Tristram's great-grandfather is forced to settle upon his great-grandmother a jointure ("widow's portion") of 300 pounds a year, even though her entire dowry was a mere 2,000 pounds. The reason she insisted was that he had "little or no nose."
By "nose," Tristram says that he means Nose, "nothing more, or less." If there are two senses, they are like two roads, one dirty and the other one clean; "Which shall we take?" is the question Tristram asks the reader to decide.
His great-grandfather signed the agreement. The great-grandmother outlived not only her husband, but her son also — by twelve years; and her grandson, Walter Shandy, had to pay her the 300 pounds a year during all that time. All because of short noses. It is easy to understand Walter's prejudices against short noses, says Tristram. "He would often declare . . . that he did not conceive how the greatest family in England could stand it out against an uninterrupted succession of six or seven short noses." Again Tristram tells the reader not to let his fancy carry him away: "I mean the external organ of smelling, or that part of man which stands prominent in his face."
Walter becomes obsessed with noses, and his opinions on the subject are very important to him. He collects every book and treatise on the subject, just as Uncle Toby did on military architecture.
Tristram pays homage to his Uncle Toby. He speaks with great love of his character, and he vows that Toby's fortifications "shall never be demolish'd."
Walter was fortunate to get a copy of Bruscambille's prologue on long noses. He solaced himself with it the way "your worship solaced yourself with your first mistress, — that is, from morning even unto night." Then he got hold of other learned works on the subject, above all, that of the "great and learned Hafen Slawkenbergius," of whom Tristram will soon write.
Walter was disappointed in Erasmus' writings "upon the various uses and seasonable applications of long noses," and Tristram warns the female reader to behave "like Tickletoby's mare" in keeping Satan from getting astride of your imagination."
Unlearned readers must read, says Tristram, if they want to know who Tickletoby's mare is and what the other learned references in his book are, and especially if they want to understand the significance of the marbled page that follows immediately.
Walter struggles with the sense of Erasmus' "celebrated dialogue," but only by scratching the words with a penknife can he get the sense be wants out of it: "See, my dear brother Toby, how I have mended the sense. — But you have marr'd a word, replied my uncle Toby. — My father put on his spectacles, — bit his lip, — and tore out the leaf in a passion.
Tristram invokes Slawkenbergius, who knows all about noses, and asks where his (the latter's) genius came from, what his inspiration was. With him he compares the other authorities, Prignitz, Scroderus, Ambrose Paraeus, and their theories. The theory of the last one "overthrew . . . the system of peace and harmony of our family" and started a great dispute between Mr. and Mrs. Shandy.
The cause? "My mother, you must know, — but I have fifty things more necessary to let you know first." Among them, there is his father still lying across the bed; he promised he "would go back to them in half an hour, and five and thirty minutes are laps'd already." And there is, very important, "a tale out of Slawkenbergius to translate."
The difference between Walter and Toby is again illustrated, this time by Walter's trying to explain Slawkenbergius to his brother. Toby resists all efforts to make him understand; even the great Locke would have despaired at making him comprehend the matter.
Walter persists, but since he unfortunately uses the word "siege," Toby's fancy takes a "short flight to the bowling-green" and his fortifications. When Walter speaks of the "ingenuity these learned men have all shewn in their solutions of noses," Toby asks, "Can noses be dissolved?" Again Walter loses his patience. For Toby, the only reason that "one man's nose is longer than another's" is that "God pleases to have it so." When Walter replies that "there is more religion" in Toby's answer "than sound science," Toby whistles "Lillabullero."
Walter believes that all civilization could be reconstructed from Slawkenbergius' "rich treasury of inexhaustible knowledge," and although Tristram doesn't consider it with the same reverence as his father, he admits that he likes the "tales," and he promises to tell the reader "the ninth tale of his tenth decad."
In these chapters, we are introduced to Walter's theory of noses, and we begin to learn why noses are so important to him. Thus, when Tristram's second accident occurs — his smashed nose — we have the perspective against which to measure its importance. Noses also furnish him with the opportunity to tease the reader about the latter's salaciousness; although Tristram constantly denies that he has ulterior motives in talking about noses, if the reader insists that Tristram has, then the responsibility for the sexual interpretation is the reader's. Tristram believes that he is revealing us to ourselves.
One of the most successful elements in the book is the feeling it imparts to us that the writer is talking about a real family, the sense of involvement that the writer has with these people. It establishes Tristram as an individual apart from Sterne; the tribute to Uncle Toby in Chapter 34, the love of the nephew for his generous, warm-hearted uncle, is moving and it is appropriate to the "I" who is always before us. We may remind ourselves again that Sterne had no Uncle Toby, and although some commentators have found clues to Toby's character in Sterne's father, that is really beside the point.
The many references to the "learned men" who wrote about noses — some of them real writers and real texts — make another sizable block of learned jargon at which Tristram pokes fun. It is all meat and drink to Walter Shandy, but Tristram keeps his sense of proportion and understates his amusement at his father's obsession. In Walter's "research" into the meaning of Erasmus' dialogue — his literally scratching the letters with a knife to change their shape (and consequently the meaning of the words) — we see another proof of his lack of proportion about his "theories"; it seems that he will do anything to make his point. Toby, who knows nothing about abstract reasoning, looks at everything with the clear sight of an innocent child; he knows only that in order to prove his point, Walter has changed a word.
The store of Rabelais' sexual allusions is again tapped so that Tristram can tease the reader. Whether this reference is made for its own sake or whether Tristram actually wants to educate the reader is a constant question.
A story within his digressions — why his mother and father fought about something — is interrupted because there are more important digressive matters to go into. Tristram's control of the story is again obvious: most readers will find that they had forgotten about Walter when Tristram reminds them that thirty-five minutes have passed since the time be said that he would come back to Walter in half an hour. Tristram isn't quite ready to get back to his father; the tale from Slawkenbergius comes first.
Toby's question, "Can noses be dissolved?" stimulated by Walter's speaking of "solutions of noses" while his brother was distracted, is considered to be one of the funniest lines in English literature; the complete absurdity of the question, however, gives a sort of perspective to Walter's point. The question is actually no more absurd than the basic premise that it is worthwhile to write treatises about noses.