Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1280
Tristram Shandy, in telling the story of his earliest years, says that he has always believed that most of the problems of his life were brought about by the fact that the moment of his conception was interrupted when his mother asked his father whether he had remembered to wind the clock. Tristram knows the exact date of his conception: the night between the first Sunday and the first Monday of March, 1718. He is certain of this because his father’s notebook indicates that before that Monday he had been seriously inconvenienced by an attack of sciatica, and immediately after that day he had set out for London.
Another complication of Tristram’s birth was caused by the marriage settlement of his parents. According to this settlement, which Tristram quotes in full, Mrs. Shandy had the privilege of going to London in preparation for childbirth. If Mrs. Shandy were to put Mr. Shandy to the expense of a trip to London on false pretenses, however, then the next child was to be born at Shandy Hall. The circumstance of a needless trip to London had occurred some time before, and Mr. Shandy stoutly insisted that Tristram should be born at Shandy Hall; the birth would be in the hands of a country midwife rather than in those of a London doctor.
As Tristram tells the story, on the night of his birth, his father, Walter Shandy, and Tristram’s uncle Toby, Walter’s brother, are sitting in the living room engaged in one of their interminable debates. Informed by Susannah, the maid, that Mrs. Shandy is about to deliver her child, they send for the midwife. As an extra measure of safety, they also send for Dr. Slop, a bungling country practitioner whom Mr. Shandy admires because he has written a five-shilling book on the history of midwifery.
Uncle Toby, who has been called the highest compliment ever paid human nature, was a soldier until he was wounded during the siege of Namur in 1695. The wound, the exact position of which is to play a large part in Tristram’s story later on, has forced him to retire to the country. At the suggestion of his faithful servant, Corporal Trim, he has built a large and complicated series of model fortifications and military emplacements on a bowling green behind Shandy Hall. Uncle Toby now spends all his time playing soldier and thinking about this miniature battlefield. Mr. Shandy is not impressed with his brother’s hobby and keeps him from discussing it by violently interrupting him, so that he can continue, or start, one of his own long and detailed digressions on obscure information.
As the two brothers await the arrival of the midwife and her rival, Dr. Slop, Mr. Shandy asks a rhetorical question on the subject of Mrs. Shandy’s preference for a midwife rather than a male doctor. When Uncle Toby suggests naïvely that modesty might explain her choice, Mr. Shandy launches into a long discussion of the nature of women and of the fact that everything has two handles. Given his naïveté, it is impossible for Uncle Toby to understand such affairs.
By the time Dr. Slop finally arrives with his bag of tools, the midwife is already in attendance on Mrs. Shandy; the doctor goes to her room to see about the birth of the child. Meanwhile, Corporal Trim reads a sermon aloud to pass the time. In attending Mrs. Shandy, Dr. Slop unfortunately mistakes Tristram’s hip for his head. In probing with his large forceps, he flattens what Tristram always later refers to as his nose. Tristram essentially blames this mistake on the affair of the winding of the clock mentioned earlier. This incident—and a later one concerning the falling of a window sash as Tristram, still a little boy, relieves himself through a window—brings about a problem in his anatomy that he mentions often.
Between Tristram’s birth and almost immediate baptism, Mr. Shandy entertains the company with a long story by the ancient German writer Slawkenbergius, which he has translated from the Latin. The story tells of the adventures of a man with an especially long nose. When Mr. Shandy recovers from hearing the bad news about the accident with the forceps, he is told that his newborn child is very sickly and weak; consequently, he summons Mr. Yorick, the curate, to baptize the child immediately. While rushing to get dressed to attend the ceremony, Mr. Shandy sends word to the parson through the maid, Susannah, to name the child Trismegistus, after an ancient philosopher who is one of his favorites. Susannah forgets the name, however, and tells Mr. Yorick to christen the child Tristram. This name pleases the old man because it happens to be his own as well. By the time Mr. Shandy, still half unbuttoned, reaches the scene, the evil has been done. Despite the fact that Mr. Shandy thinks correct naming most important, his child is Tristram, a name Mr. Shandy believes the worst in the world. He laments that he has lost three-fourths of his son in his unfortunate geniture, nose, and name. There remains only one-fourth: Tristram’s education.
Tristram manages to give a partial account of his topsy-turvy boyhood between many digressions on the other members of his family. Uncle Toby continues to answer most of his brother’s arguments by softly whistling “Lillibullero,” his favorite tune, and by going out to his little battlefield to wage small wars with Corporal Trim. The next important event in the family is the death of Master Bobby, Tristram’s older brother, who had been away at Westminster school. Mr. Shandy reacts to this event in his usual way, by calling up all the philosophical ideas of the past on death and discoursing on them until he has adjusted himself to the new situation. When the tragic news reaches the servants, Susannah, despite a desire to show grief, can think of nothing but the wonderful wardrobe of dresses she will inherit when her mistress goes into mourning. Corporal Trim demonstrates the transitory nature of life by dropping his hat, as if it had suddenly died; he then makes an extemporaneous funeral oration.
After many more digressions on war, health, the fashions of ancient Roman dress, and his father’s doubts as to whether to get Tristram a tutor and whether to put him into long trousers, Tristram proceeds to tell the history of his Uncle Toby, both in war and in love. Near Shandy Hall lives the Widow Wadman, who, after laying siege to Uncle Toby’s affections for a long time, almost gets him to propose marriage to her. The gentle former soldier, who literally would not kill a fly, finally learns the widow’s purpose when she begins to inquire pointedly into the extent and position of his wound. He promises the widow that he will allow her to put her finger on the very spot where he was wounded, and then he brings her a map of Namur and points out the place for her to touch. Uncle Toby’s innocence protects him until Corporal Trim finally tells his master that the widow is interested in the spot on his body, not the spot on the surface of the world, where he was wounded. This realization so embarrasses the old man that the idea of marriage disappears from his mind forever. Tristram concludes his story with Parson Yorick’s statement that the book has been one of the cock-and-bull variety: The reader has been led on a mad but merry chase through the satirical and witty mind of the author.