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The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy - Volume 1 Summary & Analysis

This Study Guide consists of approximately 29 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
This section contains 907 words
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Volume 1 Summary

The volume begins with the conception of Tristram Shandy. His mother and father are partaking in sexual intercourse when his mother asks if there is a problem with the cuckoo clock. From here, Tristram criticizes his mother's ill-timed question and wonders the effect it had on his father's performance. Tristram credits his Uncle Toby for the anecdote, whereon Tristram quotes a conversation between Toby and his father that claims Tristram's problems started nine months before he ever came into the world.

The narrator, Tristram Shandy, is prone to moving away from the facts of the subject of which he is writing and stating his own opinions. In the first volume, Tristram talks about how he does not care and how he is going to give his opinions and say what he likes. Often these opinions take the form of anecdotes. The next tale is about the midwife his mother wants at his birth. The midwife lives nearby Tristram's village, and Tristram explains how the parson and his wife took pity on the widowed midwife and helped finance her license. After another digression, Tristram introduces Yorick, the Parson. He compares Yorick to his namesake in Hamlet and the main character in Don Quixote. Yorick is a kindly and witty man, but his straightforward talking means he is misunderstood and generally unpopular. The villagers borrow his horses to ride the seven miles to the doctors, leaving him with nothing but an old slow horse. Consequently, the villagers presume he is helping the midwife, so they do not have to borrow his horses and he can start riding his faster, stronger steeds. However, the vicar proves them wrong by keeping to his old horse. At the end of the anecdote, Yorick dies with his faithful friend Eugenuis by his side.

Tristram continues by detailing arguments and disagreements between his father and mother. Firstly on the laws of their marriage, secondly on how and where his mother can give birth and thirdly the name they want to give the child. Tristram's father alludes to many strange philosophical ideas to argue his case, but his mother has a legal document to back herself.

Tristram takes the side of his father and goes into another digression about his women readers and then how his digressions are actually progressions. In between, he starts the story of his Uncle Toby. Tristram's father and his Uncle are close brothers, but unfortunately, Toby has a sensitive disposition due to a stone hitting him in the groin when he was a captain in the British army. While Tristram's father is fond of telling everyone about his sister's affair with a coachman, Uncle Toby often has to take Tristram's father aside and, with tears in his eyes, beg him to stop for the sake of the family. Tristram promises to continue with his Uncle's story in the next volume.

Volume 1 Analysis

From the onset, Laurence Sterne makes the reader aware they are reading a book; the narrator is constantly communicating directly to the reader about what he is writing. This sets the tone, and in the remainder of the novel, The narrator rarely allows the reader to become involved in a narrative. In this first volume, the narrator, Tristram, tells stories about the Parson, the midwife, his own conception, Toby's injury and his parent's arguments, but often he interrupts these narratives to impart irrelevant opinions before returning to a completely different narrative. In this first volume, Tristram starts a story about his father and Toby waiting in the parlor but does not return to it until the second volume. He backs his right to do so through a long discourse about how his digressions are actually progressions.

However, this conversational and rambling style is part of Tristram's wit and tells us more about Tristram as a person than the actual story of his life. For example, in the beginning chapters, he shows disrespect not only for his mother, but women in general, humorously blaming her question about the cuckoo clock on his later problems. Further on in the volume, Tristram says the only woman with character in his family was his Aunt Dinah, and then only because she caused a family scandal. It actually turns out Tristram could not have met Aunt Dinah because she dies at the end of the second volume. In comparison, Tristram has a high regard for the men in the story. He chronicles the relationship between his father and Toby with high romanticism and claims his father would not of let anyone else stay in the Shandy house but his brother. This is not the only male relationship Tristram romanticizes; later on he works a similarly fond relationship between Trim and Toby. In this volume, such male bonding serves to highlight the distance Tristram feels from his mother and perhaps hoped his father did as well. While Toby and the father provide good-hearted banter, shown particularly when Toby pleads with his brother not to mention the relationship between Aunt Dinah and the coach man, the legal argument between his father and mother has a more satirical edge. The legal document that Sterne inserts into this volume, detailing how his mother wanted to have birth in London, not only foreshadows the formality within the Shandy's marriage, but also the formality between men and women in society in general at that time Sterne penned Tristram Shandy. It is interesting to note Laurence Sterne's marriage was no exception.

This section contains 907 words
(approx. 3 pages at 400 words per page)
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