Tristram Shandy By Laurence Sterne Summary and Analysis Book 7: Chapters 29-43

Summary

As he said at the end of the previous chapter, Tristram has coach trouble before he gets to Lyons. He sells the wreck, thinking, as he collects the money, about his ability to salvage something out of every disaster (including a sexual one involving his "dear Jenny").

In Lyons, he intends to see the "great clock of Lippius of Basil," "the thirty volumes of the general history of China, [written] . . .in the Chinese character," "the house where Pontius Pilate lived," and the tomb of the two unfortunate lovers, Amandus and Amanda. (First, he learns that the putative house of Pontius Pilate is in the next town, not in Lyons.) The story of the unfortunate lovers, separated for most of their lives, appeals strongly to him: when they were finally reunited, "they fly into each others arms, and both drop down dead for joy."

On his way to the sights, he is stopped by an ass eating "turnip tops and cabbage-leaves," which is blocking the gate. "Honesty," as he calls the ass, is eating a bitter artichoke stem, and Tristram is moved to feed him a cookie: "Thou hast not a friend perhaps in all this world that will give thee a macaroon." Lest the reader think him sentimental, Tristram confesses that there was more of interest in "seeing how an ass would eat a macaroon — than of benevolence in giving him one." Someone beats the ass and drives it away, and Tristram's breeches are torn by a ragged edge of the pannier.

His trousers fixed, he sets out again; at the same spot he meets the person who had driven off the ass. It is a "commissary" who has come to collect "some six livres odd sons" that Tristram supposedly owes for the coach trips he has canceled. Having decided to continue his journey by boat, Tristram doesn't see why he should also pay for the coach he isn't taking: "Bon Dieu! what, pay for the way I go! and for the way I do not go!" The commissary points out that he may go by coach if he chooses. Seeing that he must finally pay, Tristram decides to get his money's worth; he plays the part of the persecuted foreigner. The commissary patiently explains that if one decides to discontinue his journey by coach, he must give notice two stops before; since Tristram didn't do this, he must pay the fare for two more stops.

Tristram feels that he has had his money's worth in wisecrack repartee so he is content to note down his witty remarks. He suddenly discovers that his sheaf of notes (his "remarks") is missing, he remembers that he left them in the pocket of his coach, and he runs back to the purchaser's house. There he discovers that his remarks have been used as curl-papers, twisted around the hair of a "French woman's noddle." She gives them up graciously, and he collects them in his hat, remarking that when they are published, "they will be worse twisted still."

Lippius' clock — one of his sight-seeing targets — "was all out of joints, and had not gone for some years." He doesn't mind: "It will give me the more time . . . to peruse the Chinese history." As he gets near the college of the Jesuits, where the books are kept, he decides that he doesn't want to see them after all; he is anxious only to see the Tomb of the Lovers, and he rushes there eagerly: "Tender and faithful spirits! cried I, addressing myself to Amandus and Amanda — long — long have I tarried to drop this tear upon your tomb — I come — I come — When I came — there was no tomb to drop it upon."

"Let me get rid of my remark upon Avignon," Tristram says. He decides that it may be too much of a generalization to say that "Avignon is more subject to high winds than any town in all France," merely because his hat was blown off the first night he was there.

Having arrived in the south of France, Tristram feels that he has successfully left Death behind. He changes his mode of travel and decides to "traverse the rich plains of Languedoc" by mule. He observes that "there is nothing more pleasing to a traveller — or more terrible to travel-writers, than a large rich plain"; the latter have nothing to comment about: "They have then a large plain upon their hands, which they know not what to do with — and which is of little or no use to them but to carry them to some town."

After a bit of commerce — he buys some ripe figs, planning to get the basket with them, finds two dozen eggs under them which he doesn't intend to buy, and the seller has no other basket for her eggs — he says that he is "hastening to the story of my uncle Toby's amours." His last adventure — his "PLAIN STORIES" rather than those of a travel-writer — is set among the gay country folk, and he joins their pleasant dancing. Flirting gallantly with "a sun-burnt daughter of Labour," Nannette, he is distracted by "that cursed slit" in her petticoat: "I would have given a crown to have it sew'd up — Nannette would not have given a sous — Viva la joia! was in her lips — Viva la joia! was in her eyes."

He cannot stay; he dances off to "go on straight forwards, without digression or parenthesis, in my uncle Toby's amours."

Analysis

The travelogue continues with more fun at the expense of travelogues, travelers, and sight-seeing. Of the four things he wanted to see at Lyons, one was broken, one was in the next town, one ceased to interest him, and one wasn't anywhere at all.

The sentimentalist in Tristram looks forward to dropping a tear at the Tomb of the Lovers; the ironist in him draws out the suspense and finishes it off with "there was no tomb to drop it upon." We have seen these two forces at work before, as in the scene of Uncle Toby and the fly and in the death scene of Le Fever. Tristram is moved by his sentimental impulses, but always only up to a certain point; as soon as it gets excessive or artificial, he merrily (and often, subtly) smashes his delicate creation. He is often quite frank about his motives in depicting certain sentimental subjects, and this has been disappointing to many softhearted readers over the past two centuries. The kindness of giving a sweet macaroon to an ass that has probably never eaten anything so good in its life is the smaller part of his motives: he was curious about how an ass would eat it.

The lengthy interchange with the commissary is a fine example of non-communication between a "foreigner" and a "native." Tristram presents the discussion with all its nuances, not merely to show how stubborn the French are or how unsociable their customs; he deliberately puts off the explanation behind the commissary's insistence on payment in order to show the comedy of two people who don't understand each other's point of view.

Tristram's "remark upon Avignon" is a clever summary of how impressionistic the guidebooks often are and how things get exaggerated.

The final part of the book shows Tristram in his natural devil-may-care attitude toward death. There is no reason to think that it is false. When he reaches the sunny south, he feels very much alive and well; he responds to that feeling, enjoying his pleasant journey to the full. He observes several times in the novel (as he did at the beginning of Book 7 and will do again in Book 8) that he has never let the imminence of death blacken his outlook or make his writing somber and serious. Indeed, when we see him dancing and flirting with Nannette, we don't believe that it can be true — it is — that he is dying.

The sensualist and the novelist seem to be fighting each other; maybe Tristram is serious when he says "Why could I not live and end my days thus? . . . dance, and sing, . . . and go to heaven with this nut brown maid?" It is hard to say whether the idyllic life is truly what he wants or whether it is merely another pretty picture that captures the imagination of the eighteenth-century intellectual. At any rate, his promise of Uncle Toby's amours drives him on, and in Books 8 and 9 we will get the whole story.

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