Skip over navigation

Tristram Shandy

Laurence Sterne

Volume 8

Volume 7

Volume 9

Summary

Tristram elaborates again upon the necessity of moving backward and forward in time to tell his story. While he still intends to press on toward the story of Toby's love affair, he prepares us for the possibility that he may yet make some digressions along the way. He returns to his earlier suggestion that Toby was the last to know that he was in love, observing that if Susannah had not informed him of the matter, he might never have pursued the affair at all. Tristram launches into the story once, gets bogged down in rambling speculations, and decides to abandon the chapter and begin again.

When Uncle Toby and Corporal Trim first come down to the country to begin work on the fortifications, they find that the house is unfurnished. They are obliged to stay with Widow Wadman for three days, and by the third day she has fallen in love with Toby. Toby is so occupied with his battlements that it takes until the end of the war--eleven years, in fact--before he has leisure to attend to the situation with his smitten neighbor.

Tristram describes the Widow's advances toward Toby as a military maneuver. Separated from the site of Toby's battle replica only by a hedgerow, Mrs. Wadman is in a most strategic position to launch her attack. By feigning interest in his maps and plans she works her way into his sentry-box, engineering seductive bumps and caresses whenever possible.

When the end of the war forces a lull in their activities, Trim offers to provide some amusement for Toby by telling the story of the King of Bohemia and his seven castles. This tale never really gets off the ground, and Trim digresses instead into the story of how he fell in love during the war. After receiving a wound to the knee, Trim finds himself under the care of a Beguine nun. After a great deal of knee massaging, he suddenly realizes he is in love with her. Toby hijacks the end of the story, which is clearly approaching a sexual climax, by saying, "and then thou...madest a speech."

Widow Wadman, who has been eavesdropping, seizes the passionate pitch of the moment to make a move. She enters the sentry-box and announces that she has a speck of something in her eye, asking Uncle Toby to take a look. Toby at first finds nothing, but as he continues to inspect her beautiful eye, his heart begins to warm to the Widow Wadman. This is the decisive turning point in her campaign.

When Toby informs Trim that he has fallen in love, the two set to work mapping out a strategy. They ready their uniforms and weapons, and Trim decides to attempt a peripheral conquest of Bridget, Mrs. Wadman's servant. The night before the campaign is to take place, Walter writes a letter to Toby full of his brotherly advice about women. The "action" is to begin at eleven o'clock the next morning, and Walter and Mrs. Shandy walk out to watch the drama unfold.

Commentary

This volume is comprised of a series of delays and restarts, as if Tristram is reluctant to get to the events that will terminate the story because, in doing so, he will force himself off the stage. He is running to keep ahead of the end of his own novel in much the same way that he flew from Death in the last volume: not desperately or fearfully, but enjoying the sights along the way. "One would think I took a pleasure in running into difficulties of this kind," Tristram remarks when he gets hung up in the sixth chapter. He then goes on to demonstrate that he does take pleasure in them, turning the pressing concerns that push him to finish the novel (poverty and illness) into jokes. He got sick while frolicking in Flanders, and prefers to think of the happy cause rather than its unfortunate consequence. He then turns the serious condition of his lungs into a satire of medical professionals, whose diagnoses amount to nothing more than elementary math.

In one of these digressions, Tristram makes the provocative statement, "I am resolved never to read any book but my own, as long as I live." How could he read any other? By this point in the novel we are to understand that Tristram's book, in its broadest sense, amounts to the very workings of his own mind. Everything he encounters (or reads) passes through that same filter, which is itself the substance of the book. Everything Tristram has read is a part of his narrative, almost by definition; indeed much of it is there in a quite literal sense, and he defines the scope of his book so that more can always be included. Tristram's book, in this regard, is his very being--his life and opinions are precisely what he cannot avoid or escape.

When the war ends, Toby really does not know what to do with himself. The affair with Widow Wadman helps him to transition out of a mindset obsessed with the past (which has become translated by means of his hobby into an imaginary and even delusory present). The experience of love and the prospect of marriage require him to think about the present reality and to look forward to the future in ways to which he has become unaccustomed. "It is not easy," he tells Trim, "for one, bred up as thou and I have been to arm, who seldom looks further forward than to the end of his musket, or backwards beyond his knapsack, to know much about this matter [of chronology]." Toby is trying to encourage Trim in his storytelling, but he could just as easily be speaking about himself.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us