Summary and Analysis
Book 4: Chapters 1-14
Tristram tells the tale from Slawkenbergius' "great book." On facing pages, he presents the "original Latin" (for several pages): a stranger with a very large nose passes through the town of Strasburg and sets the townspeople on their ears. The people are aflame with curiosity about him and about his nose; all of his gestures are carefully noticed and commented upon. He mutters to his mule and refers to an unfortunate affair with "Julia." Among others, many nuns are troubled and stirred up by the sight of his nose. Learned men in Strasburg comment at great length on the nose. The tale, after furnishing the occasion for a discussion of Luther and his theology, ends with the encounter between the long-nosed stranger (Diego) and the brother of Julia, who has been pining away with love for Diego.
The tenth tale of Slawkenbergius, the one following the tale that Tristram has just translated, is a masterpiece, Tristram tells the reader. He merely hints at its contents, leaving the reader (the lady reader) eternally in doubt as to whether the stranger's nose was a true one or a false one.
Walter has been lying across the bed for an hour and a half. He wiggles his toes and stretches his hand — the one lying across the handle of the chamber pot. When he realizes what it is, he gives a "hem!" and raises himself to his elbow. The sight gladdens Toby's heart. When Walter rhetorically asks, "Did ever a poor unfortunate man . . . receive so many lashes?" Toby answers, "The most I ever saw given . . . was to a grenadier, I think in Makay's regiment," and Walter collapses again upon the quilt.
A discussion follows between Toby and Corporal Trim about the whipping of the grenadier in Makay's regiment, who Trim contends was innocent. Trim's good nature is shown by the tears he sheds at the memory of the injustice; Toby weeps also. Toby tells Walter that he has left Trim his bowling-green in his will, and Walter smiles; Toby then tells him that he has also left Trim a pension, and Walter looks grave.
Tristram records the attitudes and positions of his father in getting up from the bed; attitudes are important because they are the "resolution of the discord into harmony, which is all in all." Walter rises and addresses his brother about the misfortunes that afflict humanity. In his simple fashion, Toby believes that God will take care of everything, but Walter points out that that is no solution: humanity carries its share of counteracting and undoing misfortune. In order to "set my child's nose on" (religion "makes every thing straight for us," Toby says), "He shall be christened Trismegistus," says Walter. Toby piously hopes that that will do the trick.
As they walk down the stairs, Walter comments on the incredible laws of chance that accounted for the forceps breaking his child's nose; Toby points out that it could have been worse: "Suppose the hip had presented" itself. Walter agrees.
Tristram tells about the chapters he has been planning to write, and he wonders how he will ever get them all done. He tells about his capriciousness, how he ends a scene when he has something else to do — just as he has now left his father and his uncle upon the stairs in order to write his chapter on Chapters.
Still on the stairs, Walter tells Toby what a great man Trismegistus was. Susannah rushes by; Walter inquires about his wife and the child, but Susannah is gone in a flash. Commenting upon the burden that women have in bearing children, Toby says "God bless them" and Walter says "Devil take them" simultaneously.
How can he get his father and his uncle off the stairs? Tristram asks the help of literary critics about how to proceed. And while he is on the subject of needing help, he points out that after writing for a year, he is in the middle of his fourth book and has just gotten to the point of telling about his first day of life (and not even that). He worries about the slow progress of the book: he has 364 days more to write about than when he started. How will it ever get finished? Obviously he will be writing all the rest of his life, and there is no hope of ever catching up: "I shall never overtake myself." "Heaven prosper the manufacturers of paper," he wishes because there are going to be many volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy!
Somehow his father and Uncle Toby have gotten down the stairs.
Because the child is apparently expiring, Susannah runs to Walter's room to ask what name he should be baptized with before he dies. He tells her "Trismegistus," but he doubts that she can remember the name: "Thou art a leaky vessel, Susannah, . . . canst thou carry Trismegistus in thy head, the length of the gallery without scattering?" She is off like a shot, with Walter trying to find his breeches so that he can make sure she gets the name right. She has a head start, however, and when she tells the curate that the name begins with "Tris-," he says that it must be "Tristram"; "Then 'tis Tristram-gistus," she insists. There is no such name, insists the curate (his name also happens to be Tristram). The child is baptized, "and so Tristram was I called, and Tristram shall I be to the day of my death." Walter arrives and asks the curate if Susannah remembered the name. The curate, "with a tone of intelligence," assures him that she did, and Walter goes slowly back to bed.
With much restraint, Tristram plays peek-a-boo with the reader in his tale "translated from Slawkenbergius"; the answer to the question, Does the author have a dirty mind? must come from the reader. The tale is suggestive without a doubt, but the humor and the exaggeration are much more important than the symbolism. No one today would feel that he was "sidling up and whispering a nasty story," as Thackeray said of him last century. Bawdy is bawdy, and no one would deny that Tristram has a sizable streak of bawdiness in his makeup. We are not shocked by the facts of life, however, in these decades, and we are more capable of seeing the expression of those facts as part of the character of Tristram. The satire on philosophical and theological pedantry is fully as important to the writer as the nose symbolism, and to read it primarily as a bawdy tale is to read it with at least one eye closed. Further, Tristram is at work here to see what the reader will admit to himself about himself.
Tristram returns to his father on the bed, reminding us again that he has forgotten nothing. The humor of Walter's hand lying across the chamber-pot handle and his chagrin about it put the gravity of the situation into perspective: the crushing of his child's nose isn't so very serious except that Walter thinks it is.
Toby's literalness — one of his dominant traits — again knocks Walter down; the metaphor of man receiving lashes means nothing to Toby. Lashes are lashes, and he knows someone who received a far greater number of them than Walter.
Sentimentalism — the quality that supposedly makes people better because of the tender feelings they experience — runs riot in the scene where Toby and Trim discuss the injustice of the whipping. Both are very much moved by the remembered scene, both shed tears. Tristram seems to have a sense of proportion about the value of sentiment; just as his father has: Walter approves of Toby when the latter says that he is leaving his fortifications to Trim because of Trim's good heart, but Walter feels that Toby is carrying sentiment too far when he says that he is leaving Trim money as well. Sentiment shouldn't cost anyone anything, in Tristram's and Walter's understanding of it.
Tristram explains again the importance of describing the details of a person's posture: the reader learns much more about an individual in that way. This basis for the analysis of Tristram's people is the same as the hobby-horse; everything a person is interested in, together with his posture, gestures, and mannerisms, helps us to understand what he is truly like.
The third accident is about to take place: the misnaming. Tristrarn has prepared us for this as far back as Book 1, Chapter 19, where he tells us his father's theory about names. Here we see how much Walter is banking on the name as an antidote to the smashed nose, and we will be prepared for his disappointment when he learns of the misnaming. To make matters even worse, there is false consolation in Toby's reminding Walter that if the child's "hip" had been grabbed by the forceps, he would have regretted it much more. The "hip" too will have its turn (later), and Walter will have a chance to do more lamenting.
Tristram discusses his authorial difficulties again, telling us that it isn't easy to write a book like his. How do authors manage to introduce unrelated chapters? How can an author express himself on a subject that isn't in the least related to his "story"? We see how Tristram does it: he merely goes ahead and does it; and in pointing out the apparent lack of unity, he shows us what Tristram and his book are like — different from everyone else. The difficulty in getting his father and uncle down the stairs has a moral to it: other writers just drop a curtain on the scene, and the reader takes for granted that everything worked out as it was supposed to. But this writer wants us to see that nothing happens by chance. The writer has the responsibility of taking care of every detail, and if he is to do his job well, he can't take the easy way out. We see the author doing his work and explaining it to us as he does it.
He raises the problem again of catching up with his life: if a life is to be the subject of a book, mustn't all of it be written down for the reader? Obviously it cannot. The question that the reader will ultimately ask is whether Tristram Shandy was finally finished, and the answer will probably be yes and no both. At any rate, the question is an interesting one, and the picture of the writer desperately trying to catch up with himself is a piquant one. We can say that he knows of the problems as well as we do — or, better, he makes us aware of what he knows — and that too is part of the individuality of this writer.
When Susannah comes for the name of the child, and Walter tells her "Trismegistus," we know already what is going to happen. One can almost believe in the unfortunate destiny of the child. Nobody works for Walter; everyone works against him. Susannah almost gets the name right — "Tristram-gistus" — but the ignorance of the curate swings the balance in the wrong direction: he had simply never heard of the name.
Shandean humor — i.e., things aren't really as funny as they seem — dominates. Walter, falsely reassured about the name, goes back to bed. Does Walter believe that everything is all right? — he goes slowly back to his bedroom.