Summary and Analysis
"I think," said Uncle Toby, "it would not be amiss, brother, if we rung the bell." They then learn that Mrs. Shandy has begun labor; Mrs. Shandy has sent Susannah for the old midwife, and Walter sends Obadiah for Dr. Slop (who lives eight miles away).
In answer to Walter's question as to why Mrs. Shandy insists on having the old midwife when an expert obstetrician is available, Toby says, "My sister, I dare say, . . . does not care to let a man come so near her ****." Tristram points out the beauty of those four asterisks; it is impossible to say whether Toby added a word or left the sentence as given above.
Walter considers the idea ridiculous and says so. Toby demurs, pointing out that he knows practically nothing about women, and he alludes to the "shock I received the year after the demolition of Dunkirk, in my affair with the widow Wadman; — which shock you know I should not have received, but from my total ignorance of the sex." As Walter is about to tell his brother about the "right end [and] the wrong" end of a woman, there is a loud rap at the door.
Tristram says that "it is about an hour and a half's tolerable good reading since my uncle Toby rung the bell, when Obadiah was order'd to saddle a horse, and go for Dr. Slop." (He is referring to what happened — although we didn't see it — when he interrupted Toby's sentence in Book 1, Chapter 21.) The critics might say that it has been only "two minutes, thirteen seconds, and three fifths" — referring to the moment when Tristram actually does tell us the end of Toby's sentence (two short chapters back), and Obadiah is sent off on the eight-mile trip to fetch Dr. Slop. If the critic insists that Obadiah could not have gotten there and back already, then Tristram concedes that actually Obadiah met Dr. Slop "three-score yards from the stable-yard"! The doctor was coming by "merely to see how matters went on."
Tristram asks the reader to "imagine to yourself" Dr. Slop, a "little, squat, uncourtly figure of a Doctor Slop, of about four feet and a half perpendicular height," knocked off his little pony into the mud by Obadiah, who comes charging around the corner of the stable on his big coach horse.
Walter and Toby are astounded to see him, the former measuring in his mind the very short time elapsed since he rang the bell to send off Obadiah. The same phenomenon instantly brings into Toby's mind "Stevinus, the great engineer." Tristram promises to explain why, "but not in the next chapter."
Writing is like conversation, says Tristram: you leave your partner something to imagine. Imagine, then, he says, Dr. Slop all cleaned up and changed. But Dr. Slop has left his bag of obstetrical instruments at home.
Obadiah is dispatched again to get them.
Toby tells Dr. Slop that his "sudden and unexpected arrival" reminded him of the great Stevinus. Walter bets that Stevinus is a writer on fortifications, and so he is. Toby lectures Dr. Slop about military terminology until Walter expostulates with him about his lack of feeling for Mrs. Shandy's "pains of labour." "I wish the whole science of fortification, with all its inventors, at the devil."
Toby does not take offense; apropos of his gentleness, Tristram observes that "my uncle Toby had scarce a heart to retaliate upon a fly," and he tells the story of Uncle Toby and the fly. Once, he caught an "overgrown" fly that had "tormented him cruelly all dinner-time," and he put it out the window saying, "Go poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee? — This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me." Tristram learned "one half of [his] philanthropy" from that event.
Toby's good nature moves Walter to beg his pardon, and the brothers are tenderly reconciled. Walter, by the way, announces that the conception of children doesn't give him much pleasure.
Toby picks up the subject of Stevinus again; that famous engineer had built a wind-propelled "sailing chariot" that traveled on land. Dr. Slop's improbably-speedy appearance seemed to be due to such a contrivance. Dr. Slop has himself seen the machine in Holland, and he points out its superiority over horses, "which . . . both cost and eat a great deal." Walter begins his theory of economics but is interrupted by the opening of the door.
Tristram really has gotten us back to Toby's interrupted sentence and back to the parlor.
The battle about "midwife vs. Dr. Slop" goes on, and Toby takes Mrs. Shandy's side. His statement about Mrs. Shandy's modesty provides Tristram with the excuse for a bawdy joke: did he or didn't he intend a word after the sentence? These are jokes for Tristram, and they might also be jokes for Walter, but not for Toby. When he alludes to "widow Wadman" and his "shock," we know nothing about that yet; it will be the major part of the plot of Books 8 and 9. But if we remember then the things that Tristram is telling us now about his uncle, we will have full insight into the event and its consequences.
The mention that Toby makes of the affair with Widow Wadman underscores Tristram's time scheme: Tristram is being born this evening, Toby refers to the shock that he received five years before, the novel ends with the events leading up to that shock and its aftermath — five years before Tristram was born.
Tristram again makes fun of critics and rules for writing novels — unity of time and place, in particular. It is diabolically clever, the way he has imposed two periods of time on Obadiah's going for Dr. Slop: the one and one-half hour stretch between Book 1, Chapter 21, and Book 2, Chapter 8, and the two minutes and thirteen seconds between Book 2, Chapter 6, and Book 2, Chapter 8. Either could work, depending on whether or not a critic actually brought up the matter; as it happens, the critic does bring it up, so Tristram resolves it by explaining that Dr. Slop was just outside. Tristram is constantly busy outthinking and outwitting everybody.
The description of Dr. Slop on his pony and the collision with Obadiah is a masterpiece of figure-drawing; every gesture and movement is described with jewel-like precision. We know that Sterne was an amateur artist, and Tristram says the same about himself in the first mention of hobby-horses. Visual description is a constant element in the book; minute details are given so that we see what is going on.
When Toby is reminded of Stevinus, we have another example of "mad" Associationism: Dr. Slop must have come in a wind-driven machine like Stevinus'. Tristram manipulates the Stevinus motif the way he did the interrupted "I think — ": he leads up to it and backs away, teasing us with it before finally telling us the why of the association in Toby's mind.
The episode of Uncle Toby and the fly has always been a favorite. Many people who reject Tristram Shandy as too chaotic, too bawdy, or too dull cherish this story among others. The story illustrates the eighteenth-century doctrines of benevolence and sentimentalism: the tender emotions of the reader are awakened by such gentleness and delicacy of feeling. It was physically constructive and healthful to experience and participate in such tenderness and goodness. Fortunately, Uncle Toby is such a truly good character with other interesting and delightful traits that we don't see him as a one-sided goody-goody. Earlier readers were quite content to interpret him in that light, however. The writer of the book enjoys his own delicate sensibility (i.e., sensitivity) and his responses to those delicate emotions. At the same time, however, he (both Tristram and Sterne) suggests in a subtle way that it is somewhat phony, exaggerated, and superficial: note, for example, how Toby speaks to the fly — "I'll not hurt a hair of thy head." After all, it's a fly. Nevertheless, Toby's goodness is touching and real, and it is easy to share William Hazlitt's opinion that he is "one of the finest compliments ever paid to human nature."
Two more of Walter's theories never get told: On the Right and Wrong Ends of a Woman, and On Economics.