Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters 6-12
The when of his birth having been dealt with, Tristram now promises to go into the how. He hopes, however, that he and the reader will get to know each other better, mainly so that the reader will have confidence in his way of telling his story; he may seem to be clowning, but he asks the reader to give him "credit for a little more wisdom than appears upon" his outside and to keep his temper.
A poor widow who lived in their village was helped with a midwife's license by the parson, who paid for it himself as a service to the community. The license is a formal document, overly formal, and the language used in it was the whim of the lawyer Didius. Tristram admits that even the wisest men, "not excepting Solomon himself," had their whims and their hobby-horses (i.e., hobbies), and as long as a man "rides his hobby-horse peaceably," it's nobody else's business. Tristram has several hobby-horses of his own, in fact. He does feel, however, that important people ("my Lord, like yourself") should do these things in moderation, and he proceeds to write a Dedication to the "My Lord" he has been addressing. The Dedication is brand-new, never offered to anyone before; it is for sale for 50 guineas, and the money is to be paid to him in care of the publisher. All of Chapter 9 and everything relating to hobby-horses are included in the offer; the rest of the book is dedicated to the moon.
The parson who had paid for the midwife's license used to ride about on a "lean, sorry, jack-ass of a horse," even though he owned a very handsome silver-studded saddle. On his horse he was the scandal of the parish and the target of jests and malice. Years before, however, he had owned fine horses, fit for the handsome saddle, but since the nearest midwife lived seven miles away, people in distress borrowed his horse constantly. The result was inevitably a broken-down horse, one after the other. He decided to set up a midwife right there and to ride the same horse — "the last poor devil, such as they had made him . . . to the very end of the chapter" — in order not to be accused of ulterior motives. But malice is always present, and his parishioners maintained that selfishness and pride were his reasons. The malice persisted to his death ("about ten years ago").
The name of the parson was Yorick, and Tristram says that he was descended from that same Yorick who supposedly was a part of Hamlet's court in Denmark. Yorick was a simple-hearted person, innocent in the ways of the world; he was full of jokes and merriment, and he disliked gravity and seriousness. Because of his jokes and the fun he poked at serious people — seriousness, he said, was a "mysterious carriage of the body to cover the defects of the mind" — he made powerful enemies, although he could never believe that a joke could make someone hate him. But it was true, and that hate and malice broke his spirit and brought him to an early grave. On his tombstone, his dear friend Eugenius had these words engraved: "Alas, poor YORICK!" Passersby who noticed his grave would sigh, "Alas, poor YORICK!" As a tribute to his dear friend Yorick, Tristram inserts a leaf that is completely black on both sides.
At this point, Tristram is supposed to begin telling us how he was born, but we aren't the wiser about that after these seven chapters. Still, he has asked us to be patient with him as he tells his story in his own way. The midwife and her license are the excuse for introducing the following: Parson Yorick, his character and his troubles; hobby-horses; a misplaced Dedication; the midwife herself, who will eventually assist at the birth of Tristram; and the joke of "Alas, poor Yorick!"
Parson Yorick, one of the major characters of the book, has been seen as a portrait of Sterne himself; the malice directed against Yorick is reminiscent of the personal and political difficulties that Sterne had with some of the important people in church politics in York. The jester in Yorick is in fact very much like the jester in Laurence Sterne, but that biographical information plays no significant part in the construction of the book and we are free to ignore it.
Hobby-horses, introduced quite casually, are the backbone of Tristram Shandy. First, we begin to see that Tristram is treating his writing as a hobby: he does it just the way he wants to, and it gives him a lot of enjoyment. Second, everyone of importance in the book has a hobby, and the hobbies are a greater part of their character than is anything else.
The misplaced Dedication shows the liberty that Tristram takes toward the organization of his book. Instead of coming at the beginning, it comes just where and when he wants it. He mocks the concept of dedicating books to great men, underlining the usual financial motive by offering it to anyone who will pay him 50 guineas. This irreverence toward the dignified occupation of novel-writing is characteristic of Tristram, who deliberately breaks whatever rules he can think of. As he discusses the matter, of course, we learn more and more about him — just as he says we would — and we add to what we know of "the life and opinions of Tristram Shandy."
The midwife whose story triggered all this will come back into the stream of events, but since the author wants to work in the fable of Yorick the Parson's descent from Yorick the Jester (together with the punch line of the epitaph), the midwife has to wait.
The completely black pages are the first of a series of typographical oddities that sometimes amuse, sometimes put off the reader. They may be considered as personal whims of Tristram, who after all ought to be able to do as he likes with his own book; he includes his doodles and his sketches, and he claims that they are important graphic aids.