Desperate causes: Tristram’s unorthodox circumcision

December 16, 2023 0 Comments
Shandy Hall

The early life of Tristram Shandy is marked by a series of unhappy accidents.  His conception is badly planned, thanks to an untimely question asked by his mother.  At his birth his nose is broken by Dr Slop, the inept man-midwife.  And he’s given the wrong forename, after the name his father has chosen gets garbled in passing on the message.  Then, at the age of five, he suffers a further mutilation.  Here is how he tells it in Book 5, Chapter 17 of his life story (Laurence Sterne interrupts Tristram’s narrative with the date ‘August the 10th, 1761’, which must indicate the precise day he was writing this passage):

– ’Twas nothing, — I did not lose two drops of blood by it — ’twas not worth calling in a surgeon, had he lived next door to us — thousands suffer by choice, what I did by accident. — Doctor Slop made ten times more of it, than there was occasion: — some men rise, by the art of hanging great weights upon small wires, — and I am this day (August the 10th, 1761) paying part of the price of this man’s reputation. — O ’twould provoke a stone, to see how things are carried on in this world! —The chamber-maid had left no ******* *** under the bed: — Cannot you contrive, master, quoth Susannah, lifting up the sash with one hand, as she spoke, and helping me up into the window-seat with the other, — cannot you manage, my dear, for a single time, to **** *** ** *** ******?

I was five years old. — Susannah did not consider that nothing was well hung in our family, — so slap came the sash down like lightning upon us; — Nothing is left, — cried Susannah, — nothing is left — for me, but to run my country. —

My uncle Toby’s house was a much kinder sanctuary; and so Susannah fled to it.

No one willed this incident, and no one foresaw it.  In short, it was an accident, a random happening.  In the telling of his tale Tristram has already made much of the fact he’s attended by bad luck to an extreme degree.  Right at the outset (Book 1, Chapter 5) he complains, ‘I have been the continual sport of what the world calls Fortune … in every stage of my life, and at every turn and corner where she could fairly get at me, the ungracious duchess has pelted me with a set of as pitiful misadventures and cross accidents as ever small Hero sustained.’  His father shares his opinion: ‘what a long chapter of chances do the events of this world lay open to us’ (Book 4, Chapter 9).  Tristram’s punning aside when explaining Susannah’s behaviour ‘nothing is well hung in our family’, is consistent with it.

From Martin Rowson’s Tristram Shandy

Yet, despite his declaration that his life is merely a series of misfortunes and accidents, Tristram envelopes his ‘accidental’ circumcision (if that is what it is: no one explains the medical details) in an elaborate web of cause and effect, which invites the reader to conclude, not just that this was ‘an accident waiting to happen’, but that it was fated to occur by a bizarre but quite logical series of decisions.

‘Nothing is left’, shouts Susannah the maid.  We might think at first that she’s referring to the boy’s foreskin.   But the rest of the sentence, ‘nothing is left – for me, but to run my country’, makes it clear that she’s suffering acutely from shame and guilt.

When she arrives at my uncle Toby’s house, Susannah confesses what’s happened to his aide, Corporal Trim.  He, in turn, turns pale (‘the blood forsook his cheeks’), because he knows he’s as much to blame as Susannah – and that Toby is as guilty as either of them.  What’s the explanation?  We track back to the time when my uncle Toby, a keen war-gamer, asked Trim to manufacture ‘a couple of field-pieces’ to guard a new fortification on his model battlefield (built on a former bowling green).  Already short of material, Trim decided to remove the lead weights from the sash windows in Shandy Hall, so leaving them to plunge heavily downwards when moved, in this case to let Tristram ‘piss out of the window’ (the presumed meaning of the asterisks in Chapter 17).

Trim explains everything to my uncle Toby, who’s in the middle of explaining the battle of Steenkirk to the parson, Yorick.  Toby in turn is consumed by guilt, because Trim, after all, had only been following his orders.  The outcome is a solemn crocodile procession to Shandy Hall, to confess the chain of guilt to Tristram’s father, Walter Shandy:

— Then, Yorick, replied my uncle Toby, you and I will lead the way abreast,— and do you, corporal, follow a few paces behind us. — And Susannah, an’ please your honour, said Trim, shall be put in the rear. — ’Twas an excellent disposition, — and in this order, without either drums beating, or colours flying, they marched slowly from my uncle Toby’s house to Shandy-hall.

—I wish, said Trim, as they entered the door, — instead of the sash weights, I had cut off the church spout, as I once thought to have done. — You have cut off spouts enow, replied Yorick.

Walter Shandy, however, is a mercurial man and fails to react in the way they expect.  Instead of angrily blaming his brother and the servants, he immediately buries his nose in several tomes from his library and finds that circumcision is a perfectly proper procedure according to all manner of civilisations.  If the Egyptians, Syrians, Phoenicians, Arabians, Cappadocians, Colchi and Trogloditi, as well as the Jews, were in favour, ‘Who am I’, he asks, ‘that I should fret or fume one moment about the matter?’

From Martin Rowson’s Tristram Shandy

Tristram, too, seems reconciled to his ‘accident’, and confesses to us that he himself had inserted into his father’s slowly-written book Tristra-paedia, an encyclopaedic guide to bringing up and educating his son, a chapter entitled ‘Upon Sash-Windows’, even though it has ‘a bitter Philippic at the end of it, on the forgetfulness of chamber-maids’.

So, for Tristram, events that may on the surface appear random and the result of the chance fusillades of ‘duchess’ Fortune, are in fact the result of an intricate and bizarre, but logical and indeed preordained, set of Newtonian movements in the physical world.  Which is the more alarming picture of the world is a matter for debate.

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