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Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

Volume 7

Volume 6

Volume 8

Summary

Tristram reminds the reader of his vow to write two volumes a year as long as he should have health and spirits. His spirits have not yet failed him, but he begins to worry that his deteriorating health may prevent him from continuing his project. Tristram resolves, therefore, to run from death, "for I have forty volumes to write, and forty thousand things to say and do, which no body in the world will say and do for me, except myself." This is the motivation with which he turns his footsteps to Dover to begin his European tour.

After a fairly rough passage, Tristram arrives in Calais. He debates with himself about whether he should give a written account of the town, as many a travel-writer has done before him. He thinks it a shame "that a man cannot go quietly through a town, and let it alone." Yet he tries his hand at describing the place anyway, recording impressions of its church, square, town-hall, and seaside quarter, and adding a few remarks about its strategic location and history. He refrains at the last minute from reproducing Rapin's fifty-page account of the siege of 1346.

After passing quickly through Boulogne, Tristram complains about the state of French transportation: something is always breaking down. Once in Montreuil, he devotes most of his attention to Janatone, the inn-keeper's daughter. She is more worth describing than any architectural wonder, he says, because "thou carriest the principles of change within thy frame." Feeling Death still pursuing him, Tristram travels on to Abbeville. He expresses his disdain for the accommodations there, observing that he would rather die in an inn than at home, provided it was not this one.

Still eager to get to Paris, Tristram expresses frustration at the near-impossibility of sleeping in a stagecoach. The horses change so often that he must rouse himself every six miles to pay. Once in Paris, Tristram makes a quick and mathematical survey of the city's streets and bemoans the difficulty of finding hotel rooms there. Apologizing that he cannot stay to provide a proper travelogue view of the Parisian scene, Tristram is quickly back on the road. This time he complains about the slow pace of French travel and informs us that there are two sure-fire words for getting a French horse to move. To elaborate, Tristram offers an anecdote about an abbess, which reveals that the French words sound like English obscenities.

Tristam makes short work of summarizing Fontainbleau, Sens, Joigny, and Auxerre. Then he is reminded of a previous trip to Europe during his youth, when he visited many of these same places with the rest of the Shandy family (except for his mother). His father's eccentricities gave that trip its defining character, and it retains a peculiar cast in Tristram's memory. After describing some of those earlier adventures, Tristram lingers with some awe over the way his narrative has overlapped itself; he observes, "I have got entirely out of Auxerre in this journey which I am writing now, and I am got half way out of Auxerre in that which I shall write hereafter."

Tristram is forced to sell his coach as he enters Lyons, it having become too dilapidated to be of any further use. Once in town, he meets with "Vexation upon Vexation." He makes friends with an ass, dubbing it "Honesty" and feeding it a macaroon. Someone else enters and drives the ass away, and Tristram's pants are slashed in the process. He then learns that he is expected to pay "some six livres odd sous" at the post office for his carriage to Avignon. Protesting that he has decided to book passage on a boat instead, Tristram finds that he is still considered liable for the money. When he realizes the case is hopeless, he tries to get a few good jokes out of the situation to make it worth the expense, and winds up feeling satisfied. Then Tristram finds that he has left his notes in the chaise and rushes back for them, only to discover that they have been converted into curling papers. He recovers them with fairly good humor, remarking that "when they are published...they will be worse twisted still."

In the south of France, Tristram feels he has left Death behind. Traveling across the plains of Languedoc on a mule, he comments, "There is nothing more pleasing for a traveler--or more terrible to travel-writers, than a large rich plain; especially if it is without great rivers or bridges; and presents nothing to the eye, but one unvaried picture of plenty." He gives a sample of his own "Plain Stories" and promises more of them some day, but now alleges that he must return to the story of Uncle Toby's romance. He ends by wishing wistfully that he could live out the remainder of his life in such contentment as he enjoys while dancing with Nanette, a "nut brown" village maid.

Commentary

With this volume, Tristram disrupts the patterns his narrative has followed so far. Rather than continuing to build (however haltingly) toward the story of Uncle Toby's romance, he shifts the scene far from the Shandy household in order to relate his own travels to the Continent. From the moment he arrives in Calais, Tristram begins to parody the conventions of travel-writing. He questions whether the sights he sees are worth describing at all, and then describes Calais in such a way as to make it sound identical to any other place. He is more interested in people (even fictional ones) than places, and brags that "by seizing every handle, of what size or shape soever, which chance held out to me in this journey--I turned my plain into a city--I was always in company." He claims to have learned a great deal about human nature as a result.

His ultimate interest, nevertheless, is in himself: not only his own opinions and wanderings, but the strange interaction between the text's own present and past. The number of Tristrams (Tristram depicted simultaneously at different points of his life) we have access to is multiplied in this section. The narrative contains two: the young man on the Grand Tour with his family, and the older man who feels the presence of Death and worries about being able to finish his writing. The voice of the author is still separate from both of these: he is no longer in France, but has returned to his study to record these fairly recent adventures. The author is enchanted with this strange phenomenon of memory by which lived repetitions can create a doubleness in memory.

For all the discussion about fleeing Death, Tristram still does not betray any real anxiety about his health or his mortality. He declares from the beginning of the volume that his spirits never fail him, and the narrative testifies to the truth of that claim. He is as exuberant and farcical as ever. Nor has he lost any of his ribaldry. He continues to make fun of the prudish morality he expects from his reader, as in the story of the Abbess. The Abbess is both more and less modest than Tristram, for it is she who reveals the dirty words that he so scrupulously withholds, yet he mocks her elaborate measures not to actually say the words. This episode is meant to expose the legalistic absurdity of prudish standards of decency. Tristram is aware that even the most censorious readers have two ears--one that cranes toward the bawdy, and another that is repelled.

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