Walter Shandy’s hodgepodge of philosophical and psychological ideas, formal logic, and theories of child-rearing form a comic opera in which his best plans are overturned, throwing Shandy Hall into constant turmoil. Within this microcosm, classical rhetoric, medieval literature, and biblical references mingle with allusions to astrology, alchemy, bridge-building, and fortifications. Citations in Latin, Greek, French, and Italian mingle with a technical vocabulary borrowed from science, medicine, and the legal profession. A dissertation on whiskers mingles with a long tale about a man’s nose. All of these disparate elements create a rich muddle that symbolizes not only Walter Shandy’s fecund mind but also the larger world of human affairs, which is marked by endless misunderstanding and ubiquitous charlatanism.
The events that take place within Shandy Hall represent, by implication, Tristram’s version of human history, a tragicomedy in which good-hearted simpletons and well-intentioned schemers continually collide with common sense, and high-toned discourse is constantly undercut by coarse humor, coarse talk, and bawdy innuendo. What drives Shandy Hall, and what continually defeats Walter Shandy’s schemes, is the same force, or Fate, that directs human affairs.
Uncle Toby’s battlefield. Probably no other place in this novel so well represents the way language can lead to mishap and misunderstanding as Uncle Toby’s miniature fortification. It symbolizes the problematic interplay of language and learning and of human character and its relation to events. In this miniature world, mock warfare mirrors the assault by the Widow Wadman against Uncle Toby’s resolute bachelorhood, and her failure to engage him in a frank discourse symbolizes the power of innocence to blind and the power of language to obscure and mislead. Uncle Toby’s battlefield, with its overtones of a child’s game and harmless pastime, reflects his childish nature and benign spirit–he could not hurt a fly, we are told–as well as the essential childishness of adult warfare.
Widow Wadman’s parlor. Climactic place in which the romantic Widow Wadman lays her siege. Her parlor is the arena in which one of the book’s principal themes–the unreliability of language as a medium of communication–is most central and where one of the book’s other themes, that impotence imbues the individual with a kind of potency, is played out before the reader’s eyes in a comic climax of cross-purpose and miscommunication. The parlor also represents the polite world of decorum and propriety as this world is undercut by the physical behavior of servants below stairs. In the parlor, too, Sterne’s double meanings and double entendres proliferate more quickly than the characters themselves can manage.
Tristram the narrator glories in the ambiguous properties of his chief weapon, language, which gives him the power to control the events of his narrative and, at the same time, to demonstrate the equivocal nature of language and the unequivocal power of those who know how to use it well. The widow’s parlor is the place where she parlays with Uncle Toby and discovers that there is more to communication than simple talk.