Tristram Shandy

by: Laurence Sterne

Volume 3

Summary Volume 3

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.

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.