Summary and Analysis
"Had this volume been a farce," Tristram says, the first fourteen chapters would have been the first act. But it isn't a farce, he maintains; by way of transition to the next portion, he speaks of his love of fiddling and his sensitivity to great violin performances.
Walter decides to write a "TRISTRA-paedia, or system of education" for his son. It is his last chance to undo the damage done by the accidents of "geniture, nose, and name." He works at it with the utmost dedication, "with the most painful diligence," and at the end of three years he had "advanced almost into the middle of his work." Since he has begun at the beginning, however, with instructing his son from his birth onward, "the first part of the work, upon which my father had spent the most of his pains, was rendered entirely useless, — every day a page or two became of no consequence. . . . He advanced so very slow with his work, and I began to live and get forwards at such a rate." And then something special happened.
" — 'Twas nothing, — I did not lose two drops of blood by it — 'twas not worth calling in a surgeon, had he lived next door to us — thousands suffer by choice, what I did by accident." Susannah raises little Tristram up to the window seat, lifts the window with one hand, and asks the child if he will, for this once, "**** *** ** *** ******." Down came the window "like lightening upon us; — Nothing is left, — cried Susannah, — nothing is left — for me," but to flee the country. But since Uncle Toby's house was closer, she fled there instead. Thus Tristram was circumcised.
When Susannah tells Corporal Trim about the accident, he realizes that it is his fault, and in order to explain that, Tristram must backtrack.
Uncle Toby had told Trim that they needed more cannon for the fortifications. To get lead for the cannon, Trim had been cutting off drain spouts, rain gutters, and other such things. For this particular request — "a couple of field pieces to mount in the gorge of that new redoubt" — Trim took the two lead weights from the nursery window. "He had dismantled every sash window in my uncle Toby's house long before, in the very same way."
Trim could have kept the matter to himself and let Susannah take the blame, but "he determined at once, not to take shelter behind Susannah." He marched in with Susannah "to lay the whole manoeuvre before" Uncle Toby, who at that moment was giving Parson Yorick "an account of the Battle of Steenkirk." Toby at once takes the blame on himself since, as he says to Trim, "You obeyed your orders." A brief discussion of a similar situation involving military obedience follows (the bad behavior of Count Solmes at the battle of Steenkirk), and after the normal amount of military discussion, all four set off for Shandy Hall. En route, Trim says that he wishes he had cut off the church spout instead of taking the sash weights; Yorick answers: "You have cut off spouts enow."
No one could imagine how his father would react to a new situation, says Tristram; "His road lay so very far on one side, from that wherein most men travelled." To explain, Tristram must go back (to the accident itself; he has already gone past it). Critics must not mind because "provided he keeps along the line of his story," an author "may go backwards and forwards as he will."
Apart from the division of the individual volumes of the book into chapters, some "normal" and others mere asides or statements underlining the point of the normal chapters, the author clearly has a plan of organization constantly in mind. The first fourteen chapters of Book 5 deal with rhetoric on death and with Walter's response to Bobby's death. When that is over with, the author presents the second theme of this volume, his father's scheme for Tristram's education: the Tristra-paedia.
In writing his manual for the education of Tristram, Walter has the same problems that his son will have later in composing his Life and Opinions. To put it another way, Tristram has inherited his father's characteristics; the family resemblance between father and son is obvious. The trouble that Walter has in keeping his instruction abreast of his son's growth is the same thing that Tristram complains of in Book 4, Chapter 13: "I am this month one whole year older than I was this time twelve-month; and having got . . . almost into the middle of my fourth volume — and no farther than to my first day's life — 'tis demonstrative that I have three hundred and sixty-four days more life to write just now, than when I first set out."
The story of the accidental circumcision — not an accident of the same magnitude as the other accidents — is sprung on us first by Tristram's saying that the consequences of something were trivial and then by showing us the scene itself. The use of asterisks for the indelicate object (the chamber pot) and the indelicate action is itself delicate and interesting: the reader easily succeeds in filling in the words — one letter for each asterisk, with a space between words.
Tristram's control of syntax and the pause between phrases is masterfully demonstrated in Susannah's horrorstruck cry: "Nothing is left." Fortunately, she exaggerates.
To explain the cause of the accident, Tristram must obviously digress and go back to show cause and effect: two more cannon are required for the Toby-Trim mini-fortifications; lead is required for casting cannon; no more lead remains to be plundered in Toby's house; sash weights are a good source of lead; the nursery windows at Shandy Hall are the last used; Susannah didn't know that when she raised the window it wouldn't stay up. And there we have it. As Tristram suggests, how else could one have told this story? When we consider the alternative of straight-line, natural sequence of time narration (for example, one day Trim needed more lead for cannon, so he did this and that; and one day shortly afterward, Susannah asked Tristram to urinate out of the window, and then the window fell down), we see that it just wouldn't have been worth it: emphasis, point of view, piquancy would all have been lost. And then, how could Tristram have justified the "one day Trim needed more lead for cannon"?
The comic-epic quality is present in the troop that marches to Shandy Hall. They have discussed problems of military strategy, and a frontal attack is clearly the only maneuver possible. Attack is not necessary, however, since the unpredictable Walter is about to find that the accident is a blessing in disguise. And once again, there is no way that Tristram can present his father's reaction without digressing backward to the scene of the accident.