Tristram Shandy

by: Laurence Sterne

Volume 5

Summary Volume 5

Tristram's diatribe against borrowing from other authors sounds strikingly modern. He wrote in a time when good writing was supposed to be conventional and allusive, almost by definition; it was not until the Romantic period that originality became the cardinal literary virtue. Yet despite the progressiveness of the sentiment, we are forced to recognize that its author draws unabashedly from every source he can lay his hands on, albeit often putting his borrowed materials to strikingly new and original uses.

In chronicling the family's reactions to the news of Bobby's death, Tristram paints a balanced and thorough portrait of the various members of the household, their mannerisms, and their preoccupations. The tragic event of a family member's death, rather than bringing the household together, sends them each spinning off into their own private orbits. However, Tristram does not sentimentalize this fact any more than he does the fact of his brother's death. The story marches on, and the segment closes with Trim's reference to the story of Lieutenant Le Fever, a thread Tristram will pick up again later.

Walter hopes to compensate for the disasters of Tristram's conception, nose, and name by ensuring that his education is conducted flawlessly. The paradox of the Tristra-paedia is that even though it is meant to regularize Tristram's education, it actually becomes a source of its neglect. "He advanced so very slow with his work," Tristram tells us, "and I began to get forwards at such a rate," that the Tristra- paedia project becomes an exercise in futility. Tristram compares it with "drawing a sundial, for no better purpose than to be buried underground." Thus the project offers another example of the built-in obsolescence of writing. Like Tristram's own book, the Tristra-paedia fails to keep pace with the passage of time in the real world.

Tristram's accidental circumcision is not as grave, from either his father's point of view or his own, as his other mishaps. The scene unfolds as a comedy, and Tristram declines to draw out "the great moral" that is imbedded in this story, claiming to be too busy. In reality, the moral is double: the foolish fortification project has gotten so out of hand, and has so consumed the attention and distorted the judgment of its players, that it has begun to impinge on the everyday lives of the family in ways that are truly dangerous. On the other hand, Tristram credits Trim for his integrity in confessing his own fault when he could have allowed Susannah to take the blame; "How would your honors have behaved?" he asks his audience.