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Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

Volume 3

Volume 2

Volume 4

Summary

Still in the parlor, Uncle Toby continues his attempt to redirect the conversation toward the armies at Flanders. Walter takes the bait, but then lapses into a state of physical confusion when he removes his hat with his right hand and then has to reach across with his left to remove the handkerchief from his right coat pocket. Tristram criticizes his father for not pausing to switch hands, but Walter has never been one to retract a decision once he has advanced it. Uncle Toby, in contrast to Tristram, waits through Walter's contortions with patience and goodwill. He "whistles Lillabullero," however, at his brother's argument that babies were more frequently damaged during birth before the advent of modern medical technology.

The next physical struggle comes with Dr. Slop's attempt to untie the knot in his medical bag. Obadiah knotted it up to prevent it from clattering during transport so that he could hear himself whistle. Tristram suggests that this knot, too, contributed to the flattening of his nose. Dr. Slop cuts his thumb with a penknife. He falls to cursing Obadiah, and Walter offers him the use of one of his ready-made curses. The curse he produces is actually a Catholic excommunication document, written by Ernulphus the Bishop. Dr. Slop hesitates at its vehemence, but then is persuaded to continue with the excommunication, inserting Obadiah's name wherever relevant. Tristram offers the opinion that we are all original when we swear, an argument contradictory to his father's hypothesis that every curse is originally derived from this one by Ernulphus.

Susannah appears, announcing that she has cut her arm, the midwife has fallen and bruised her hip, and the baby is still not delivered. She relays the midwife's request that Dr. Slop be called upstairs to assist. Dr. Slop, however, is sensitive about the fact that he has been subordinated to the midwife, and bristles at being summoned like a servant. He begins to speak disparagingly of the traditional methods of midwifery and its rude instruments of "fingers and thumbs." He concludes his statement, in what Tristram calls "a singular stroke of eloquence," with a flourish of the newly invented forceps, which he has finally liberated from the knotted bag. Unfortunately, he also accidentally produces the squirt, which is tangled with the forceps. This prompts Toby to ask, innocent of his own sexual innuendo, "are children brought into the world by a squirt?" Dr. Slop demonstrates the forceps on Toby, skinning his hands and knuckles in the process. In the delivery room, Dr. Slop and the midwife debate about whether it is the child's hip or head that is foremost. Slop remarks that the question is of no small consequence, suggesting that if the child is male, his genitalia may be in danger from the forceps.

"It is two hours and ten minutes...since Dr. Slop and Obadiah arrived," declares Walter, "but to my imagination it seems almost an age." He prepares to deliver a philosophical lecture on "Duration," only to be interrupted by Toby, who steals the gist of the argument out from under him: "'Tis owning, entirely, quoth my uncle Toby, to the succession of our ideas." After a moment of consternation, Walter launches into the lecture anyway. He and Toby bicker, and the speech is again cut short. Tristram, sarcastically, regrets what the world has lost in the unfinished lecture.

Walter and Toby fall asleep, the others are busy upstairs, and the author takes advantage of this quiet moment to write the Preface, which deals with Locke's remarks on wit and judgment. Tristram opposes Locke's ranking of judgment above wit, arguing instead that they go hand in hand, like the two knobs on the back of the chair. The brothers are then awakened by the squeaking of the hinge as Corporal Trim peeks into the room.

Trim informs the group that Dr. Slop is in the kitchen making a bridge, for which Toby expresses his heartfelt gratitude. Toby believes Slop is repairing the drawbridge, and Tristram digresses to tell the story of how Trim and Bridget broke the bridge during a romantic rendezvous at the fortifications. The confusion is cleared up when Trim announces that the bridge under construction is for the baby's nose, which has been crushed by the forceps.

Tristram describes at great length his father's elaborate and melodramatic posture of grief as he sprawls across the bed. Walter's distress is compounded, we learn, by a history of small noses in the family, a phenomenon that has had significant financial consequences. As a consequence, Walter has read deeply in the literature of noses, adopting it as another one of his obsessions. Tristram ends by promising a tale from Slawkenbergius, one of the most eminent authorities on noses.

Commentary

With the amusing portrait of Walter Shandy attempting to reach his right pocket with his left hand, Tristram caricatures the doggedness of his father's philosophical disposition. The visual image of Walter's physical straining and contortions stands as a figure for the absurd intellectual gymnastics he constantly performs in defense of his favorite theories. The episode of the squeaky hinge, similarly, highlights the fact that Walter Shandy's passion for the esoteric causes him to neglect more practical matters. The fact that Tristram still has not fixed the hinge even well after his father's death reminds us that there are strong resemblances between the father and the son, even though Tristram may try to downplay them.

Things do not look good for the child about to be delivered. Tristam has given us sufficient notice that the baby's nose is in jeopardy. The fact that Dr. Slop mangles Toby's hand with the forceps, in combination with Walter's theorizing about brain damage, leaves us cringing in anticipation of the disaster that is about to take place. The confusion about heads and hips firmly links the flattened nose with the possibility of castration. Tristram will deny any such symbolic circuitousness, asserting the literalness of his story. His characters, however, continue to reflect from time to time on the event as a near-miss, keeping the association active in the reader's mind.

In the discussion of time, Toby stumbles onto the Lockean definition of duration upon which Walter meant to expound. Sterne is attending here to the difference between clock-time and mental time. The explanation, though fairly abstruse, comments on the episode from the previous volume in which the elapsed time between Obadiah's departure and return became so utterly indeterminate. Each consciousness has its own pacing and tempo, set by whatever mental activity is going on at the moment. The effort to synchronize this tempo with an objective, external time can create strange effects, as when a short span of clock time "seems an age." One result of this discontinuity is to underscore the irreducible separation between individuals--the fact that people live in such separate worlds that each person is, in fact, a world unto himself. Locke's theory also lends an authoritative backing to Tristram's unconventional methodology in the temporal ordering of his narrative.

Tristram's elaborate wordplay on the word "bridge" points out that language, which we typically think of as a vehicle for communication, can actually be another medium for human isolation. The fact that the word suggests so many different contexts testifies both to the slipperiness of language and to the way an individual's private outlook colors his interpretations. Tristram also reminds us in the digression about the bridge that the story of Toby's amours is still forthcoming.

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