Tristram Shandy is governed by a tension between the seemingly haphazard way in which the story is put together and an overarching sense of authorial design. Which predominates? Is the author in control of his digressions (and merely affecting their spontaneity), or does the story actually run away from him and have to be reined back in?
Tristram wants the reader to believe that he never revises, that his pen leads him where it will, and that his book is comprised of whatever he happens to think of at a given moment. However, he also takes great pains to reassure his audience that he knows what he is doing, and that there is a reason for writing the book the way he does--a reason more convincing, perhaps, than his own mere whim. The work is obviously not as chaotic as Tristram suggests. Yet neither does it seem entirely appropriate to judge it under conventional standards of order and unity. In fact, the book warns us against trying to do so; we are afraid of being made to look like a Walter Shandy for trying to force our preconceived systems on subtle and complex reality.
Tristram suffers a series of early accidents which would be fairly trivial by any standard except his father's. To what extent do Walter's theoretical obsessions actually contribute to his son's misfortunes?
In a general way, Walter's preoccupation with eccentric hypotheses causes him to neglect the business of everyday life. His legalism about the terms of the marriage contract keeps Mrs. Shandy in the country for her confinement, leading at least indirectly to the flattening of Tristram's nose. His sympathy with Dr. Slop--another relative quack whose zeal for new instruments and methodologies Walter shares--may have encouraged a reckless medical procedure. The window-sash accident was not Walter's fault, but it was caused by the same kind of negligence and self-absorption (Corporal Trim's, in this case) that is characteristic of Tristram's father. And the Tristra-paedia, by means of which Walter means to regulate his son's education, becomes an end in itself, totally consuming Walter's attention. Walter's rigorous concern for his son's well-being at the theoretical level rarely translates into any practical results, and the series of coincidences into which Walter's theories play out may be meant to suggest that such obsessions can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
What is the effect of Tristram's frequent addresses to his audience?
Tristram refers to his reader variously as "Sir," "Madam," "your worships," "your reverences," and a number of other titles indicating gender and status. He thinks of his reader as a stranger with whom he would hope, during the course of the book, to become intimate. Eager to win approval, he is nevertheless fully aware that he, like Parson Yorick, might be taken to be offensive. But if Tristram realizes that the audience is in a position to question him, he also clearly thinks that one of his roles as a writer is to challenge the reader--to cause the reader to reflect on his or her own readerly practices and expectations and also to suggest the implications that may have for everyday life. At times, the narrator seems to know more about us, the audience, than we know about ourselves, managing to predict our responses even before we are fully aware of them. In a book that is self-confessedly engrossed with the mental life of a single character, this deep and serious engagement with the reader is part of what keeps the narrative from becoming merely a lengthy monologue.