Summary and Analysis
Book 1: Chapters 13-18
Tristram recalls his duty to continue the story of the midwife so that the reader will remember "that there is such a body still in the world," but again he has other things to say first. One of them is to remind the reader that by "world," he means only "about four or five miles": his village and its environs. He has prepared a map of that world, which is in the hands of the engravers; it will be added "to the end of the twentieth volume." The reader is told this "in confidence," and he is asked not to mention it to the Reviewers.
Apropos of looking something up in his mother's marriage settlement, he says again that there are many things that a man, writing a history such as his, must do as he goes along: "For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make which he can no ways avoid." He knows that his story isn't making much headway: "I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could, — and am not yet born." He speaks of his digressions as "unforeseen stoppages . . . which . . . will rather increase than diminish," but he intends to keep at it, writing and publishing two volumes of his life every year.
One of the articles in his mother's marriage settlement — quoted in full legal language with Gothic lettering — stipulated that Mrs. Shandy could choose to give birth in London if she desired. A second clause added that if she had some sort of false alarm, she forfeited "the next turn." She had such a false alarm the year before Tristram was born, and Mr. Shandy insisted that she have her child at Shandy Hall when the "next turn" came. He was very angry about the wasted trip, and on the eve of Tristram's conception he told his wife that she was "to lye-in of her next child in the country to balance the last year's journey."
She plans to make the most of it, and since a certain famous obstetrician isn't available, she decides to have the village midwife. Tristram interrupts (on the day "I am now writing this book for the edification of the world . . . March 9, 1759") to observe that people go from one extreme to the other, illustrating his point by telling of something his "dear, dear Jenny" did the other day.
Mr. Shandy, thinking about public opinion in case anything should go wrong with the birth, engages the man-midwife, Dr. Slop, but Mrs. Shandy will have no one but the midwife herself. They finally agree that Dr. Slop will just stand by in case of trouble, and that the midwife will assist at the birth.
Tristram reminds the reader that when he spoke of his "dear, dear Jenny," he might have been referring to a daughter or merely to a good friend. A female reader ("Madam") whom he speaks to directly seems to doubt that she is anyone but his "kept mistress." Tristram, however, admits nothing.
Tristram says specifically that there is no predictable end to his history of himself; he will simply keep writing until he dies. One reason is that as he writes, he is constantly reminded of other related matters that he ought to tell about. This is the "Psychology of the train of ideas," or stream-of-consciousness, which is the common property everyone; one thing reminds him of another, and that reminds him of something else, and so on. (This stream-of-consciousness is not to be confused with the Associationism mentioned earlier, John Locke's name for what he considered a kind of madness.)
All of these related ideas are legitimate material for a complete history of an individual, the kind he intends to write. Needless to say, the "story" seems to suffer, but we notice that he always comes around to the point sooner or later. It seems that the writer is deliberately frustrating us, and perhaps he is. But the picture of the writer himself gets clearer and clearer in the meantime, and that is apparently just as important to him.
The author reminds us of what he is doing in case we don't get the point. Theoretically, he is describing his birth, but after six weeks of writing he is still far from it. The story is kept from advancing not only by such things as the marriage articles and Mrs. Shandy's insistence on the midwife, but also by Tristram's presentation of the man holding the pen: he plans so many books, he has other stories to tell, he knows a girl named Jenny, he tells the reader that a Platonic relationship is possible between himself and Jenny, and so on. He gives specific dates (for example, he is writing Book 1 on March 9, 1759) that are real only for himself; all the other characters are dead by then.
One question that comes up regularly is this: Is what Tristram has to say about himself as important as the story that he interrupts? The answer to this can come only after the reader has finished the book. Another question is this: Does Sterne actually expect to finish his book, does he, like Tristram, plan to go on and on indefinitely? One possible answer to this latter question is that the reader comes to see how impossible it is ever to exhaust the thoughts and opinions of an individual; in saying that he expects to go on publishing two books a year for life, Tristram (and Sterne) is saying that completeness and endings are purely relative ideas. Whenever he stops, the book will be finished in a certain sense; and in another sense, it can never be finished.
Everything has relevance so far. We begin to see that Yorick's horses, the midwife's license, the marriage article, the man-midwife (Dr. Slop) are all part of the chain of events leading up to Tristram's birth. The nose that was destined to be squeezed flat is explained by each of those facts.
Tristram's "dear, dear Jenny" and the innuendo of her relationship to Tristram are another part of his character. Sexuality, serious and non-serious, is woven into the fabric of the story; although there is a constant suggestion that it is hopelessly bungled and unsatisfactory, it is a basic element in their lives — as in all life.
We see Walter Shandy's hobby beginning to unfold in these chapters. It consists of theories and hypotheses. Walter will hold forth by the hour, orating on one subject after another, throughout the book.