Summary and Analysis
Book 6: Chapters 33-40
Tristram reiterates the principle behind his storytelling: "when a man is telling a story in the strange way I do mine, he is obliged continually to be going backwards and forwards to keep all tight together in the reader's fancy." He tries to keep the reader from getting lost; then he gets lost himself. "But 'tis my father's fault," as the reader will see when Tristram's "brains come to be dissected." He decides to begin the chapter over again.
Uncle Toby did not "dismount his [hobby] horse at all — his horse rather flung him." During the peace of Utrecht he had nothing to do; then, according to the articles of the treaty, it was stipulated that Dunkirk was to be demolished. He and Trim discuss the best way of destroying their fortifications, and they are once again caught up in the spirit: "we retreat towards the town; — then we'll demolish the mole, — next fill up the harbour, — then retire into the citadel, and blow it up into the air; and having done that, corporal, we'll embark for England. — We are there, quoth the corporal, recollecting himself — Very true, said my uncle Toby — looking at the church."
No more war games to play, Toby becomes listless: "The trumpet of war fell out of his hands, — he took up the lute, sweet instrument!" And now it is time, says Tristram, to fulfill his promise to tell about Uncle Toby's courtship of Widow Wadman. He is most confident that it will turn out to be "one of the most compleat systems, both of the elementary and practical part of love and love-making, that ever was addressed to the world." He cites authorities on "love" and learned medical treatises on the physiology of love, and he tells what Walter did to "protect" Toby from adverse consequences of being in love (one thing Walter did was to have the tailor sew a "camphorated cere-cloth" into Toby's new breeches, as a lining).
Tristram doesn't feel "obliged to set out with a definition of what love is." Whatever it is, "my uncle Toby fell into it." Widow Wadman is worth falling in love with, Tristram says, " — And possibly, gentle reader, with such a temptation — so wouldst thou." What does she look like? Leaving a page blank in the chapter, Tristram invites the reader to paint his own picture of her, "as like your mistress as you can — as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you — 'tis all one to me — please but your own fancy in it." When that is done, Tristram exclaims, "Was ever any thing in Nature so sweet! — so exquisite!" and he asks, "Then, dear Sir, how could my uncle Toby resist it?"
Word gets around between the servants (Susannah and Bridget) that Uncle Toby is in love with Widow Wadman — "fifteen days before it happened." Mrs. Shandy hears of it and tells her husband: "My brother Toby, quoth she, is going to be married to Mrs. Wadman." Walter's reply is, "Then he will never . . . be able to lie diagonally in his bed again as long as he lives." And when Mrs. Shandy does not ask him what he means, Walter again grumbles to himself about his sad fate: "That she is not a woman of science . . . is her misfortune — but she might ask a question." Tristram goes on in his father's vein: "My mother never did. — In short, she went out of the world at last without knowing whether it turned round, or stood still. — My father had officiously told her above a thousand times which way it was, — but she always forgot."
In the final chapter of this book, Tristram draws diagrams — very irregular ones — to show how the story has progressed through each of the first five hooks; the sixth one (he says) is much, much straighter, "for from the end of Le Fever's episode, to the beginning of my uncle Toby's campaigns, — I have scarce stepped a yard out of my way." He hopes ("it is not impossible") that the further books of the story will follow an absolutely straight line.
There is a funny object-lesson at the beginning of this section: in explaining how he takes pains to keep the reader from getting lost, Tristram loses himself in his explanation. He is demonstrating two facts: it is necessary to digress and tamper with natural sequence to tell his kind of story, and unless both Tristram and the reader concentrate, one or the other of them will get lost in the novel. We notice also that Tristram reiterates his relationship to Walter Shandy: if something is wrong with his brains, it's his father's fault. Tristram is a Shandy, not a Sterne.
The end of the war is a sad thing for both Toby and Trim. There is poignancy side by side with the basic ridiculousness in their planning the retreat from Dunkirk: they had forgotten they were in England.
The fulfillment of Tristram's promise of the account of Uncle Toby's amours is at hand — but then again, it isn't. In Book 4, Chapter 32, we were promised this "choicest morsel of my whole story"; in Book 3, Chapter 24, we were told that "a most minute account of every particular . . . shall be given in its proper place"; in Book 2, Chapter 7, it was hinted at provocatively. But we still don't have it, and we won't get it for quite a while yet. How important can it be, we should ask ourselves. Here, Tristram assures us that it will be one of the best "systems" ever written about. "It had better be good" is all that the reader can say (with patience and resignation).
Audience participation is again elicited by Tristram, and for a most useful purpose. How beautiful and tempting is Widow Wadman? — as beautiful and tempting as you want to make her. And if she is that attractive, obviously Uncle Toby couldn't resist her. So he doesn't.
The blank on which we can draw our beautiful Widow Wadman is safe from the critics at whose hands Tristram considers himself ill-used; they will find nothing to be malicious about here. Incidentally, this is the third of the three "trick" pages that Tristram uses in his book: one was black, one was marbled (half black, half white), one is white.
Mrs. Shandy's nature is again dissected, poor woman. Both father and son have the same opinion of her, although Tristram is more tolerant of her than was his father.
The wild lines with loops, branches, and switchbacks do very nicely as graphs of the "progress" of the several books. It would be understatement to say that Tristram knows as well as we do about how the story has been going. He knows where he is heading, what the reader thinks about the journey, what the reader doesn't know, and how to keep the reader pacified.