Summary and Analysis
A wild coach trip somehow makes Tristram think of a story he had read, and he tries manfully to avoid using that story in his book as if it were his own. He fails, however, and we get the Fragment upon Whiskers. Although he regrets having promised the reader a Chapter on Whiskers, he keeps his promise.
The ladies in waiting of the Queen of Navarre discuss the charms of certain of the gentlemen of the court. Their having or lacking whiskers becomes the chief criterion of their excellence (having them is better than not having them). "Whiskers" takes on a subtle significance, and one of the women, the Lady Baussiere, is obsessed with the idea to the exclusion of everything else. "The word in course became indecent, and . . . absolutely unfit for use," and there the story ends.
Walter Shandy is busy measuring distances on a map and calculating the cost of Bobby's trip on the Continent (to be financed by Aunt Dinah's legacy), but he has a hard time because of the frequent interruptions of Obadiah. A letter is brought in, and Walter asks Toby to read it. It bears the news of Bobby's death.
Tristram cites authorities who affirm "that it is an irresistable and natural passion to weep for the loss of our friends or children," but Walter "managed his affliction otherwise." Eloquence is Walter's consolation, and Tristram explains by recounting an incident: Walter owned a "favourite little mare" which he had Obadiah take to be bred with "a most beautiful Arabian horse" in order to produce a good riding horse for his personal use. He looked forward eagerly to this prize offspring, but "by some neglect or other in Obadiah, it so fell out, that my father's expectations were answered with nothing better than a mule, and as ugly a beast of the kind as ever was produced" (another little Shandy accident). Everyone expected Walter to slaughter Obadiah. But it turned out otherwise: "See here! you rascal, cried my father, pointing to the mule, what you have done! — It was not me, said Obadiah. — How do I know that? replied my father." Walter is delighted with the chance to make that remark: "Triumph swam in my father's eyes, at the repartee — . . . and so Obadiah heard no more about it."
Eloquence and witty repartee make up for many things, and Bobby's death gives Walter the chance to make an oration about death and the fall of civilizations. He goes on and on, and poor puzzled Toby is his captive audience. Then, in one of his stories he mentions the word "wife." At that moment, Mrs. Shandy happens to be passing the parlor door, and the word "wife" — "a shrill, penetrating sound of itself" — comes through even more clearly because Obadiah had left the door slightly open. She stops instantly, puts her ear to the door, and listens "with all her powers." Tristram says that he must leave her in that position for "five minutes" in order to tell what has been going on in the kitchen.
The Shandy household is a "simple machine," but, says Tristram, it has "all the honour and advantages of a complex one": "Whatever motion, debate, harangue, dialogue, project, or dissertation, was going forwards in the parlour, there was generally another at the same time, and upon the same subject, running parallel along with it in the kitchen." After Obadiah brought in the letter to Walter, he left the door ajar — ever so little — so that he could hear what the letter was about. "Before my father had well got over his surprize, and entered upon his harangue, Trim is about to speak on the same subject in the kitchen. This system of "communication," Tristram observes, saved "my father the trouble of governing his house." Tristram intends to compare Walter and Trim as orators on the topic of death, "two orators so contrasted by nature and education, haranguing over the same bier."
The announcement by Obadiah in the kitchen — "My young master in London is dead!" — brings a variety of responses: Susannah sees herself acquiring her mistress's colorful wardrobe (since Mrs. Shandy will go into mourning), the "fat foolish scullion" is grateful that she is not dead, and Obadiah himself laments about the work he will have in clearing the Ox-moor (the alternate candidate for Aunt Dinah's legacy). Trim orates on the fleeting quality of life: "Are we not here now," he says, striking the floor with his cane, "and are we not — (dropping his hat upon the ground) gone! in a moment! — " "'Twas infinitely striking," Tristram says admiringly, and the eloquence with which Trim dropped the hat should be a lesson to all men: "Meditate — meditate, I beseech you, upon Trim's hat."
Tristram interrupts himself to recall to the reader that in the previous book he had promised a "chapter upon chamber-maids and button-holes." He has been advised against it, however, because "the two subjects, especially so connected together, might endanger the morals of the world."
Trim continues: "Is not all flesh grass? — 'Tis clay, — 'tis dirt," and everyone "looked directly at the scullion — the scullion had just been scouring a fish-kettle. — It was not fair. — " " — What is the finest face that ever man looked at! . . . what is it! (Susannah laid her hand upon Trim's shoulder) — but corruption? — Susannah took it off." Death, says Trim, is nothing, but it is best to die on the battlefield; each of the servants has his idea of where and how it is best to die. The kitchen cabinet concludes its session with Trim about to recount the story of Uncle Toby and Lieutenant Le Fever (to be told later in Book 6, Chapter 6).
The author remembers that he has left his mother eavesdropping at the parlor door, but before he lets things go forward, he points out that any woman would have been similarly captured by hearing her husband mention the word "wife," particularly in the context that follows. Walter is working the "abstract of Socrates's oration" into his long lament, and he closes with "I have three desolate children" (says Socrates). " — Then, cried my mother, opening the door, — you have one more, Mr. Shandy, than I know of." "By heaven! I have one less, — said my father, getting up and walking out of the room."
Toby explains that "they are Socrates's children," and he leads her to Walter for the rest of the explanation.
The introduction to Book 5 contains a witty joke about plagiarism: the author suggests that he is unable to resist the temptation to borrow from other people's work, but at the same time he pretends to speak harshly about such borrowings. Part of the joke lies in his declaiming against plagiarism, using borrowed language. Both Tristram and Laurence Sterne are jokers, and it often seems that a borrowed passage was inserted to see how many readers would raise a hue and cry about it. The fact of the matter is this: Sterne used everything. Whatever he borrowed took new shape, new direction, and new meaning from the molding power that he exerted on almost everything that came under his hand. Whether the change derived from rearrangement of the components or from mere setting them in his own context, it is always impressive for the insight it gives us into the mechanics of his creative genius. Writing for an urbane and widely read audience, he could not have expected to fool them; we can safely assume that he knew his readers would recognize what he had borrowed and that he gave them credit for seeing the point of the borrowings. No one cried plagiarism until twenty-five years after his death — another and a different generation. And during the Victorian era, all critics felt morally obligated to chastise Sterne for his unacknowledged borrowings, even though some of these critics commented at the same time on the skillful and creative use to which he put those few passages.
Like the sections on noses (end of Book 3 and beginning of Book 4), the Fragment on Whiskers is full of bawdy innuendo; and just as he pointed out that if the world wanted to consider the nose as an indecent symbol, it was the world's responsibility, so he says the same thing about whiskers. There is nothing that is exempt, nothing too farfetched to be considered in two senses, one of them sexual.
Chapters 2 to 14 demonstrate Tristram's intricate planning. A series of causes and effects interrelate these chapters and lead up to one splendid punch line: Obadiah brings the letter with the news of Bobby's death; he leaves the door open a crack so that he can hear what it contains; when he hears the news, he carries it to the kitchen for the other servants; the chance to make a good speech or to have the last word in an argument gives Walter full consolation, no matter how serious the disappointment; the latter point is illustrated by the story of the favorite mare and her mule offspring, the former by his extensive, profusely documented oration on death; the word "wife" coming through the open door halts Mrs. Shandy in her tracks; she misunderstands what Walter is saying, and she charges in to accuse him of philandering: "You have one more . . . than I know of"; he answers with "I have one less [and you don't know about that]." And that's why Walter didn't have to mourn his son's death.
(The story of the favorite mare, the Arabian stallion, and the mule has an important echo in the last chapter of Tristram Shandy in the story of the cock and the bull.)
The events in the kitchen that parallel those in the parlor are part of the human comedy in Tristram Shandy's world. Each of the servants has his own involvement in Bobby's death, each his own selfish (but completely human) response. Death is finally trivial, Tristram seems to suggest; when he presents Trim's oration, the most noteworthy thing he finds to comment on, to draw the reader's attention to, is the eloquence with which Trim dropped his hat to demonstrate how suddenly death strikes. The flirtation between Susannah and Trim — her thinking that the answer to "What is the finest face that ever man looked at" is "Susannah's face" — suffers only a very brief setback when Trim says "corruption"; death affects only the person who dies. There is profundity behind the gay levity of Tristram's storytelling.
The storyteller leaves his mother bent over, listening at the parlor door, as he picks up the thread of parallel events in the kitchen — a digression. But this is more than just an author's trick of presenting simultaneous segments of his story; the implications are uniquely Tristram's: the character is flesh and blood, not just an author's dummy. He has left her for much longer than the scheduled five minutes, and she has a crick in her back from staying bent over. Tristram walks around in the Shandy world; like a stage director, he makes the characters stop and start, but they don't see him (since they're "characters" as well as people). The characters in this world are always vital, but it is a qualified vitality: they are dynamic and they are static — at the same time. These simultaneous conditions supply one of the basic tensions of the novel, a strange but somehow convincing dualism. The Shandys are allowed their independent movement and direction, but they are always subject to the laws of Tristram's consciousness of them. That consciousness, although it does not interfere with their character and their behavior, provides the sunlight by which we see them or the darkness that hides them from us.
Tristram had promised, among other things, a Chapter on Chambermaids and a Chapter on Buttonholes. He unites the two themes to suggest a bawdy interrelationship, and he offers this as an excuse for not writing about them: no bawdy in his book! The "chapter in lieu of it" — Chapter 7 — is bawdier, but only because of what he says about it in Chapter 8: it is a "chapter of chamber-maids, green-gowns, and old hats." Without a footnote, however, no one would even notice it.
With Trim's mention of the story of the "poor lieutenant" (Le Fever), the author prepares the reader for something he will take up forty chapters later (in Book 6, Chapter 6). Trim points out the parallel with something that only he knows about — Toby will "sigh in his bed for a whole month together" about Bobby's death, just as he did when "Le Fever" died. And that is all that Tristram wants to say about the matter here. The author knows what he wants where.