Summary and Analysis
Walter accuses his wife of prurience, then wonders whether he is perhaps being unjust to her. Strolling along, he glances into her eye and sees "a thousand reasons to wipe out the reproach." Her eye was a "blue, chill, pellucid chrystal with all its humours so at rest, the least mote or speck of desire might have been seen at the bottom of it, had it existed — it did not." Tristram wonders how he came by his lewdness, which he feels "particularly a little before the vernal and autumnal equinoxes."
Corporal Trim hasn't been able to do much with Uncle Toby's old wig and uniform; they remain quite shabby and worn. Still, Toby's nature is so obviously that of a gentleman, that "even his tarnish'd gold-laced hat and huge cockade of flimsy taffeta became him; and though not worth a button in themselves, yet the moment my uncle Toby put them on, they became serious objects." He must wear the red plush breeches after all, since the thinner ones couldn't be turned again by the tailor.
On their way to the offensive, "my uncle Toby turn'd his head more than once behind him, to see how he was supported by the Corporal." Trim waves his stick in encouragement, as if to "bid his honour 'never fear.'" But, says Tristram, "my uncle Toby did fear." He halts "within twenty paces of Mrs. Wadman's door" and says " — she cannot, Corporal, take it amiss." Trim assures him that "she will take it, an' please your honour . . . just as the Jew's widow at Lisbon took it of my brother Tom." Toby doesn't know the story, and Trim points out merely that Tom ended up in the clutches of the Inquisition: "'Tis a cursed place . . . when once a poor creature is in, he is in, an' please your honour, for ever." "'Tis very true; said my uncle Toby looking gravely at Mrs. Wadman's house, as he spoke." When Trim adds, "Nothing . . . can be so sad as confinement for life — or so sweet . . . as liberty," Toby answers musingly, "Nothing, Trim."
Trim continues with the details of his brother Tom's adventure. Deciding to pay court to a sausage-maker's widow — left "in possession of a rousing trade" — Tom goes in to buy a pound of sausages and get acquainted. There he finds only a poor black girl, chasing away the flies, but "not killing them." Toby remarks, "'Tis a pretty picture! . . . she had suffered persecution, Trim, and had learnt mercy." After a brief interlude in which they discuss whether blacks have souls ("I am not much versed, Corporal, quoth my uncle Toby, in things of that kind; but I suppose, God would not leave him without one, any more than thee or me"), Trim continues his story. Tom went into the back room to "talk to the Jew's widow about love — and his pound of sausages," and he showed his usefulness by helping her with the sausage-making. "Now a widow, an' please your honour, always chuses a second husband as unlike the first as she can: so the affair was more than half settled in her mind before Tom mentioned it." Nevertheless, at some point, "she made a feint . . . of defending herself, by snatching up a sausage: — Tom instantly laid hold of another — ." And so they were married.
The conference continues — still twenty paces from Mrs. Wadman's front door — and the two soldiers praise each other's good qualities, among them their readiness to "face about and march" into battle. "In pronouncing this, my uncle Toby faced about, and march'd firmly as at the head of his company — and the faithful Corporal, shouldering his stick, . . . march'd close behind him down the avenue."
" — Now what can their two noddles be about? cried my father to my mother." (They are standing by, watching the campaign.) "I dare say, quoth my mother — — — But stop, dear Sir — for what my mother dared to say upon the occasion — and what my father did say upon it" are matters for another chapter (but not the next one).
Tristram feels the rush of time: "the days and hours of it, more precious, my dear Jenny! than the rubies about thy neck, are flying over our heads like light clouds of a windy day, never to return more . . . whilst thou are twisting that lock, — see! it grows grey; and every time I kiss thy hand to bid adieu, and every absence which follows it, are preludes to that eternal separation which we are shortly to make. — — Heaven have mercy upon us both!" When he finishes his statement, he says, "Now, for what the world thinks of that ejaculation — I would not give a groat."
The author tells how Mr. and Mrs. Shandy in their strolling see Toby and Trim "within ten paces of the door." They stop to watch, and they see the gestures and movements as Trim tells the story of his brother Tom. As they watch, Toby and Trim face about and march back. When Mrs. Shandy wonders "What can their two noddles be about?" Mrs. Shandy answers, "I dare say . . . they are making fortifications." " — Not on Mrs. Wadman's premises! cried my father, stepping back," and he proceeds methodically to damn fortifications, item by item. Mrs. Shandy agrees methodically with him, although Tristram points out that she probably didn't know what they were. But that is a quality that Tristram admires in her, especially "never to refuse her assent and consent to any proposition my father laid before her, merely because she did not understand it." Further, she "would go on using a hard word twenty years together — and replying to it too, if it was a verb, in all its moods and tenses, without giving herself any trouble to enquire about it."
They discuss the possibility of children in the forthcoming union of Mrs. Wadman and Uncle Toby, and the persuasion necessary to produce those children. From a "sighing cadence of personal pity" in Mrs. Shandy's voice, Mr. Shandy suddenly becomes aware of the fact that it is the first Sunday of the month. "The first Lord of the Treasury thinking of ways and means, could not have returned home, with a more embarrassed look."
The author says that it is necessary to insert "upon this page and the five following [until Chapter 15], a good quantity of heterogeneous matter . . . to keep up that just balance betwixt wisdom and folly," which is essential to a good book. So for the next four chapters (12-15), he talks about his writing techniques and his desire to educate the public: "for never do I hit upon any invention or device which tendeth to the furtherance of good writing, but I instantly make it public; willing that all mankind should write as well as myself." (He adds: " — Which they certainly will, when they think as little.")
He indicates that there is a direct relationship between whether what he writes is "clean and fit to be read" and his laundry bills: the dirt gets on his shirts when he sets himself to clean writing. In one month, he "dirtied one and thirty shirts with clean writing," but the critics do not appreciate the fact.
Still trying to get to Chapter 15, he thinks of the uses to which he can put Chapter 14. He doesn't get anything special done, however. Then, Chapter 15 arrives, and he is ready to "return to my uncle Toby."
The reiteration of Walter's mild accusation neatly ties this final installment of Tristram Shandy to the last chapter of the previous installment; although two years intervened between publication of the two, the reader does not usually notice the slightest gap or change of tone.
The description of Mr. and Mrs. Shandy's stroll, her "tap of remonstrance" at his accusation, her misstep, his confusion and doubt, his "reading" of her eye is further proof of the author's sensitivity to the minutiae of human communication. But perhaps the author doesn't know his mother as well as he thinks he does (or perhaps he is just being waggish). When he admits his "lewdness" — and there is little question about that — he discounts the possibility of having inherited any of it from his mother. Yet he gives us a basis for thinking otherwise: in Book 8, Chapter 35, Mrs. Shandy takes a pinch of snuff — enabling her to sniff audibly — when Walter speaks of a month as the ideal interval for Toby's enforced "begettings"; in Chapter 11 of this book, there is the suggestion that Mrs. Shandy feels sorry for herself because she is not sufficiently persuasive. That she is guileless is perfectly true, but that she is insensible does not follow in the least. We must make up our own minds about the truth of Tristram's statement that "a temperate current of blood ran orderly through her veins in all months of the year, and in all critical moments both of the day and night alike."
The statement in the second chapter about how the shabby, tarnished, and valueless uniform becomes a serious object when Uncle Toby puts it on has relevance to the material that Tristram uses in his book; many of the ideas and events — "not worth a button in themselves" — take on importance and seriousness when they become part of the Life and Opinions, when they are made to interact with more overtly meaningful ideas and events.
The march to Widow Wadman's house and the halt outside is ridiculous, outrageous, and completely understandable. Toby is as nervous as an adolescent, and Trim is reluctant to have a mistress side by side with a master. Everyone — Mrs. Wadman, Bridget, Walter, and Mrs. Shandy — is forced to hold his breath while the story of Tom goes forward. First, the story of Tom and the Inquisition is made to serve as model for Toby's forthcoming involvement with Mrs. Wadman; when Trim says that the Inquisition is "a cursed place," Toby sees Mrs. Wadman's house as a prison and he agrees. Loss of liberty through the offices of the Inquisition or through marriage with Mrs. Wadman is still loss of liberty.
The story proper occupies still more time, but it has its relevance: Trim began the story to prove to Toby that Mrs. Wadman would accept him as readily as the sausage-maker's widow accepted Tom. The bawdiness of the story is also appropriate; like the sausage-maker's widow, Mrs. Wadman is very much interested in a second husband "as unlike the first" one as possible. The irony lies in the difference between the modesty of Uncle Toby and the shamelessness of Trim's brother Tom. The little sub-story of the poor black servant furnishes the occasion for Toby's expression of kindness and compassion for the persecuted, whether he sees them or just hears about them in a story. The fact that the girl shooed away the flies rather than killed them must have made a great impression on Uncle Toby: fifteen years later, when Tristram will be ten years old (it is now 1713), Toby himself will spare the fly he caught — the "overgrown one which had buzz'd about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time."
The story serves the further purpose of distracting Uncle Toby and furnishing him with a basis for turning about face and marching away (away from, not toward, danger), to the dismay of all the observers.
The point of view then shifts, and we observe Toby and Trim through the eyes of Mr. and Mrs. Shandy — but not for long. Interrupting his mother's answers to his father, Tristram digresses with a series of very poignant images about the speed with which life passes: the days fly by like clouds before the wind, his Jenny's hair turns gray as he watches, each goodbye is a rehearsal for death. Although the sentiments ring true, they are still somewhat embarrassing to Tristram; he anticipates an unsympathetic response from his readers, and he answers it with bravado. The strange thing is that there is nothing self-pitying in this statement, especially since it would have been understandable; to borrow a fact from biography, we know that Sterne was dying at this time. He actually died fourteen months after the publication of Book 9, but the long series of lung hemorrhages over a period of years made it quite clear that he could die at any time.
That digression over with, Tristram takes us back to the point of view established for Mr. and Mrs. Shandy in Chapter 8. They have been watching from the beginning, and we now see the movements of Toby and Trim from the beginning, without sound effects. Walter cannot figure out what is going on from Trim's and Toby's gestures (we of course already know), and it is amusing to try to reconstruct the scenes we have been through already just from the description of their movements. Mrs. Shandy is justified in thinking that they are about to start a new set of fortifications even if Walter hopes that it is impossible.
Their discussion of the foolishness of fortifications is an echo of the Beds of Justice scene in Book 6, Chapter 18; again, Walter proposes and Mrs. Shandy amiably agrees. Tristram gives us a little more insight into his mother's character and mentality, using them as a yardstick for his critics: if everyone were as unquestioningly agreeable as Mrs. Shandy, it would be a jollier world — especially for authors.
A little trick of Mrs. Shandy's — deliberate or not — is her use of Walter's statements to serve her own ends; it was he who brought up the matter of using persuasion in bed. She said "Amen" to his "Lord have mercy upon them," he said "Amen" to her "Amen," and she merely said it one more time. A message is eloquently conveyed without her sacrificing a bit of modesty.
Chapters 12-15 are another reminder of the author's pose of having only so much control over his book, of his having to conform with a certain inevitability in the material. The paradox of his having to allow the story to go its own way (the author as interpreter of events) and his balancing "wisdom and folly" (the author as creator) stands out once again. When he gets to Chapter 15, he is somehow able or ready to resume the narrative of the amours.