epic tradition that begins stories in the middle of things and then allows the background to unfold along with the action. The alternative, seemingly, would be to begin with the beginning; Tristram takes this possibility to an almost ludicrous extreme by beginning before the beginning, from his conception rather than his birth. This strategy leads him into the problem of relating events of which he could have no knowledge, which would call into question his status as an autobiographical narrator. He anticipates and answers this concern by explaining that he has learned the story of his conception from his Uncle Toby, who in turn heard it from Walter Shandy. The effect is to emphasize that Tristram's accounts are not fictional--but neither should we take them as perfectly objective. Tristram represents a type of authorial presence different from that of Sterne himself: he is not free to invent characters or imagine events, but rather filters a "real" world (and a drastically limited and personal one, with a radius of but five miles) through his own experience, memory, personality, and opinions.
It quickly becomes apparent that the chronology of the story will be more complex and unorthodox than just its ab Ovo beginning. The narrative oversteps its own declared limits, including events that took place long before even the night of conception, and also drawing Jenny, the author's companion as the story is being written, into the book. And not only does Tristam stretch his chronological coverage to its extreme possibilities, he also disrupts it internally by presenting events in the wrong order, interrupting one anecdote with others or with essayistic digressions, and scrambling the beginnings, middles, and ends of his sequences. Yet, he maintains, the story is going on all the while. This is largely true because the narrator's own voice and interpretations provide a source of continuity. By listening to Tristram, we are getting to know him, which was the whole point, and which takes precedence over the details of his birth, or any other single episode. "As you proceed further with me, the slight acquaintance that is now beginning betwixt us, will grow into familiarity; and...will terminate in friendship."
The idea of the hobby-horse, which is introduced casually here, will become a major thematic concern. There is nothing inherently sinister about these hobby-horses; most people have them, and Tristram confesses readily to having a few of his own (we are clearly to assume that his writing is one). But the novel will dramatize the way they can lead into a state of total self-absorption, when they become such a constant preoccupation that everything in the world gets subordinated to a single, all-consuming idea. In exploring this possibility, Sterne seems to see it as simply an extreme instance of what is already our innate psychological nature: drawing on Locke's chapter on association in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, he dramatizes the way ideas that seem to be unrelated become connected in our minds. The novel will explore the implications of these associations for scientific knowledge, for our everyday understanding of cause and effect, and for social interactions.
The digressiveness of the narrative, in the way it follows chains of association rather than sticking to a rigid, formal structure, is also a manifestation of this principle. Obsessively formal thinking can be a kind of hobby-horse. Walter is the prime example of this deluding approach to the world: "like all systematic reasoners, he would move both heaven and earth, and twist and torture everything in nature to support his hypothesis." The open form of Tristram's writing, then, is an effort to take in the world in all its variety and flux. It is a resistance, in part, to the distortions and manipulations that Tristam sees his father performing to force evidence for his preconceived ideas. It remains for the reader to decide whether Tristram's approach offers any more objective window on reality, or whether Tristram's own set of hobby-horses gives rise to just as much distortion.
Another open question is whether Sterne's attitude toward Tristram and his project is one of endorsement or irony. Tristram's frequent addresses to the reader (imagined variously and flexibly as Sir, Madam, Dear Reader, your worships, etc.) draw us into the novel. From Tristram's perspective, we are asked to be open-minded, and to follow his lead in an experimental kind of literary adventure. The gap between Tristram-the-author and Sterne-the-author, however, invites us not only to participate with Tristram, but also to assess his character and his narrative.