Summary and Analysis
Book 3: Chapters 21-30
For ten years, Walter resolved to have the parlor-door hinge mended: three drops of oil would have done it. Tristram (who hasn't fixed it yet) resolves to do it within his own lifetime.
Corporal Trim has been making model mortars for the fortifications, and he proudly carries them to the parlor to show them to his master. The squeaking hinge wakes up Walter, who is distressed to find that to make the mortars, Trim has cut off the tops of a pair of heirloom boots. He is pacified, however, and "brought into perfect good humour with them in an instant" when Toby says that all of his concern with the fortifications is "for the good of the nation."
Trim tells them that Dr. Slop is in the kitchen, "making a bridge." Toby says, "Tell him I thank him heartily." But Toby is mistaken about what the bridge is, and in order to explain that, Tristram says he must tell about something that should really come in later. He explains the problems of digression again: if he waits till later, "I ruin the story I'm upon, — and if I tell it here — I anticipate matters, and ruin it there." He calls on the "POWERS" to set up a guidepost to show a poor author which way to go.
When Uncle Toby began to court Widow Wadman, Trim courted her maid, Bridget. But when Toby ceased courting his paramour, Trim continued to meet his on the sly for five years. One evening, shortly before the night of Tristram's birth, Trim met Bridget and decided to show her the fortifications by moonlight. Somehow the little Dutch drawbridge "was crush'd all to pieces that very night." Walter has been teasing Toby and Trim ever since; Toby believes it to have been a simple accident (Trim slipped and they both fell on the bridge) and thanks providence that "the poor fellow did not break his leg," but Walter borrows Toby's military metaphor and speaks of the power of Trim's artillery.
They set out to build a new bridge but can't decide on the proper model — for current military and political reasons. Toby thinks that one type with a lead weight in "eternal ballance" may be just the thing, but it is "cycloid" in shape, and he doesn't know enough about cycloids. So "the bridge went not forwards. — We'll ask somebody about it, cried my uncle Toby to Trim."
When Trim announced that Dr. Slop was making a bridge, Walter is about to begin teasing and baiting them again. "Trim's answer, in an instant, tore the laurel from his brows, and twisted it to pieces": "'Tis a bridge for master's nose. — In bringing him into the world with his vile instruments, he has crush'd his nose . . . as flat as a pancake to his face." " — Lead me, brother Toby, cried my father, to my room this instant."
Tristram feels melancholy about his father's misery, and it makes his writing more sober and serious. "A tide of little evils and distresses has been setting in against" his father, and "now is the storm thicken'd, and going to break, and pour down full upon his head."
Man bears pain and sorrow "(and, for aught I know, pleasure too)" best in a horizontal position, and Walter throws himself face down across his bed. His posture is in every detail that of a man "borne down with sorrows"; the knuckles of his left hand are "reclining upon the handle of the chamber pot." Toby sits quietly in a chair at the opposite side of the bed.
Although any man would be distressed at "the breaking down of the bridge of a child's nose, by the edge of a pair of forceps," Tristram must explain why his father was so extravagant in his grief. To do so, "I must leave him upon the bed for half an hour, — and my good uncle Toby . . . beside him."
Among the lesser evils that plague Walter is the squeaking hinge that always disturbs his naps; his involvement with great projects and theories and his absolute incompetence in dealing with little matters are two of the ironies of his character. His son, Tristram, isn't very much different: although he sees the irony in his father's incompetence, he has obviously inherited the inability to cope with small problems.
Toby's illusion about the importance of his hobby is funny, but our laughter at it doesn't obscure the inherent humanity and altruism in his character. Walter and Toby's love for each other is shown several times, not only in Walter's ready forgiveness about the heirloom boots but also in Toby's sympathy with Walter's shock about Tristram's nose.
The problems of story and digression are again dealt with, and our understanding of Tristram's method grows with his discussion of the choices he has to make about when to introduce parts of his story. His comments about the helplessness he feels serve to underline his techniques.
These techniques are undeniably effective. When we analyze the order of story and digression, we find this arrangement of cause and effect: a bridge is mentioned; Toby mistakes the bridge, we are told; Toby has courted Widow Wadman and Trim had courted Bridget; Trim continued his courtship, although Toby discontinued his; the drawbridge was destroyed in Trim's courtship; Walter teased Toby and Trim about the destruction of the drawbridge; Toby doesn't know enough about the new bridge he intends to build; Dr. Slop is "making a bridge"; Walter begins to tease again; the bridge is for a smashed nose. Each of the antecedent events needs to be told if we are to know the entire situation. The accumulation of these events makes the whole story far more profound than it could be otherwise; and because the author tells us what he is "forced" to do in order to present that story, we escape the boredom we might otherwise feel.
Forward-pointing as well as recapitulation of past events is important: again Tristram mentions Uncle Toby's courtship of Widow Wadman, promising still again that he will tell that story later. And he will tell it, in every detail, in the last two volumes of the book.
The shattering of Walter's hopes is very funny — because he is caught in his own teasing — and also very poignant. Tristram feels compassion for his father, but he is always able to laugh, at himself and at his own difficulties as well as at others. He'll laugh at Walter's hand resting on the chamber pot (shortly), and that is one of the justifications for his describing Walter's position with the eye of a painter and a poet
Having gotten his father to the point of grieving over Tristram's nose, the author must now take an extended tour backward to explain.