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Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

Volume 6

Volume 5

Volume 7

Summary

The author pauses to look back over his work, remarking on the number of jackasses the world contains. Walter too surveys his work, congratulating himself on the usefulness of his Tristra-paedia. Dr. Slop and Susannah bicker as they dress young Tristram's wound. Walter begins to think of hiring a governor (a private tutor) for his son, in order to improve Tristram's supervision and begin his education. He reflects on the qualities of the ideal governor, which inspires Toby to recommend Le Fever's son, Billy. Tristram embarks on the sentimental story about Le Fever and his boy, regretting that he missed the opportunity, with all the scene-shifting in the last volume, to give the story in Corporal Trim's own words.

Toby and Trim had taken a particular interest in Lieutenant Le Fever when he fell ill while passing through their village. Despite their kind and generous attentions, Le Fever died, leaving Uncle Toby to be the executor of his estate and the guardian of his orphaned son. Young Billy Le Fever had been in the army until poor health and financial trouble recently recalled him home. His arrival is expected at any moment when Toby proposes him for Tristram's governor.

Dr. Slop exaggerates the extent of Tristram's injury, creating a public embarrassment for the Shandy family. Walter considers putting the boy in breeches as a corrective to public opinion and decides to submit the matter to one of his "beds of justice." Tristram explains that his father's preferred method for making big decisions is a modified version of a Gothic tradition, in which important matters are debated twice: once in a state of sobriety and once while drunk. The discussions Walter conducts while in bed with Mrs. Shandy are more sober than he might wish, however, since she is a markedly unspirited conversationalist. She acquiesces to putting the boy in breeches, and submits to each of Walter's changing opinions about what sort of breeches they should be. Walter then consults his library for ancient wisdom on breeches.

Tristram declares a turning point in the book, leaving all these considerations behind "to enter upon a new scene of events," which will concern his Uncle Toby. He describes the details of Toby's fortifications, the history of their construction, and the pleasure Toby and Trim took in re-enacting the events of the war. He eventually leaves off the account of their fortification project to discuss the other side of his Uncle Toby's personality, referring again to Toby's unusual modesty and preparing the stage for the story of Toby's love affair. Toby grieves when the war ends, but Tristram insists that it is not out of any love of violence or disregard for human life. Toby delivers an Apologetical Oration in which he argues that war is a necessary evil. Nevertheless, the Treaty of Utrecht forces a hiatus in Toby's obsessive activities. It is during this "fateful interval," Tristram hints, that his uncle falls victim to Widow Wadman's amorous designs. After a series of ruminations about the nature of love, Tristram finally comes around to stating bluntly, "My uncle Toby fell in love." But Toby, oddly, is among the last to learn of his own plans to marry Mrs. Wadman.

Commentary

The decisive event in this volume comes when Tristram announces a shift in the emphasis of the book. Up to this point, the major sequence of events has involved the conception, birth, baptism, and circumcision of the infant Tristram. Here the author transfers his focus to the adventures of his Uncle Toby. The transition is not as drastic as Tristram makes it out to be; we have been gathering pieces of Toby's story all along, as well as promises of more to come (though they have mainly occurred as digressions to the main narrative line). One of the most striking aspects of the book, however, is the degree to which the main plot trajectory often recedes into the background, often seeming like no more than a skeleton on which the author hangs a diversity of opinions and analyses.

Now, however, Tristram declares outright that he would like to leave his own story behind. But he feels he cannot do so: "I must go along with you to the end of the work." This statement reveals the fact that the story of the infant Tristram does not exhaust the "life and opinions" of Tristram Shandy. Toby's story is just as important in disclosing the mental life of the author. As if to prove this fact, Tristram drops the issues of the window sash accident, the tutor, and the breeches and whisks the story back to the early days of Toby's obsessive hobbies. One of the most notable things about this particular hobby-horse is that it keeps Toby firmly rooted in the past, emphasizing re-creations and re-enactments. When the end of the war suspends his pleasures, Toby does look to the future; he hopes for a new war to break out--but only so that he can relegate it just as firmly to the past by retracing its every movement. The intensity of Toby's immersion in this imaginary world is such that it incorporates and transforms everything that comes within his purview.

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