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Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

Volume 1

Summary Volume 1


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.