Summary and Analysis
After their enthusiastic march away from Mrs. Wadman's house, Toby and Trim "recollected their business lay the other way; so they faced about and marched up streight to Mrs. Wadman's door." Trim lifts the knocker, holds it for a minute. Bridget is behind the door "with her finger and her thumb upon the latch." Mrs. Wadman is sitting "breathless behind the window-curtain of her bed-chamber, watching their approach." "Trim! said my uncle Toby — but as he articulated the word, the minute expired, and Trim let fall the rapper." Uncle Toby whistles "Lillabullero." The door opens instantly, and Tristram says, "Let us go into the house."
Chapter 18 and Chapter 19 are blank pages, Chapter 20 begins with a large sprinkling of asterisks, and then we hear Uncle Toby saying to Mrs. Wadman: " — You shall see the very place, Madam." Mrs. Wadman blushes and blushes, and "for the sake of the unlearned reader," Tristram translates her blushes. More asterisks follow, and Toby says to Trim, " — I believe it is in the garret." Trim goes off. Returning to the sofa, Uncle Toby tells Mrs. Wadman, "You shall lay your finger upon the place." "I will not touch it, however, quoth Mrs. Wadman to herself."
The author realizes that there is a "mist which hangs upon these three pages," and he will try to dispel it and clear up everything. He asks the reader to "give me all the help you can."
There are "fifty different ends . . . for which a woman takes a husband," Tristram says, illustrating his point by the "imagery" of Slawkenbergius: a string of asses laden with panniers containing different things. One has empty bottles, the second tripes, the third "trunk-hose and pantofles," and so on; a lady examines the whole string of beasts until she comes to the one that carries "it." She "looks at it — considers it — samples it — measures it — stretches it." And what is it, asks the reader, but neither Slawkenbergius nor Tristram is willing to answer. "We live in a world beset on all sides with mysteries and riddles," Tristram adds soothingly.
Uncle Toby's "fitness for the marriage state" was perfect, according to Tristram, but the "Devil . . . had raised scruples in Mrs. Wadman's brain" about the wound. With reference to the metaphor Tristram took from Slawkenbergius, the Devil had turned "my uncle Toby's Virtue . . . into nothing but empty bottles, tripes, trunk-hose, and pantofles." We are reminded that Bridget had promised she would find out all the details of Uncle Toby's wound — and its consequences — for her mistress (Book 8, Chapter 28).
Suddenly the author gets cold feet about his story; he wants to drop it, "for though I have all along been hastening towards this part of it, with so much earnest desire, as well knowing it to be the choicest morsel of what I had to offer to the world," now that he has gotten to it, he feels that it is too difficult. Since an "Invocation can do no hurt," Tristram invokes the "Gentle Spirit of sweetest humour, who erst didst sit upon the easy pen of my beloved CERVANTES." The result is that he is led to remember his trip through France and Italy. He talks of the virtue of being a generous traveler, of not resenting having to pay a little more because one is a foreigner ("how should the poor peasant get butter to his bread?"; further, one gets a "sisterly kiss" from the "fair Hostess and her Damsels" when one pays "with both hands open"). At one point, while traveling in his coach, he hears "the sweetest notes I ever heard," played on the pipe by "poor Maria . . . with her little goat beside her." He jumps down from the coach and sees a beautiful, demented young girl; feeling "the full force of an honest heartache," he impetuously sits down between her and her goat. "MARIA look'd wistfully for some time at me, and then at her goat — and then at me — and then at her goat again, and so on, alternately — " " — Well, Maria, said I softly — What resemblance do you find?"
Tristram entreats the "candid reader to believe me, that it was from the humblest conviction of what a Beast man is, — that I ask'd the question," and not from mere levity. Still, his heart smote him and he resolved never to "commit mirth with man, woman, or child," for the rest of his life; "as for writing nonsense to them — I believe, there was a reserve." He bids Maria adieu and profoundly moved by the melancholy of her piping, "with broken and irregular steps walk'd softly" to his coach. His next sentence is the final one of the chapter: " — What an excellent inn at Moulins!"
Tristram feels that his "honour has lain bleeding this half hour" because of the two blank chapters (18 and 19). No one will understand why he did it, "for how is it possible they should foresee the necessity I was under of writing the 25th chapter of my book, before the 18th, &c.?" Although he will be called many "unsavory appellations," he will not "take it amiss — All I wish is, that it may be a lesson to the world, 'to let people tell their stories their own way.'"
The Eighteenth Chapter: Bridget opens the door, and Mrs. Wadman just has time to place a Bible on the table and come forward to receive Uncle Toby. He kisses her cheek — the custom — "march'd up abreast with her to the sopha, and in three plain words . . . told her, 'he was in love.'" She "naturally looked down . . . in expectation every moment, that my uncle Toby would go on." He, however, "when he had told Mrs. Wadman once that he loved her, he let it alone, and left the matter to work after its own way." Finally, she takes the initiative, pointing out the cares and responsibilities of the married state; since Toby is "so much at his ease," so well off, she wonders "what reasons can incline you to the state — ." His answer is that "they are written . . . in the Common-Prayer Book." And "as for children," says Mrs. Wadman, what compensation is there for the "suffering and defenceless mother who brings them into life?" Uncle Toby knows of none, "unless it be the pleasure which it has pleased God — ," and Mrs. Wadman interrupts with "A fiddlestick!"
The Nineteenth Chapter: Uncle Toby blushes at her "fiddlestick," although he doesn't know why. He feels "that he had somehow or other got beyond his depth," so he simply makes a proposal of marriage and leaves it "to work with her after its own way."
"It work'd not at all in her" because "there was something working there before." Tristram fears that he has already given it away, "but there is fire still in the subject — allons."
Chapter 26 follows. Tristram thinks that since Mrs. Wadman's first husband suffered constantly from sciatica — that painful neuritis of the hip and thighs — it is perfectly "natural for Mrs. Wadman . . . to wish to know how far from the hip to the groin." She had studied anatomy and medical books, had borrowed "*Graaf upon the bones and muscles," and she had questioned Dr. Slop at great length (the footnote: "*This must be a mistake in Mr. Shandy; for Graaf wrote upon the . . . parts of generation," the sexual organs). "Dr. Slop was the worst man alive at definitions; . . . in short, there was no way to extract it, but from my uncle Toby himself."
After asking many questions about the wound, its painfulness, its precise nature ("' — Was he able to mount a horse?' ' — Was motion bad for it?"'), after winning his heart with her interest and her humanity ("had he been worth a thousand, he had lost every heart of them to Mrs. Wadman"), she asks him "a little categorically," " — And whereabouts, dear Sir, . . . did you receive this sad blow? — In asking this question, Mrs. Wadman gave a slight glance towards the waistband of my uncle Toby's red plush breeches, expecting naturally, as the shortest reply to it, that my uncle Toby would lay his fore-finger upon the place — it fell out otherwise — ."
Uncle Toby sent for the map of Namur, measured off the distance, and "with such virgin modesty laid her finger upon the place" that she didn't dare explain the mistake.
Perhaps the validity for the "wisdom/folly" chapters is the actual passage of time — the time it takes us to read them — during which Uncle Toby and Trim can carry on their march to the rear, away from Mrs. Wadman's. They are finally back to the door, however, at Chapter 16. There is a splendid moment of frozen life in the scene where Bridget and Mrs. Wadman wait breathlessly for the sound of the knocker, Trim holds it suspended for a full minute, and Uncle Toby sees his bachelor life passing before his eyes (as it were).
Tristram takes us in and then blanks out the scene. The action goes on, but a curtain has been dropped over it; we do not know what happened between the end of Chapter 17 and the continued action in Chapter 20 until Tristram thinks that it is time we learned about it in Chapter 25.
In Chapter 20, we are in the middle of a conversation, spoken and unspoken: Uncle Toby is telling Mrs. Wadman that she shall not only see the "very place," but she shall even put her finger on "it." She, in silent monologue, desires mightily to do so, although her modesty is sorely troubled. We assume — as she does — that "it" is Toby's wound, although we begin to be aware of a mutual misunderstanding on the part of the two principals.
Tristram digresses for three chapters — "in order to clear up the mist" — on a subject of interest to women. There is one thing women are most interested in, no matter what other excellent qualities a man may possess; and if that thing is lacking, all is lacking. When Tristram reminds us that Bridget had promised to find out from Trim all about Toby's wound, we have a better than vague idea of what Chapters 21-23 are about.
The "choicest morsel" of his story again worries Tristram: can he do justice to it? As the reader is about to tear his hair in frustration, Tristram puts it off just a little longer. After all, where you have something as good as that to impart to the world, where is the harm in making the reader wait a bit? The Invocation fills in details of Tristram's recent trip to France (and Italy), described in Book 7, and we see the consistent generosity of the author-traveler. The basis for his kindness is a combination of "sentimental" feelings, self-interest, and true understanding of the needs of his fellow men — certainly a reasonable enough human response. The scene with Maria, her goat, and Tristram offers the author another opportunity for semi-malicious dissection of the gentler emotions: he is goat-like and Pan-like in his feelings toward the girl and not the kind, disinterested traveler that sentimental readers would like him to be. In spite of his disclaimer — he asked the question "from the humblest conviction of what a Beast man is" — Tristram's nature is showing. And if we still are in doubt about how "moved" he was, his comment on the excellence of the inn at Moulins should take care of that.
We find an important similarity between the death scene of Le Fever (Book 6, Chapter 10) and the scene with Maria: Le Fever's pulse stops, goes, stops, goes; Maria looks at Tristram, then at the goat, then at Tristram, then at the goat. In each case, the author pushes sentiment over the border of ridiculousness, as if to say, These delicate feelings easily become mushy feelings; protect yourself from that danger.
The author asserts the inevitability of his strategy in leaving blank the two chapters: it was necessary for the success of his storytelling; "Let people tell their stories their own way" is his credo, and there is no other way that Tristram could have told this story (he says).
Chapters 18 and 19 are then given: the nonchalant lamb in the den of the tigress. Mrs. Wadman probes delicately for Toby's deeper motives, and he cannot or will not understand what she's getting at. Tristram has already told us what women want (Chapters 21-23), and now he tells us what Mrs. Wadman, as a representative of women, wants.
Mrs. Wadman had an unsatisfactory married life with her first husband, owing to the immobility of his hips. She has been trying for a long time to figure out whether Toby's wound was similarly "incapacitating": Dr. Slop — no help — has been questioned, and medical tomes have been consulted. Once more, in connection with her prurient curiosity, author Sterne manages to kill two birds with one stone: his footnote again emphasizes the distance between himself as editor and Tristram as author, and he tells us precisely what Mrs. Wadman was interested in — as if we didn't know.
She is finally forced to ask Toby himself for the "whereabouts" of the "sad blow," and here, at long last, we have the ultimate punch line, the "choicest morsel" itself: she glances demurely at his breeches, expecting him to point somewhere around there; he sends for the map and points to a completely different, completely uninteresting "whereabouts." He actually places her finger on the very spot — on the map of Namur.
Although the choicest morsel is not quite what we have been led to expect, there is no question about the choiceness of the whole situation: Widow Wadman's clamoring curiosity, Uncle Toby's ineffable unawareness, her fluttering, palpitating ambivalence about what she thinks she is about to feel and see, his heightening her expectation. And then comes the crash. Without doubt, this is the greatest and funniest anticlimax in literature, and it could not have been achieved if Tristram had not led up to it so gradually, protracted it so elaborately, rearranged it so misleadingly.