Summary and Analysis
Before going on with his story, Tristram looks back at the five volumes already completed. The critics (called "Jack Asses") "view'd and review'd" the earlier volumes, and "good God! what a braying did they all set up together!" Tristram feels that he and his reader ("dear Sir") were lucky to get away with their lives.
Closing his Tristra-paedia, Walter chats with Yorick about famous men who were child prodigies. There were "Grotius, Scioppius, Heinsius, Politian, Pascal, Joseph Scaliger, Ferdinand de Cordouè, and others — ." Yorick reminds him of the "great Lipsius, . . . who composed a work the day he was born." Uncle Toby, always literal-minded, remarks: "They should have wiped it up . . . and said no more about it."
Back in the nursery, Dr. Slop and Susannah are arguing: she is bashful about holding the candle as the doctor works on the child, and he accuses her of false modesty and of worse things. Holding the candle with her eyes averted, Susannah accidentally sets fire to Dr. Slop's wig. Recriminations and name-calling follow, and they douse each other with the "cataplasm" intended for Tristram's cure. Then, since that treatment had failed, they "retired into the kitchen to prepare a fomentation" for him.
Walter thinks that it is time to get Tristram a tutor: "You see 'tis high time, said my father, addressing himself equally to my uncle Toby and Yorick, to take this young creature out of these women's hands, and put him into those of a private governor." He outlines the many necessary good qualities of the ideal tutor, and Uncle Toby asks him to give the post to "poor Le Fever's son. Tristram regrets having lost the opportunity earlier of having Trim tell the story of Le Fever: " — fool that I was! nor can I recollect, (nor perhaps you) without turning back to the place, what it was that hindered me from letting the corporal tell it in his own words; — but the occasion is lost, — I must tell it now in my own."
The Story of LE FEVER In 1706 — "in the summer of that year in which Dendermond was taken by the allies" — Uncle Toby was having his supper one evening, Trim respectfully waiting on him. The landlord of a small inn came to the house to request "a glass or two of sack" for a sick army officer lying at his inn; the officer has with him his son, "a boy . . . of about eleven or twelve years of age." Toby naturally gives the landlord several bottles of the wine, and afterward he sends Trim to learn what he can of the affair. While he is waiting, Toby "might be said to have thought of nothing else but poor Le Fever and his boy" — "had it not been, that he now and then wandered from the point, with considering whether it was not full as well to have the curtain of the tennaile a straight line, as a crooked one."
Trim comes back to report. The soldier, already ill, had arrived without a servant, and the landlady is sure that he will die. In the kitchen, Trim made friends with the young son after identifying himself as an old soldier, and he was taken up to Le Fever's room. It turns out that "Captain Toby Shandy" is known by name to the sick soldier, and Le Fever, whose wife "was most unfortunately killed with a musket shot," is known by that circumstance to Uncle Toby. Toby is so moved by the situation of the sick father, the dead wife, and the devoted son that he says, "I wish, Trim, I was asleep."
"To my uncle Toby's eternal honour," in spite of his being "warmly engaged at that time in carrying on the siege of Dendermond, parallel with the allies" — in the mini-fortifications — he gave it up and devoted his attention completely to Le Fever. He makes plans for calling in the best available doctor, moving Le Fever and his son to his own house, and his and Trim's nursing the lieutenant. Trim, however, is pessimistic about the future: "In a fortnight or three weeks, added my uncle Toby, smiling, — he might march. — He will never march, an' please your honour, in this world, said the corporal . . . he will never march, but to his grave." They debate the point, Trim hopeless, Toby hopeful. "The poor soul will die: — He shall not die, by G — , cried my uncle Toby." And immediately, " — The ACCUSING SPIRIT which flew up to heaven's chancery with the oath, blush'd as he gave it in, — and the RECORDING ANGEL as he wrote it down, dropp'd a tear upon the word, and blotted it out for ever."
Toby orders Trim to "go early in the morning for a physician," then goes to bed.
The next morning, Toby visits Le Fever, who is at the point of death; although the lieutenant is unable to respond vocally to Toby's frank generosity and goodness, he is aware of them. His son also recognizes Toby's kind, fatherly nature. The author describes Le Fever's dying moments with a certain amount of impatience: "the pulse fluttered — stopp'd — went on — throb'd — stopp'd again — moved — stopp'd — shall I go on? — No."
Having killed off Le Fever, the author plans to tell the rest of the story "in a very few words" ("I am so impatient to return to my own story"). First, however, he tells of Yorick's funeral sermon for Le Fever, and then of the interesting marginal notes that he has found on the manuscripts of Yorick's sermons; he learns a lot (and so do we) about Yorick from them, and he speculates about Yorick's methods of composition, his confessions, and his attitudes toward his sermons.
Uncle Toby administers Le Fever's "estate" — "an old regimental coat and a sword." The former he gives to Trim ("Wear it, Trim, said my uncle Toby, as long as it will hold together, for the sake of the poor lieutenant"); the latter he puts aside for young Billy, whom he has virtually adopted. He sees to the boy's schooling, and he treats him like a son.
In the "spring of the year, seventeen" — Billy is then about twenty-two years old — the young man is fired by "the stories of the emperor's sending his army into Hungary against the Turks." He leaves school and begs Uncle Toby to let him go off to war. In possession of his father's old sword, the blessing of Uncle Toby, and a purse of sixty guineas (from Toby), he sets off to seek his fortune in war. Misfortune and sickness, however, are all he finds, and he decides to return to the welcoming bosom of his foster father.
He is "hourly expected . . . and . . . uppermost in my uncle Toby's mind" as Walter describes the ideal tutor for Tristram. Although Toby begs Walter to consider young Le Fever for the post, Walter is annoyed by certain related military small talk; thinking perhaps that three military men in one household would be too many, he puts the matter off, and that's the end of it.
In the periodic review that Tristram makes of his production up to a given point, he talks about critics and their reviews of the previous installment. Sterne gives Tristram the prerogative of making these comments because, after all, Tristram Shandy is supposed to be writing the Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. The character has been created, the book he writes is real, critics actually review this book, and the character — improbable or not — reviews the reviewers.
Things are still going wrong for little Tristram: he can't even get adequate medical attention. The fight between Susannah and Dr. Slop delays the treatment, and although the burning of Slop's wig is hilariously comic, we must remember that "the sport of small accidents, Tristram Shandy," is waiting for his wound to be bound up. Dr. Slop's rumor-mongering — to be presented shortly — probably got its impetus from the rough handling he received from Susannah.
The matter of hiring a tutor for little Tristram leads the author to Le Fever, father and son. When we look at the framework of the main story and the Le Fever story, we see Tristram's skill in plotting: the child needs a tutor, Toby recommends "young Le Fever," we need an explanation of who Le Fever is. The author's professional attitude toward his book is again seen: are his characters simply characters, or are they real people? Tristram pretends that he doesn't remember where he first brought up the name of Le Fever (it was in Book 5, Chapter 10), and then he regrets not having had Trim tell the story then and there — as if it would have been less work for the author. As it is, however, Tristram must now tell it in his own words.
It should be obvious to us that this is the point where the story belongs; had he allowed Trim to tell it back there, it would have delayed the "action," and it would have been an indefensible digression.
The story of Le Fever is an exercise in good-heartedness and sentimentalism. Through the magnanimous and generous response of Uncle Toby to the poor, forlorn lieutenant and his son, the sentimental reader is able to renew his faith in human nature. Toby's philanthropy, his compassion for the Le Fevers, is moving and convincing, and there is no doubt that the author partakes, together with the reader, of the sense of euphoric goodness and well-being of Toby's actions. Still, there are two sides to Tristram's personality: the traditional and the counter-traditional. Everyone without exception will be delighted by the little fairy tale that follows Toby's oath — his only oath in the book: "He shall not die, by G — ." The "accusing spirit" reluctantly does his duty and carries the message up to the accounting department; the "recording angel" — like a good, generous, eighteenth-century clerk — also doing his duty, writes it down in Toby's debit column, and then juggles the books by blotting out the entry with a well-placed teardrop. It is a delicious little story, and even the most self-righteous nineteenth-century reader may have shed a companion tear and similarly have forgiven Toby.
Everyone can be counted a pushover for that scene, but not everyone could forgive the author for toying around with Le Fever's death scene: his pulse stopped, started, stopped, started — until the author is frankly tired of it. If we're not sure, he puts us out of doubt: "I am so impatient to return to my own story." The author likes a neat bit of sentiment — sometimes a sizable chunk — because it's good for people. But he also feels the inherent ridiculousness of using sentiment for a tonic; he therefore undoes what he did. There are even a few little clues that Toby himself may be somewhat more selfishly human than one suspects: he "thought of nothing else but poor Le Fever and his boy" except that "he now and then wandered from the point," thinking of whether a straight line or a crooked line was better for a part of the fortifications. (We might, if we wish, choose an obvious alternative: it was impossible for Toby to think of anything in the world without being distracted sooner or later by military matters.)
The "marginal notes" in Yorick's sermons remind us a good deal of Tristram's commentary on his own writing — except for the obvious fact that Yorick is a parson and Tristram is a novelist; that difference, however, is sufficient to keep the two individuals separate, as they should be. Yorick, as a companion of Walter Shandy, was a formative influence in Tristram's life; if they remind us of each other occasionally, the novel gives us good reason for that. We can and we ought to forget that Sterne was both a parson and a novelist: that biographical datum leads us only to a series of non-fruitful "revelations" like "Yorick is Sterne," "Tristram is Sterne," or "Yorrick and Tristram are Sterne."
The sufficient reason for Tristram's going into the matter of Yorick's sermons is the funeral sermon of Le Fever; the sufficient reason for going into the Le Fever history is Toby's being able to propose the son — old enough by now — as Tristram's tutor. Everything fits.