In spite of his clearly stated intention to go on to the story of Uncle Toby's amours, Tristram seriously doubts that he will be able to avoid "bastardly" digressions. He will, however, try his best.
Beginning with the half-sentence "It is with LOVE as with CUCKOLDOM — ," Tristram interrupts to talk about his way of beginning a book. He is confident that his way of doing it is the best (further, "it is the most religious"): "I begin with writing the first sentence — and trusting to Almighty God for the second."
After a little digression on his "great aunt Dinah's old black velvet mask" — because the Shandy women have shown their faces in public, they have attracted fewer distinguished husbands — Tristram finishes his sentence, "It is with LOVE as with CUCKOLDOM — ": "the suffering party is . . . the last in the house who knows any thing about the matter." Hearing about if finally from the servants, Uncle Toby had "to look into the affair."
Water-drinkers supposedly have "some tender nymph breaking her heart in secret for them," as a rule. Tristram doesn't really understand why "a rill of cold water dribbling through my inward parts, should light up a torch in my Jenny's — ," but it does. Unfortunately, Uncle Toby is not a water-drinker: "He drank it neither pure nor mix'd, or any how, or any where" if he could avoid it. Tristram's theory doesn't seem to work, and he himself is at a loss to explain what he is doing in this chapter: "One would think I took a pleasure in running into difficulties of this kind, merely to make fresh experiments of getting out of em." He enumerates his other troubles, among them this: "and is it but two months ago, that in a fit of laughter, on seeing a cardinal make water like a . . . [choir boy] (with both hands)," he broke a vessel in his lungs and lost two quarts of blood. The doctors told him that if he had lost as much more, "it would have amounted to a gallon."
"But for heaven's sake, . . . let us take the story straight before us," Tristram says, as if we somehow have been leading him away from it.
When Toby and Trim rushed down to the country to start on their fortifications (Book 2, Chapter 5, and more recently, Book 6, Chapter 21), Shandy Hall was "at that time unfurnished; and the little inn where poor Le Fever died, not yet built." He didn't have a bed to sleep in so "he was constrained to accept of a bed at Mrs. Wadman's, for a night or two" until Trim could build him one in his own house. Seeing Uncle Toby in her house among her "goods and chattels," Mrs. Wadman begins to consider him a part of it; Uncle Toby "gets foisted into her inventory."
Mrs. Wadman has cold feet in bed, especially in the "many bleak and decemberly nights of a seven years widowhood." She wears extra-long nightgowns which her maid, Bridget, pins up at the bottom to keep her feet warm. The first night of Toby's stay, she sat up until midnight, thinking; the second night, she "took out her marriage-settlement, and read it over with great devotion"; the third night, "(which was the last of my uncle Toby's stay)," as Bridget was about to pin up the nightgown, she "kick'd the pin out of her fingers. . . . From all which it was plain that the widow Wadman was in love with my uncle Toby." Uncle Toby was busy, however, with the wars, and it wasn't until the demolition of Dunkirk (following the Treaty of Utrecht) — almost eleven years later — that he stopped being busy.
Tristram sympathizes with Widow Wadman because he says that he is like her in not being able "to go on and love . . . or let it alone," that is, make a decision one way or the other in the face of indifference. He loves and hates alternately the women who don't reciprocate his feeling, and he alphabetically summarizes the extravagant qualities of love.
The position of Widow Wadman's house enabled her to watch the campaigns on the bowling green: "She could observe my uncle Toby's motions, and was mistress likewise of his councils of war" because Bridget persuaded Trim to suggest to Uncle Toby that they put in a little gate between her yard and his: "It enabled her to carry on her approaches to the very door of the sentry-box."
"It is a great pity," says Tristram, that a man "may be set on fire like a candle, at either end — provided there is a sufficient wick standing out." He prefers to be set on fire from the top, from his head to his heart to his liver and so on down. Widow Wadman "predetermined to light my uncle Toby neither at this end or that; but like a prodigal's candle, to light him, if possible, at both ends at once." The means were ready at hand: whenever a campaign was going on, Uncle Toby would tack up inside the sentry box "a plan of the place, fasten'd up with two or three pins at the top, but loose at the bottom." And when the attack was ready, "Mrs. Wadman had nothing more to do, when she had got advanced to the door of the sentry-box, but to extend her right hand; and edging in her left foot at the same movement, to take hold of the map or plan, . . . and with out-stretched neck meeting it half way, — to advance it towards her." With his pipe, Uncle Toby would begin the explanation of the campaign. She would take the pipe from him under the pretext of "pointing more distinctly at some redoubt or breast-work in the map," but what she really wanted was to make him point with his finger. His hand seemed never to be pointing at the right place, Tristrarn says: "Mrs. Wadman had it ever to take up, or, with the gentlest pushings, protrusions, or equivocal compressions, that a hand to be removed is capable of receiving — to get it press'd a hair breadth of one side out of her way." And meanwhile, "her leg . . . slightly press'd against the calf of his." Among a "bundle of original papers and drawings which my father took care to roll up by themselves," Tristram has found a campaign map, and from the pin punctures and "snuffy finger and thumb" prints (which he takes to be those of Widow Wadman), he considers this theory to be confirmed.
If anyone knows himself well, it is Tristram. The digressions that he "fears" will come between him and the straight-line story of Toby's amours amount to about 10 in the first 17 chapters. Couldn't they have been avoided somehow? Well, yes. There was an explanation early in the novel (among others) which it would be well to recall: "If he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along. . . . He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually solliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly" (Book 1, Chapter 14).
Tristram's guise of "careless disport" is on him again. He writes, he says, by putting down the first sentence, and God only knows what the second one will be. This nonchalance is so very convincing that it is almost a pity that it isn't true; the writer is almost unbelievably careful about the working out of the details, the interrelationship between the events and the ideas they stimulate both in himself and in the reader. He pretends that he doesn't know how but somehow it works: "observe how one sentence of mine follows another, and how the plan follows the whole."
The digression on Aunt Dinah's mask and the effect of masks or their absence on the Shandy lineage is one of the many points at which the reader may be baffled. One often feels that the only way to solve the crux completely is by immersing oneself in eighteenth-century culture. There are many such reefs beneath the waters of Tristram Shandy.
Concerning Tristram's "difficulties" with his subject in Chapters 5 and 6, one is safe in saying that it is true, that Tristram does take pleasure in running into difficulties so that he can try new ways of getting out of them. An important purpose is served by his reminding the reader that authors have problems: he is an author and he wants us to see him constantly and not get too wrapped up in "Shandy adventures." Another thing is that the culmination of the "amours" has to be put off as long as possible; therefore, when he gets to them in Chapter 10, he is going to begin again at the beginning for the nth time.
Still seriously ill, Tristram is able to tie his recent hemorrhage to the ridiculous sight of the cardinal making water. And the levity with which he treats doctors is consistent with the rest of his personality: the considered diagnosis of the doctors was that four quarts make a gallon — two plus two equals four.
Widow Wadman is a pleasant creation. She wants a husband to help keep her feet warm in bed and to provide her with certain other creature comforts (as we will see in the next book). The wiles she uses to make Uncle Toby conscious of her love for him are as carefully planned as his own campaigns; the battles of the War of the Spanish Succession are paralleled by the battle of the sexes that she wages fruitlessly for the same eleven or twelve years (1701-1713). Humanity and its outlines are delicately drawn by the author: when she kicks the tucking-in pin from Bridget's hands, she is announcing her motives, her hopes, and her love in the single rakish movement. The movements of Eve, the seductress, have rarely been so beautifully described as they are by Tristram; the scene at the sentry box — she attacking in her own battle under the pretext of wanting to know about Uncle Toby's battle, he barely conscious of what is happening — is surely one of the subtlest descriptions of amatory maneuvers in literature. Tristram is more eloquent with fingers than some writers are with whole bodies; the abetting pressure of leg against leg is sexier, but unnecessary.
Supporting documents are again brought in to rationalize the author's omniscience (one of Toby's maps among Walter's papers), and Tristram the sentimentalist treasures the map for the past that it evokes.