Tristram Shandy’s mother and father are not a sexist portrayal, and Laurence Sterne’s novel is feminist.

Tristram Shandy’s Mother Is a Feminist Heroine, and His Father Is Literature’s Greatest Mansplainer

Tristram Shandy’s Mother Is a Feminist Heroine, and His Father Is Literature’s Greatest Mansplainer

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Feb. 2 2016 8:10 AM
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Literature’s Greatest Mansplainer

The women in Tristram Shandy barely get a word in edgewise. It’s still a great feminist novel. 

Tristam Shandy.
Illustration from a 1906 edition of Tristram Shandy.

George Cruikshank/Wikimedia

This article is part of A Year of Great Books, a Slate Academy. To learn more, read Laura Miller’s introduction to the series, or visit Slate.com/GreatBooks.

Laura Miller Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a books and culture columnist for Slate and the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia. Follow her on Twitter.

It’s the rare literary work that seems capable of presatirizing the scholarship that will be written about it 200 years in the future, but if any book can do this, it’s Tristram Shandy. This I thought while looking over a collection of papers on Lawrence Sterne’s novel published in the late 1980s. One of the contributors (an academic whom we’ll allow to remain in the shelter of her obscurity) professed to love Tristram Shandy despite finding it almost impossible to interest her largely female students in the book. Sadly, she observed, they were put off by novel’s underlying pattern of “sexism and misogyny.”

The temptation is strong here to stand and deliver the sort of lecture that Walter Shandy, Tristram’s father, is prone to make—the very lectures, in fact, that this unfortunate modern reader was so deluded as to take seriously. How can anyone claim to adore Tristram Shandy, a novel whose very soul and fiber is ironical, and somehow come away with the impression that we are meant to believe the crackpot patriarchal theories advanced in it?

Now, it is more or less true, as Nietzsche once observed, that “the reader who demands to know exactly what Sterne really thinks of a thing … must be given up for lost.” But all the same, if you want to get a rough sense of what Sterne himself felt, it’s best to look not to the statements of Tristram himself—and certainly not to Walter—but to the character of Yorick, the jesting parson, whose life story and temperament most closely parallel his author’s. Yorick, we are told, “had an invincible dislike and opposition in his nature to gravity”—that is, to seriousness, of the kind that Yorick and Sterne believe often disguised stupidity and even deceit. One of the chief forms of seriousness lampooned in Tristram Shandy is the scholarly variety, evidenced by all the preposterous learned debates (some fake, but some real, and all of them at once obtuse and overly literal-minded) that appear in its pages, such as the arcane argument over “whether the mother is not of kin to her child.”

Before encountering that scholarly paper on the novel, I’d been kicking around the thesis that Tristram Shandy might be the most feminist work ever written in which women barely appear or get a word in edgewise. This might sound perverse, but what is Sterne’s novel if not a cavalcade of the ridiculous, of poorly founded convictions, time-wasting hobby horses, and ignominious obsessions? Women remain at the periphery of it because they have too much sense to get involved in any of its concerns. This principle comes embodied in a tiny domestic object: Mrs. Shandy’s thread-paper (used to wrap up thread to keep it from getting tangled or lost when not needed).

Tristram’s father commandeers his wife’s thread-paper as a bookmark while declaiming on one of his pet subjects, the theories of Hafen Slawkenbergius, the foremost theoretician on the correspondence between the size of a man’s nose and the greatness of his destiny. Provoked to realize that even his devoted brother Toby has allowed his mind to wander from this weighty subject, Walter throws the thread-paper into the fire and even goes so far as to bite his wife’s satin pincushion in two. In his pique, he barely notices that he’s done either, and a few pages later, he’s wondering where the thread-paper has gone. “No matter,” says Tristram, “as an appendage to seamstressy, the thread-paper might be of some consequence to my mother,—of none to my father, as a mark in Slawkenbergius,” for Walter has practically memorized the whole book.

This is Elizabeth Shandy’s life in a nutshell: perfectly good thread burnt for no reason by men caught up in an overwrought conversation about piffle. To Walter’s never-ending annoyance, she refuses to engage in any sort of debate on his various theories. Instead, she humors her husband, driving him to distraction by agreeing with whatever he says, not because (as Tristram insists) she fails to understand him but because she has long ago realized that his ideas are of no real significance. Worth noting: When the issue is of practical consequence—whether she should be attended in labor by the “good old” midwife or the manifestly incompetent Dr. Slop, whether she should have a caesarian section to prevent the compression of the child’s skull, etc.—Tristram’s mother puts her foot down and gets her way. For all his irony, Sterne makes it perfectly clear that Elizabeth Shandy is always right.

When Tristram suffers his unfortunate accident with the window sash, his father immediately rushes to his books to reassure himself that circumcision was approved by numerous ancient authorities. His mother seeks medical attention. When Uncle Toby enters into his negotiations with the Widow Wadman, it takes Elizabeth to point out that if Toby marries and fathers a child, Tristram’s inheritance will be reduced. In perhaps the apex of his absurdity, Walter spends so much time writing his “Trista-pedia, or system of education for me” that he never actually gets around to educating Tristram, so that our narrator is “all that time totally neglected and abandoned to my mother.” While Tristram calls this a “misfortune,” the reader has long ago learned that whatever wherewithal our narrator possesses can only have come from her.

Still, it’s part of the good-natured spirit of Tristram Shandy that Elizabeth Shandy can’t be fairly labeled “long-suffering.” She may be easily distracted during sex with her husband by household considerations like the winding of the clock, but she is clearly fond of him, warmly taking his arm as they walk to her brother-in-law’s house. Her temperament is serene, not irritable, as a woman saddled with such a palavering and impractical husband has every right to be. What is the explanation for this, the one aspect of Mrs. Shandy’s personality that puzzles? The answer comes near the end of the novel, when Walter launches into another of his speeches, this one an indictment of “the system of Love and marriage,” which we by now know has endowed him with the one person capable of making his little world run on a smooth and pleasant track. Platonic love is heroic and “excites to the desire for philosophy and truth,” he declaims. The other kind is merely “desire.” But here both Yorick and Mrs. Shandy object. “Natural love” is what “replenishes the earth,” they argue. And “ ‘To be sure,’ said my mother, ‘love keeps peace in the world.’ ” Right again.