Study Help Essay Questions


1. In what way is it possible to reconcile the statement that the book will "be kept a-going" for forty years (Book 1, Chapter 22) with the contention that Tristram Shandy is a completed novel?

2. Tristram says that digressions are "the life, the soul of reading" (Book 1, Chapter 22). He is referring both to the necessary background material he has to bring in to explain matters and to his own thoughts about the story. Would you argue for or against his statement?

3. How much control do you think the writer has over the mixture of digression — both kinds mentioned above — and the Shandy history? Does he guide his pen or does his pen guide him?

4. Certain segments of Tristram Shandy are superficially boring and apparently impossible to read with any pleasure: Book 1, Chapter 20 ("the learned doctors of the Sorbonne"); Book 3, Chapter 38 ("Writers on the Nose"); Book 5, Chapters. 33-40 ("On Radical Heat and Radical Moisture"); Book 6, Chapter 19 ("Breeches in the literature of antiquity); and so on. Is there sufficient justification for such passages in the book?

5. Discuss the bases for considering the "I" of the book to be Tristram Shandy rather than Laurence Sterne.

6. Discuss the relationship between little Tristram and Tristram, the writer of the book, in the light of this statement: "so far as Tristram Shandy is concerned, Sterne never got beyond the boy's birth, baptism, and breeching. There are no opinions to be recorded of a lad who existed merely as an embryo or as an infant in his nurse's arms" (W. L. Cross, "Laurence Sterne in the Twentieth Century").

7. If you were a reader like the Lady in Book 1, Chapter 20, who reads "straight forwards, more in quest of the adventures, than of the deep erudition and knowledge," how would you feel about Tristram Shandy? Measure your answer in relation to what Samuel Johnson said about the novelist Samuel Richardson: "Why, Sir, if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself."

8. What are some of the qualities that the writer of the book has inherited from his Shandy forebears?

9. In what ways does Tristram's book remind us of Walter Shandy's ideas and theories?

10. What kind of argument can you assemble to show that the following judgment is unreasonable and basically meaningless: "But though a great reader, Sterne was not a great thinker. His mind was alert and facile, and he displayed at times an intuitive logic, but he lacked the power of deep and sustained thought. . . . He was not even, in the best sense of the word, a learned man: nine-tenths of the erudition of Shandy he took secondhand from compilers. . . . Rather he had a scrap-book mind that collected diverting information regardless of its importance or its source." In formulating your rebuttal, take into account the question of purpose and intent.

11. In Book 2, Chapter 7, Toby mentions an "unfortunate experience" with the Widow Wadman; four installments and seven years later, that story is completed. What does this indicate about the writer's plan and his control of what he was doing?

12. How sentimental and gushy is the writer of this book? Is kindheartedness necessarily mawkishness? Consider not only what the author says but how he says it.

13. Consider the elaborate details of certain small scenes, such as Walter's reaching for his handkerchief (Book 3, Chapters 2-5), the description of the knots Obadiah tied in the green bag (Book 3, Chapters 710), the position of Walter's hand (Book 4, Chapter 2), the dropping of Trim's hat (Book 5, Chapter 7). In what way are such details important to the author's method?

14. Discuss the pros and cons of the validity of Book 7 to the novel as a whole.

15. Are the bawdy passages and double entendres important in the book? Would you rather that they were deleted from it? Why or why not?

16. Discuss the character of Mrs. Shandy. Is she as stupid as she seems? Does she have redeeming qualities?

17. How successful is the author in the minor characters such as Susannah, Obadiah, Bridget, Dr. Slop?

18. Uncle Toby and Walter Shandy were, in the past, considered to be the main justification for the existence of Tristram Shandy. Comment on a version of the novel that presented only their stories with no digressions by Tristram.

19. If the story of Uncle Toby's amours is really a shaggy-dog story, does Tristram Shandy have sufficient other merits to allow it to "swim down the gutter of Time"? Or should the reader say to heck with it?

20. Is it legitimate for an author to require — or even request — that the reader do things like "imagine to yourself," draw a picture of Mrs. Wadman, replace misplaced chapters, and put up with omitted chapters?

21. Is the writer unable to present a straightforward story, or does he deliberately frustrate the reader? if the latter is true, what justification can there be for that?

22. Trace the digressive scheme of the first twenty chapters of Book 1 and discuss whether it has coherence and validity in relation to the "story."

23. Discuss the author's plan in the section between Book 1, Chapter 21, and Book 2, Chapter 6 — the beginning of Uncle Toby's sentence "I think — " and the end of it. Take into consideration what the author says in Book 2, Chapter 8, about duration, as well as his "loophole" at the end of that chapter.

24. Consider the view that the structure and form of Tristram Shandy tells us everything that we have to know about the author called Tristram Shandy, and that this character, Tristram, provides complete justification for everything unusual and unexpected in the book.

25. Tristram Shandy begins with a reference to sex and ends with another such reference. Is there any importance to this, or is it just the author's bawdiness?