The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman Summary

Written by Lawrence Stern, the novel Tristram Shandy talks about the conditions that led to certain events that are heavily related to Tristram Shandy himself. The narration is done through portrayed incidents derived from family, narrations, essays and etc. that all help build up the character of Tristram Shandy. The process is not chronological. Instead, the writer makes sure to include all the events that had taken place and are important to the development of Tristram’s character. The novel is separated by different books which shows Tristram from being born, developing a personality, harboring opinions to basically his perspective on life in general. The story has a way of showing the history of Tristram’s family in order to offer the conditions where Tristram had been brought up and how it ended up affecting him mentally.

Book 1-6 speaks about the basics of Tristram coming into this world: his birth, conception and his naming. During his conception, there was an involvement of a smashed nose, which is superstitiously believed to bring bad luck to people. His name Tristram is supposed to be the worst name that a child can have. Many of the events that had taken place during his birth pointed to the baby bringing ill luck to the family and how everything is at the wrong place for Tristram from the beginning. The entirety of Book 1 to Book 6 goes on talking about the events of showing how much high hopes the family, especially Tristram’s father Walter Shandy, had for his child. The books are especially elaborates on the family’s image and Tristram’s coming into the world. But these were very important events that were necessary to be set for the character development of Tristram to be as grave and deep as possible. Tristram’s naming was a complete misunderstanding that ended up becoming the identity of the child. Through Walter Shandy’s narrative, all the incidents that have happened to Tristram were magnified as ten times worse than it actually was. Maybe it was due to the prior attention to superstitions that had affected his father’s perspective, which is why even a normal incident seemed like a sign of a peril for him. He continually expressed his frustration towards Tristram about how he never gets his point. This was a smart way of showing a contrast between the family’s ideologies and the saturated ones of Tristram. Walter Shandy kept on referring to his family history and to everything that their thoughts revolved around just so that the readers would understand how much protruded Tristram’s views were considered to be. Walter talked about the theory of “radical heat and radical moisture” stating "if a child, as he grows up, can but be taught to avoid running into fire or water, as either of 'em threaten his destruction, — 'twill be all that is needful to be done upon that head." This analogy is seen to differ highly from the view point of Tristram and Toby. Toby defended his own theory by stating "by reinforcing the fever . . . with hot wine and spices . . . so that the radical heat stood its ground from the beginning to the end, and was a fair match for the moisture, terrible as it was." This infuriated Walter but Yorick stopped him from creating a scene and instead, he asks Corporal Trim to give his input into the matter.

Book 7 of the novel then jumps to the part of the timeline where Tristram was supposedly sent to France for treatment. He then experienced the French culture and witnessed the communication between himself as a “foreigner” and the French as “natives”. Tristram found it rather interesting how two people from different cultures were not able to understand each other’s perspectives and how hard it really is to communicate in real life. Tristram’s little anecdotes on the “remark upon Avignon” was his way of stating how the guidebooks are never truly helpful or that they eventually cease to particularly “guide” anyone. Other than this incident, he is seen to be living his life to the fullest. He remained unbothered about the whole ordeal and went on flirting around and wandering the streets of France. It is very interesting to observe is how he kept his cool and remained calm about his current medical conditions that were hinted to suggest that he might be nearing his death. Even though he was aware of his imminence to death, it never succeeded in taking away the light from him. Tristram is not portrayed as a direct hopeless romantic, but he does wish to have a pretty picture perfect life where everything happens the way he wants. It was not clear whether he wanted to be idyllic or he felt it necessary because of his given conditions. Uncle Toby always sparked his interest in romance as he always told him stories from his past about his own love tales.

Book 8 and 9 is a narration from Uncle Toby who talks about his affair with Widow Wadman. Here, Tristram is the one who narrates the affairs of Uncle Toby in details. It can be seen from his way of writing the narration that he too, was very interested in the affairs and this may have ignited the curiosity of romance within him. Tristram is very specific about the details of the story. There are also a few political and geographical additions that cause him to get derailed very fast from the actual context of the story. It also speaks of a few injuries that Uncle Toby had incurred during his time in the war. Even though he had become entirely incapable of rejoining the army, he still could not get over his thrill of being in a battlefield and also could not stop talking about his experiences with his nephew. The story definitely derails from Tristram’s background and focuses more on the family side.

The entirety of the second part of the novel is comprised of Uncle Toby’s affair. In these chapters of conclusion, it is also shown how Mr and Mrs. Shandy had not approved of the fact that Tristram was always with Toby and was very much under his influence. The author is very attentive to the details of Tristram’s surroundings - how his parents moved their eyes, strolled about and etc. The story continues with how Toby became obsessed with recreating all those events all by himself. The Peace of Utrecht made him calm down a little bit but that was also the path that led him to falling for Widow Wadman completely. The novel then takes farewell on the note of an incomplete love-affair tragedy.

Even though the novel had started with a very definite motive of developing the character of Tristram and what seemed to be the reason behind his bad luck and the following series of ill events, it eventually became very family centric. The author and even Tristram himself in his own narrative spend pages constantly speaking of derailing from the original subject as can be proven by the jump from Book 1 to Book 6 that showed a huge difference in the narration. Nowhere was it ultimately properly mentioned about what had been wrong with Tristram for which he had travelled to France. Through Tristram, the author showed his experiences on life, which he took not just from his own family but also from other surroundings. He was developed into a character with great observation skills. He was also very experimental. He would do certain things, mostly unconventional, just to see how the outcome would result to. This trait had developed from a very early age as can be seen from how when his father had proposed an analogy regarding Tristram’s condition, Tristram had denied it and provided his own logic behind his rebuttal as well. This is probably the reason why the background of his family was so important to be the story and why the author took his sweet time of six books to develop just the backdrop of Tristram’s family background. In France, he was also shown to be carefree even though it was hinted that he was nearing his death. This was the ill luck, which everyone had been associating him with but a fact that had not fazed him at all. Maybe he had been theorizing the concept of being cursed since a young age and hence it did not affect him in any emotional way. If anything, he was seen living in France as he had always wished to. He had a playful nature, had a charming personality that was more than enough to swoon his targets. He was seen to be doing exactly that. He continued to live life even with the thought of death residing in his surroundings. Uncle Toby’s romantic tales were also a motivating factor, a foreshadowing in his own character that developed his romantic interests. But it could also have been a digression as it had been since the beginning of the series.