Book Summary


Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is narrated by the title character in a series of digressions and interruptions that purportedly show the "life and opinions" — part of the novel's full title — of Tristram. Composed of nine "Books" originally published between 1759-1767, the novel has more to do with Shandy family members and their foibles and history than it seemingly does with Tristram himself. However, it is through Tristram's relating the actions, beliefs, and opinions of his family members — primarily his father, Walter Shandy, and his paternal Uncle Toby — that the reader gets a clearer picture of Tristram's character.

Books 1-6 revolve around Tristram's conception (the novel begins the evening of his conception); his birth (with a smashed nose that supposedly bodes ill warnings for his future); his mistaken naming (according to his father prior to Tristram's birth, "Tristram" is the worst possible name for a child); and his circumcision (while urinating out a window, the window falls). However, these events actually take up very little of these first six books' action. Instead, the narration is continuously interrupted by stories, diatribes, and opinions concerning family history, Walter Shandy's hypotheses and theories, and Uncle Toby's penchant for military fortifications to the point that readers today might easily become frustrated with Tristram's inability to get to the point (which, ironically, is the point — Tristram is relating his "life and opinions," and they come to him in a disjointed fashion).

Book 7 concerns an older Tristram traveling in France for health reasons. The book seems isolated from the story that precedes and follows it.

Books 8 and 9 revolve around Uncle Toby's affair with the Widow Wadman, who is concerned about Uncle Toby's supposed groin injury and seeks to find out just how injured his groin is. Again, as in earlier books in the novel, numerous digressions and interruptions are spread throughout these two books, and Tristram through his mother, Mrs. Shandy, finally asks, "What is all this story about?"