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The Body is Bawdy in Laurence Sterne's "Tristram Shandy"


Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is full of unfortunate mishaps and strokes of bad luck that usually have tragic consequences on the human body. Indeed, the three central characters—Tristram, Uncle Toby, and Walter Shandy—are each in some way maimed or otherwise sexually inadequate. As A. R. Towers remarks, Sterne’s sexual comedy “presents, if taken straight, an appalling catalogue of human woe” (13).

Human bodies in Sterne’s novel are “typically disfigured or diseased: indeed the scarred or diseased body is so ubiquitous in Tristram Shandy that, despite the novel’s humor, readers may be forgiven for dwelling more on infirm and suffering figures than on Sterne’s buffers of mirth” (King 292). For a book revered for its comedic characters and situations, Tristram Shandy is full of various ailments and injuries to the human body. However, Sterne takes what could be grim subject matter—impotence, a botched delivery, genital wounds—and uses it to set up rambling, ridiculous stories ripe with bawdy jokes and innuendoes. The focus on the body (and the bawdy) allows Sterne to offer a solution to the suffering of his characters: that is, laughter.  

Tristram remarks that from the moment he was “brought forth into this scurvy and disastrous world of ours” he has been “the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune” (Sterne 10). Tristram seems to express dissatisfaction with the vagaries and misfortunes of life, such as his inability to draw in his breath due to asthma. The novel is inundated with these kinds of problems, what Towers calls the “trivial annoyances of life—the interruptions, the cross-purposes, the inability to pursue a straight course” (13). Incidentally, that description also fits the style of Tristram Shandy itself, with its frequent ramblings, interruptions, and diversions. Towers points out that Sterne’s favorite punctuation mark appears to be the dash: “There is hardly a sentence that is not interrupted, cut across by some counter-movement of thought, before it is finished” (19). The writing style of Tristram Shandy often appears as choppy as the hero himself, who suffers one wound to his masculinity after another.

Laurence Sterne, 1713-1768

Laurence Sterne, 1713-1768

The novel also includes what, in any other book, “would be themes of the deepest tragic implication: the prison of the self, the fundamental incommunicability of human experience, the loneliness and absurdity of birth, copulation, and even death” (Towers 13). Thus, Mrs. Shandy’s thoughts stray to the winding of the clock as she has sex with her husband; Tristram’s nose is crushed by Dr. Slop’s obstetrical forceps; Yorick’s death is memorialized with an entire page of black. It is with these grim motifs of life and death that Sterne “plays his marvellous game of artful dodging, thin-ice skating, and sting-pulling, converting them by his shrewdness, his sympathy, and above all by his unequalled sense of the incongruous into a rich fantasia of the laughable” (Towers 13). Although Tristram Shandy has been called “the dirtiest novel in English,” Sterne has a special plan for the novel’s frequent ribaldry (Brady 41).

Sterne brings up the issue of his own mortality in his dedication to William Pitt. Suffering from tuberculosis while writing Tristram Shandy, Sterne describes his

constant endeavour to fence against the infirmities of ill health, and other evils of life, by mirth; being firmly persuaded that every time a man smiles,—but much more so, when he laughs, that it adds something to this Fragment of Life. (Sterne 3)

Ross King argues that Sterne uses his own diseased body as an example of the recurring image in the novel, “that of the infirm or disabled body which seeks palliation through the powers of language” (293). Language and the act of writing cannot cure disease, but they may relieve some of the symptoms and provide comfort. According to King, Sterne appears to regard language and writing “as in part the obviation of mortality and physical misfortune” (293). It is unclear whether King means to say that language can do away with death and disease or merely relieve some of the symptoms, but he makes an interesting point concerning the compensatory nature of language in Tristram Shandy. Throughout the book language serves to compensate for the injuries and diseases, continually moving from “loss, interruption, or accident (often associated with the mutilation or disfigurement of the body, frequently of a sexual nature) to a restoration pursued through linguistic media” (King 293).

Physical and symbolic maimings

The opening pages of Tristram Shandy contain the first sexual joke. As Walter Shandy laments, “My Tristram’s misfortunes began nine months before ever he came into the world,” at the moment of his conception (Sterne 7). A family anecdote explains that Walter Shandy, a slave to routine, would on the first Sunday night of every month wind the clock. As he advanced in his years, Walter had “likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pester’d with them the rest of the month” (Sterne 9).

It is on the night of Tristram’s conception that Mrs. Shandy interrupts Walter by asking if he had remembered to wind the clock. Thus Tristram, the hero of the story, “is set off to a wretched and enfeebled start: he can never recover from the dispersal of the few ‘animal spirits’ which his aging father had mustered for the once-a-month occasion” (Towers 14). Not only is poor Tristram’s moment of conception so rudely interrupted, but there are repeated suggestions that Walter Shandy may not actually be his father.

Tristram announces that he was born on November 5, 1718, “which to the æra fixed on, was as near nine kalendar months as any husband could in reason have expected” (Sterne 10). Given the information that Tristram was begot in the night between the first Sunday and the first Monday in March, it is only a matter of counting months to suspect something amiss. Possible cuckoldry becomes another subject for Sterne’s sly jokes.

Note the prominent noses

Note the prominent noses

The next unfortunate accident that befalls Tristram is the crushing of his nose “as flat as a pancake to his face” by Dr. Slop’s forceps during the delivery (Sterne 174). This maiming of his nose at birth “bodes no good for Tristram’s future, for Sterne leaves the reader in no doubt as to the symbolic import of the nose and its crushing” (Towers 15). Walter Shandy is understandably distraught over his son’s disfigurement, and what follows the delivery is a long discourse over the importance of noses for men. The sexual double-entendre is so obvious that Sterne even insists that “by that word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs,—I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less” (178).

Walter Shandy’s opinions on the nose, however, make it clear that a nose is not just a nose. When discussing the subject of noses (which he must do regularly), Walter wonders how a great family can survive an “uninterrupted succession of six or seven short noses,” adding that it must be one of the greatest problems in life, “where the same number of long and jolly noses following one another in a direct line, did not raise and hoist it up into the best vacancies in the kingdom” (Sterne 180).

Another symbolic maiming of Tristram occurs when he is christened with the wrong name. As King argues that Sterne believes in the compensatory nature of language, Walter believes that naming his son Trismegistus will compensate for his crushed nose. He “foresees a restitution of the family fortunes through another instrument, namely language, or more specifically through a name whose ‘magic bias’ will act as a countervailing power to the obstetrical forceps” (King 296). Walter explains his belief in the power of names to determine the name-holder’s character:

That in the warmest transports of my wishes for the prosperity of my child, I never once wished to crown his head with more glory and honour, than what George or Edward would have spread around it.

But alas! Continued my father, as the greatest evil has befallen him—I must counteract and undo it with the greatest good. (Sterne 229)

Thus, Walter is resolved to save his son further harm by naming him Trismegistus. He believes that a single name can mitigate the damage to Tristram’s body and to the Shandy family line. Unfortunately, the christening is also botched because Tristram is the best that Susannah can manage with Trismegistus. Once again Tristram is wounded, this time with a single word. Like his nose (and later a certain part of the male anatomy) it is abbreviated and becomes another symbol of wounded masculinity (King 297).

The misnaming of Tristram is also damaging to Walter Shandy, whose role at the christening is taken by Susannah the maid. He misses an important act as the father, and as a result, his son is given a name that he absolutely detests. While Walter views Trismegistus as an incredibly noble name, his feelings for Tristram are not so favorable: “Melancholy dissyllable of sound! Which, to his ears, was unison to Nincompoop, and every name vituperative under heaven” (Sterne 47). In this situation, a single word becomes “as fragile and as susceptible to loss as the body it seeks to reconstitute” (King 297).

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The film adaptation

Because Dr. Slop bungles the delivery with his formidable obstetrical tools, Robert Darby states, “Tristram begins life with a mutilated nose, a suggestive foretaste" of what was to happen to him later on (76). That accident occurs when Tristram is five years old and unable to find the chamber pot. Susannah opens the window and lifts Tristram up to the window seat, asking him: “cannot you manage, my dear, for a single time to [pee out of the window]?”(Sterne 310). The window falls and does unspecified damage to the boy’s lower regions (Susannah exclaims: “Nothing is left”) (310). However, Tristram is not castrated but circumcised by the window sash. His father says with a smile, “this Tristram of ours, I find, comes very hardly by all his religious rites.—Never was the son of Jew, Christian, Turk, or Infidel initiated into them in so oblique and slovenly a manner” (Sterne 318).

It is certainly an unusual and sloppy way for a boy to be circumcised while peeing out the window. The ensuing commotion of “family confusion and medical incompetence is full of absurdity, but it confirms Sterne’s construction of Tristram’s father, Walter, as an impractical theorizer far detached from the realities of human need” (Darby 72). Circumcision becomes the new subject for Walter Shandy’s studies, and instead of “going for lint and basilicon to treat the injury, [he] fetches up Spencer’s De Legibus Hebraeorum Ritualibus and a folio of Maimonides from his library” (Towers 16).

Books, reading, and innuendo

Books and reading are Walter’s hobbyhorse. Brady notes the sexual element of hobbyhorses, which is “a slang term for a [prostitute]” (41-42). With that in mind, therefore, “books and ideas are as sexual to Walter as fortifications to Toby” (Brady 48). Sterne also connects sex and writing. As Tristram discusses his goal to write a “noble work,” he considers the relationship between the author and the reader:

‘tis too much,—I am sick,—I faint away deliciously at the thought of it!—‘tis more than nature can bear!—lay hold of me,—I am giddy,—I am stone blind,—I’m dying,—I am gone.—Help! Help! Help!—But hold,—I grow something better again…. (Sterne 159)

Tristram almost starts seducing the reader; the relationship between author and reader becomes sexual, the pen even becoming symbolic of another instrument (Brady 46). Tristram describes his “spurting thy ink about thy table and thy books,—as if thy pen and thy ink, thy books and thy furniture cost thee nothing” (Sterne 175). In Slawkenbergius’s Tale, he describes his pen as “worn to the stump” (Sterne 209).

Such sly jokes complement Sterne’s more blatant scatological humor. A good example is the episode involving Phutatorius and the chesnut. While Phutatorius and Yorick are discussing the parson’s sermon, “the hiatus in Phutatorius’s breeches was sufficiently wide to receive the chesnut;—and…the chesnut, some how or other, did fall perpendicularly and piping hot into it” (Sterne 265). Sterne apologizes for the shameful and indelicate language and delicately explains that “it was that particular aperture, which in all good societies, the laws of decorum do strictly require, like the temple of Janus (in peace at last) to be universally shut up” (264). While Sterne acknowledges the indecency of his stories, the length to which he goes to describe them reveals the delight he takes in such bawdy humor. By sidestepping around the issue, Sterne invites the reader to lean in for a private joke, as if he is whispering the dirty parts.

The Widow Wadman and Uncle Toby

The Widow Wadman and Uncle Toby

Uncle Toby is another figure with a wounded groin. Tristram Shandy repeatedly refers to the groin wound Uncle Toby received from a falling stone at the siege of Namur. The question becomes whether or not he is still functioning in that region. When Uncle Toby proposes to Mrs. Wadman, a widow, she delicately probes him to find out. As Mrs. Wadman’s first husband suffered from sciatica, it is natural for her “to wish to know how far from the hip to the groin; and how far she was likely to suffer more or less in her feelings, in the one case than the other” (Sterne 534).

Once again, there is the implication of impotence, that the late Mr. Wadman had problems in the sex department. Mrs. Wadman asks Dr. Slop if Uncle Toby has recovered from his wound. Just what does that recovery entail? She asks Uncle Toby about the siege of Namur, and whether his wound greatly impeded his life: could he mount a horse, could he lie on it in bed, did motion hurt it? She continues to probe him:

And whereabouts, dear Sir, quoth Mrs. Wadman, a little categorically, did you receive this sad blow?—In asking this question, Mrs. Wadman gave a slight glance towards the waistband of my uncle Toby’s red plush breeches, expecting naturally, as the shortest reply to it, that my uncle Toby would lay his fore-finger upon the place…. (Sterne 535)

Instead, Uncle Toby pulls out his maps of Namur and finds the place before the gates of St. Nicholas that he received his wound. With “such a virgin modesty [he] laid her finger upon the place,” so that Mrs. Wadman does not have the heart to correct his mistake (Sterne 535). Sterne leads up to this great misunderstanding very slowly, letting Mrs. Wadman build up her curiosity and desire to see Uncle Toby’s wounded groin. Uncle Toby reveals his naïveté and lack of awareness in such matters.

Uncle Toby remains one of the most genial characters of Tristram Shandy, but his ignorance of certain sexual matters gives him a somewhat childish appearance. He simply does not understand all the details about sex. Sterne equates Uncle Toby with an ass “since ‘toby’, Mr. Watt informs us, ‘had long been established as a euphemism for the posterior’” (Brady 42). Tristram explains that the “heated parts” of the rider come in contact with hobby-horse so that by “long journeys and much friction, it so happens that the body of the rider is at length fill’d as full of HOBBY-HORSICAL matter as it can hold” (Sterne 62).

The sexual double-entendre is quite explicit in this case, and Tristram goes on to say how Uncle Toby mounted his hobby-horse with great pleasure. Again, the reader should remember that the hobby-horse means not only a hobby or pastime but also a prostitute. Brady asserts that “Toby suffers a kind of reverse impregnation by riding his hobby-horse,” and that he maintains confused notions about “anal impregnation and delivery” (42). Uncle Toby and Walter Shandy discuss Mrs. Shandy’s impending delivery and her desire to have a female midwife: “My sister, I dare say, added he, does not care to let a man come so near her****” (Sterne 81).

Uncle Toby is broken off by Walter’s snapping his tobacco-pipe, but it is unclear to both Sterne and the reader whether Toby was going to finish that sentence. Walter is amazed at Uncle Toby’s childish ignorance about the female anatomy: “To think, said my father, of a man living to your age, brother, and knowing so little about women!....Methinks…you might, at least, know so much as the right end of a woman from the wrong” (Sterne 82).

Funny instances occur because Uncle Toby is so obsessed with his hobby-horse, that “some chance word or event from the outside world penetrates his thoughts and is immediately assimilated into the private world of siegecraft, fortifications, and armies” (Towers 21). For example, when Yorick uses the word “siege” with the bawdy sense of anus, “uncle Toby looked brisk at the sound of the word siege, but could make neither head or tail of it” (Sterne 261). Given his childish confusion over sex, it is not so surprising that Uncle Toby preoccupies himself more with his fortifications than with women.

From the film "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"

From the film "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story"

Walter Shandy's frustrations

Walter Shandy is just as frustrated by Tristram’s misfortunes—the conception, delivery, and christening—as Tristram himself, for it is Walter “who set such store on their happy outcome and he who must lament the frustration of his hopes” (Towers 25). Walter’s hobby-horse is reading and learning, but he is frequently interrupted in the middle of his theorizing. While Walter waxes eloquent, Uncle Toby takes him at his most literal meaning. When Walter learns of Tristram’s crushed nose, he asks Toby, “did ever a poor unfortunate man, brother Toby, cried my father, receive so many lashes?” Uncle Toby replies: “The most I ever saw given…was to a grenadier, I think in Makay’s regiment” (Sterne 225).

Walter loves to argue as much as to make speeches, and he is frustrated just as much by people who will not argue with him. Walter’s difficulty in communicating becomes an analogy for sex, which is a very basic form of communication (Towers 26). Mrs. Shandy frequently frustrates him because she agrees with everything he says, when what he really wants is a debate to show off his arguments. Of course, Walter’s interruption on the night of Tristram’s conception highlights his sexual frustration and lack of confidence. Walter’s “inability to impress his wife sexually is a perfect counterpart to his inability to impress her intellectually” (Towers 28). Walter is yet another Shandy man whose manhood is constantly in danger; at least he avoids the more literal injuries to his penis that Toby and Tristram endure.

Final thoughts on a not so stern subject

Sterne allows us to laugh at his character’s misfortunes because what they suffer is so inherently ridiculous and bawdy. The characters of Tristram Shandy use language to restore their wounded dignities and bodies; Sterne turns what could be serious subject matter into jokes and innuendoes. He goes to great lengths to set up each joke, such as Toby’s final revelation of his affair with the widow Wadman. In that case, as in others, we expect something completely different, but Sterne instead provides an even better resolution. His answers do not always offer a resolution, but cut off abruptly. This literary style only corresponds to his characters’ damaged bodies. Sterne knows what his readers expect to hear, and he toys with their expectations. As Tristram puts it:

I know there are readers in the world, as well as many other good people in it, who are no readers at all,—who find themselves ill at ease, unless they are let into the whole secret from first to last, of every thing which concerns you. (8)

Sterne obliges his inquisitive readers by giving them hints of juicy details, and he allows them to laugh at what in real life might make them cry.

Works cited

Brady, Frank. “Tristram Shandy: Sexuality, Morality, and Sensibility.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 4 (1970): 41-56. JSTOR. Sturgis Lib. Electronic Resources, Kennesaw, GA.17 Nov. 2007 <>.

Darby, Robert. “‘An Oblique and Slovenly Initiation’: The Circumcision Episode in Tristram Shandy.” Eighteenth-Century Life 27 (2003): 72-84. Academic Search Complete. Sturgis Lib. Electronic Resources, Kennesaw, GA.17 Nov. 2007 <>.

King, Ross. “Tristram Shandy and the wound of language.” Studies in Philology 92 (1995): 291-310. Academic Search Complete. Sturgis Lib. Electronic Resources, Kennesaw, GA.17 Nov. 2007 <>.

Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Ed. Melvyn New and Joan New. London: Penguin Books, 1997.

Towers, A. R. “Sterne’s Cock and Bull Story.” ELH 24 (1957): 12-29. JSTOR. Sturgis Lib. Electronic Resources, Kennesaw, GA.17 Nov. 2007 <>.  


Brittany Rowland (author) from Woodstock, GA on March 14, 2012:

Thank you for reading, Olga.

Olga on March 11, 2012:

Thank you for useful information

Brittany Rowland (author) from Woodstock, GA on February 07, 2012:

I'm glad you found it useful, Bruce. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Bruce Snyder on February 06, 2012:

Very helpful in providing context and apparent author intention.

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