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Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

Summary and Analysis Book 4: Chapters 23-31


Walter Shandy and Parson Yorick discuss the possibility of renaming the child. The only way they can find out for certain is by discussing the matter thoroughly with the learned church lawyers and divines. They will do this at a dinner, and Toby will go along.

Tristram has torn a chapter from the book (Chapter 24), and he explains what was in it and why he did it. It contained a description of the journey on horseback of Walter, Toby, and Trim to the dinner.

The family coach has a coat of arms with a bend sinister (a bar indicating that the family has a bastard in its origins) — painted in by mistake but thus far uncorrected. Walter refuses to ride in a coach "carrying this vile mark of Illegitimacy upon the door," and he decides that they will travel by horse. The description of that journey, says Tristram, is "so much above the stile and manner of any thing else I have been able to paint in this book, that it could not have remained in it, without depreciating every other scene." Proportion is most important: "be but in tune with yourself, madam, 'tis no matter how high or how low you take it." The risk of inserting the missing chapter is this: "A dwarf who brings a standard [yardstick] along with him to measure his own size . . . is a dwarf in more articles than one."

Kysarcius and Didius expostulate with Parson Yorick because the latter cut up his sermon — the one he had just delivered — and lighted his pipe with it (the dinner is over and they are sitting around the table eating roasted chestnuts and smoking). Yorick explains that because of the trouble he had in composing that sermon, he is taking his revenge on it. Phutatorius exclaims "Zounds!" at that point, and Uncle Toby thinks that the oath signifies that he is about to attack Yorick. He is wrong, however: a hot chestnut has fallen from the table into Phutatorius' open fly without his noticing it, and the heat has finally gotten through to him. He manages to draw it forth and throw it to the floor. When Yorick picks it up — he considers "a good chestnut worth stooping for" and that one "not a jot worse for the adventure" — Phutatorius is convinced that Yorick had somehow managed to drop the chestnut into his breeches. Thus, Yorick has another enemy.

A discussion follows on the best treatment for a chestnut burn, "for one would not apply to a surgeon in so foolish an affair," says Phutatorius. The conclusion is that a "soft sheet of paper just come off the press" is best: the dampness of the paper, the "oil and lamp-black with which the paper is so strongly impregnated" will do the job. "You need do nothing more than twist it round," advises Eugenius. It happens that the second edition of Phutatorius' book On Keeping Concubines is just coming off the press; the company, however, advise him not to use the paper from that book.

The Learned Men get to work on the problem of Tristram's name. They discuss the cases in which baptism would be invalid. Getting off onto other subjects, they bring up the point that legally, "the mother is not of kin to her child." They discuss at length the case of the Duchess of Suffolk, found by the law courts to be unrelated to her son and therefore not able to inherit his property. Toby is about to whistle "Lillabullero," but he desists when Walter begs him not to.

The discussion of Tristram's naming comes to nothing, and even though Walter was "hugely tickled with the subtleties of these learned discourses," he is as unhappy as before about Tristram's name. A legacy of a thousand pounds, left to him by his Aunt Dinah, raises his spirits and distracts him for a while. But then the question of what to do with the money begins to weigh on him. Many projects occur to him, the final two being whether to clear a large piece of land — the Ox-moor — or to send his older son, Bobby, on a tour of the Continent (a tradition in the Shandy family). On the one hand, the Ox-moor, which had already cost him a good deal in original purchase price and in a lawsuit, would produce a good income when cleared, cultivated, and planted; on the other hand, Bobby was entitled to the advantages of travel.

Walter cannot decide which course to take and he would have "certainly sunk under this evil . . . had he not been rescued out of it . . . by a fresh evil." The matter is solved for him by the death of Bobby.

Pointing out that he is heir-apparent from this time forward because of Bobby's death, Tristram says that this is where his Life and Opinions should have begun. He renews his complaint about how many things have to be written about; therefore, he names this his Chapter of Things, and he promises a Chapter on Whiskers the very first chapter of his next volume — "in order to keep up some sort of connection in my works." He regrets that he has not yet been able to get to the "choicest morsel" of this work: the story of his Uncle Toby's "amours." He assures the reader, however, that when he finally does tell that story, it will redeem the entire book. He mentions his "dear Jenny" (that is, "the thing to be concealed"), and he reaffirms his earlier statement about the physiological value of his book: "True Shandeism . . . opens the heart and lungs, . . . forces the blood and other vital fluids of the body to run freely thro' its channels, and makes the wheel of life run long and chearfully round."

He takes his leave, promising to present the next installment in a year, "(unless this vile cough kills me in the mean time)." It will present a story "you little dream of."


The "torn-out chapter" (Chapter 24) is another reminder of Tristram's craftsmanship, his intention to control what goes into his story, where it goes, and what relationship it should have to the whole work. Although he is exaggerating in his usual tongue-in-cheek way, we have no reason to consider it just a joke. He often speaks of the details of writing with frequent reference to reputable authorities, and the principle he says he is following — that of being "in tune," consistent, in his writing — is certainly a valid one. He pokes fun at himself in speaking of his writing as that of a dwarf (rather than of a literary giant), but he is clever enough to know that the outstanding passage would make his average production seem less valuable. This thesis is convincing, even if we don't believe he really had written and then torn out a passage. He is a purposeful author, and he wants his readers to know that he is. The entire business is just another problem a writer has, and Tristram is always asking himself the question he presents in Book 4, Chapter 10: "Is a man to follow rules — or rules to follow him?"

The family coach with the "bend sinister" is another instance of how little things don't get done, no matter how irritating they are. The painting out of the erroneous line would require little more effort than the "three drops of oyl with a feather" to remove the squeak from the parlor door. But Shandys tackle only big problems.

The dinner of the Learned Men (the "Visitation Dinner") is presented in medias res, and somewhat past that point. The men have met, have eaten, and are just about to begin their discussion, a discussion that bears no fruit, offers no consolation to Walter. Although the fine legal points delight Walter, especially the case that proves that the mother and her child have no legal kinship, the basic problem remains unsolved. Tristram makes fun of the pedantry that makes such a contention, and he puts it into perspective by showing its effect on Uncle Toby, the literal-minded man who asks what the Duchess of Suffolk had to say about the decision that her son was not related to her.

The chestnut burn offers the occasion for another piece of bawdiness, and the learned men (including Yorick and Eugenius) exercise their wit in discussing remedies.

Walter Shandy is always Walter Shandy, and when he is rescued from his dilemma of what to do about Tristram's name by the legacy, he is immediately back on the horns of a new dilemma: clear the Ox-moor or send Bobby on a trip. As we see shortly, indecision is so painful to him that he is grateful for any solution, regardless of the consequences.

Tristram again indulges his fancy in holding a carrot before the horse — the reader — by only mentioning Bobby's death. But the trick keeps us going forward until we come at last to the details. He takes seriously the business of "some sort of connection" in his work; Bobby's death will carry us over to the next installment, just as will the promise of a Chapter on Whiskers (whatever that might be). The most important promise, however, is the story of Uncle Toby's "amours": that is what kept the eighteenth-century reader afloat. He will finally keep that promise too. Whether it is the "choicest morsel" of the book is for the reader to decide, but it is worth pointing out that if a book such as this depends on one "choicest morsel" for its justification, it probably isn't a very important book. The best thing is to consider this as another Shandean statement and put it in its place next to all the Shandean characteristics that make up the book.

This final chapter of Book 4 is designed to hook the reader: the author lists the things that he intends to do as a bridge between the present section and the forthcoming ones. He coyly says that he will continue to say nothing about his "dear Jenny," he reminds the reader that humor is the basic justification for his book because it keeps the reader healthy by stimulating the "vital fluids" in their appropriate functioning, and he promises the reader an extraordinary story if the reader will read the next installment.

(The "vile cough" that he warns may kill him in the meantime does finally kill Laurence Sterne in 1768, a year after the ninth book of Tristram Shandy.)