Summary and Analysis
The child screams, and his mother comes running to the nursery; Susannah, meanwhile, makes her escape down the back stairs, telling the story in mid-flight to the cook. Walter learns of it from Obadiah. He takes a look and then retires to his library to consult the classical authorities on the value of circumcision. His conclusion is that if all the nations of antiquity, "if SOLON and PYTHAGORAS submitted — what is TRIS-TRAM? — Who am I, that I should fret or fume one moment about the matter?"
With good humor, Walter tells the advancing party, "This Tristram of ours, I find, comes very hardly by all his religious rites. — Never was the son of Jew, Christian, Turk, or Infidel initiated into them in so oblique and slovenly a manner." As Walter and Yorick bandy back and forth the opinions of the authorities, Toby is unable to figure out his nephew's condition. Apropos of Toby's question of what a "polemic divine" is, Yorick tells the story of Gymnast and Tripet; Toby and Trim do not understand.
Walter decides to read to the assembled a "short chapter or two" of his Tristra-paedia; Toby and Trim settle back to suffer since, as Walter says, "The first thirty pages . . . are a little dry." The manual for Tristram's education begins with an introduction to "political or civil government" designed to show "the foundation of the natural relation between a father and his child." Quite natural, says Yorick. When Walter quotes Justinian's "The son ought to pay her [his mother] respect," Yorick says that he can read that in the Catechism. Toby comments: "Trim can repeat every word of it by heart." Yorick asks Trim to quote the Fifth Commandment, but Toby points out that it must be asked properly. He raises his voice and gives the command: "The fifth — " "I must begin with the first, an' please your honour, said the corporal." When he finally gets to the fifth, Walter finds an inspired moral: " — SCIENCES MAY BE LEARNED BY ROTE, BUT WISDOM NOT." Walter is sure that Trim has no "idea annexed to any one word he has repeated," but when he asks Trim what he means by honoring his father and mother, Trim gives an answer that pleases Yorick mightily: "Allowing them, an' please your honour, three halfpence a day out of my pay, when they grew old." And since Trim really did so, Walter is bested once again.
Going on to the next chapter, Walter discourses on health: "The whole secret of health" depends on the struggle for supremacy between "the radical heat and the radical moisture." Yorick asks whether Walter has proved it, and Walter says complacently that he has — and only that. Yorick is spared the proof, but not the reader: Tristram describes his father's proofs and reasoning, how he built his theory on the rubble that he made of Francis Bacon's hypothesis. Walter continues with his interpretation of radical heat and radical moisture ("an oily and balsamous substance") and their importance to the child; his conclusion is simple: "if a child, as he grows up, can but be taught to avoid running into fire or water, as either of 'em threaten his destruction, — 'twill be all that is needful to be done upon that head."
Meanwhile, a conference has been going on between Toby and Trim. Their interpretation of "radical heat and radical moisture" differs quite a bit from Walter's, and Toby begins the explanation.
Both Toby and Trim were very sick with fever and "flux" at the siege of Limerick. Trim took care of his master and maintained the balance between radical heat and radical moisture "by reinforcing the fever . . . with hot wine and spices . . . so that the radical heat stood its ground from the beginning to the end, and was a fair match for the moisture, terrible as it was." Walter is about to blow up with impatience at Toby's theory, but Yorick restrains him and asks Corporal Trim what his opinion is on the subject.
The corporal gets into his orator's stance, and as he is about to begin, Dr. Slop waddles in. Walter asks about his son as carelessly as if he were inquiring about "the amputation of the tail of a puppy-dog." Dr. Slop is pompous and professional; when he answers, Toby says, "I am no wiser than I was."
Trim begins with a description of the topography of Limerick: "devilish wet, swampy country." Radical moisture "is nothing in the world but ditch-water [in a soldier's tent] — and . . . the radical heat, of those who can go to the expence of it, is burnt brandy ['which took off the damp of the air, and made the inside of the tent as warm as a stove']." Dr. Slop doesn't understand what kind of "medical lecture" this is supposed to be, and he speculates that "this poor fellow . . . has had the misfortune to have heard some superficial emperic discourse upon this nice point." All agree, even Walter.
Dr. Slop returns to his little patient, and Tristram promises that after one more chapter of the Tristrapaedia, the book "shall not be opened again this twelve-month. — Huzza! — "
A person might grow old before learning enough to become truly intelligent — illustrated profusely — and Walter intends to prevent this happening to his son: "I am convinced, Yorick, . . . that there is a Northwest passage [a short cut] to the intellectual world." Fortunately for little Tristram, he has a parent able "to point it out." The secret: " — The whole entirely depends, added my father, in a low voice, upon the auxiliary verbs, Mr. Yorick."
Walter explains his theory about auxiliaries (Trim mistakes them for soldiers): "by the right use and application of these" (am, was, have, had, do, did), a child can exercise his memory and imagination. After asking Trim whether he has ever seen a white bear (he hasn't), Walter shows how it is possible to talk "intelligently" about one all the same: "A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?" This interesting monologue finally concludes with "Is it better than a BLACK ONE?"
The digression explaining the cause of the accident is finished; Susannah's flight to Uncle Toby's house, her reception there, and the parade to Shandy Hall have been described; then, finally, the author allows the child to scream. All of this (Chapters 18-25) is told between the falling of the window and the resulting scream: two kinds of time — remote past (why the window fell) and future subsequent (what Susannah and others did after it fell) — are sandwiched between one instant and the next. By means of this clever device, these events seem simultaneous, but of course they aren't The author manages to create the effect of simultaneity; we are breathless from so many things happening "instantly." The real events aren't even parallel in time, as we notice immediately: the window falls, the child screams, Susannah flees.
Parallel events, however, are introduced to get the actions back into "real" time: Susannah tells Trim; Trim tells his master; the party is formed; they march; they arrive. Walter examines his son; he examines his books; he is satisfied; he tells the arriving party his conclusions.
As usual, if classical authorities speak favorably of something, Walter is content to go along with them. This is the unpredictable reaction that Tristram hinted at in Chapter 24. There is always (almost always) wit and humor to be found in Walter, as we see in his comment on the manner of Tristram's circumcision. His son, the author, gets that from him; and although Tristram doesn't have his father's undeviating devotion to "authority," he enjoys erudition if only to laugh at it.
The battle between Gymnast and Tripet — a story taken from Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel, Book 1, Chapter 35, almost verbatim (Yorick is, after all, reading) — is hard to follow: a "polemic divine" argues and reasons, reasons and argues; his rhetorical and polemical gymnastics resemble the incredible gyrations of Gymnast. Trim's solution — "One home thrust of a bayonet is worth it all" — is actually Rabelais' resolution of the battle: Gymnast skewers Tripet.
As Tristram's book mirrors Tristram, Walter's Tristra-paedia mirrors Walter. The dryness of the erudition is fascinating; Walter writes like his heroes. It is quite often true that, for Walter, the elegant language and the reputation of the writer are more important than the point being made. When he cites Justinian's Institutes ("the first book . . . at the eleventh title and the tenth section") to support the idea that "the son ought to pay [his mother] respect," Yorick counters with the obvious: the same thing may be found much more easily in the Fifth Commandment. That's too folksy for Walter, however, and when Trim recites the Commandments, Walter is sure that it is meaningless to him. Trim's very specific interpretation and his simple human action (giving his aged parents three half-pence a day) make the scholar's pedantry seem empty in contrast.
The following section of the Tristra-paedia, on health, is full of learning, and it would be a monstrous bore if Tristram had not known what he was doing. Walter comments at length on Hippocrates' and Francis Bacon's ("Lord Verulam") hypotheses about radical heat and moisture. His high-flown scientific rhetoric falls to earth with the most resounding thud: to keep a child healthy, don't let him drown or burn to death. We can he sure that Tristram has no illusions about the value of his father's erudition.
When Trim gives his interpretation of the significance of radical heat and moisture — military, of course — both Walter and Dr. Slop are disdainful. Yet Trim's view is worth as much as (no more than, but as much as) Walter's scholarship-bedecked conclusion.
Walter's sense of humor can be seen in the exchange between Dr. Slop and Trim. Regarding Trim's explanation, Dr. Slop says he has obviously been listening to "superficial . . . discourse" on the subject. Walter, who has just been giving a discourse on the subject, says, "That he has." (We mustn't exclude the possibility that Walter means something different: Trim has been listening to someone else besides Walter.)
The author sympathizes with the reader who has to bear up under the weight of the "learning" quoted from the Tristra-paedia. After promising the reader only one more chapter, he makes the reader say "Hurray!" It is easy to put up with an author who really knows when he is boring the reader and apologizes for what he "has to" do for the sake of his art.
Walter's chapter on the auxiliary verbs is worth about as much as his chapter on health. His proposed shortcut to intelligence supposedly guarantees control not only of grammar, syntax, and logic, but also of knowledge itself. This contention is "proved" by his "conjugation" of a white bear. Tristram is making fun of a theory of education that had been proposed in the preceding century; since Sterne has made Tristram his contemporary and put him in the same environment, Tristram may credibly comment on exactly the same things Sterne would comment on — and still be a character in a novel.
The "intelligent discourse" provided for by this system of "pattern practice" is given perspective by the final sentence in the chapter (and the volume): about this white bear, "Is it better than a BLACK ONE?"