Year of Great Books

The Man From Uncle

In Praise of Uncle Toby, the Warm Beating Heart of Tristram Shandy.

This painting shows two of the characters in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman.

Charles Robert Leslie/Wikimedia Commons

This article is part of A Year of Great Books, a Slate Academy. To learn more, read Laura Miller’s introduction to the series, or visit

Whenever a friend stumbles in reading Tristram Shandy, I offer three pieces of advice. The first is that Shandy is all about surrender. It’s not a riddle to be solved, but a journey that we take on faith. The second is my secret abridgment key, which shaves the better part of two volumes without losing too much in plot or sentiment, and which I will happily furnish to curious readers for a suitable fee. The third piece of advice is this: Keep your eye on Uncle Toby. In a book of metaphysical japes, Uncle Toby reminds us that people should come before hypotheses, and when the other men in the parlor are lost in pseudointellectual thickets, it is stolid Toby who returns us to firm ground, who embodies this intricate novel’s unlikely triumph of heart over head.

Toby is deceptively central to the novel. Amid the frillions of penciled annotations in my old Modern Library paperback, I suspect a good third are some variation on “awww TOBY!!!” He’s just such a sweetheart! And a lot of us feel this way, honoring Toby with the genial, condescending affection we otherwise reserve for loyal dogs and long-shot presidential candidates. In any other novel, he would be a thoroughly marginal character, and in Shandy it can be difficult to recognize that Toby plays more than a supporting role. While Walter is cobbling together his Tristrapaedia, Tristram’s actual education falls to Mrs. Shandy and to Toby. When Dr. Slop offers witless barbs, Toby gently submits, wishing no harm on anyone, desiring only to potter about his bowling green, or to sit soothing a brother’s distress. When Walter works himself into a coughing fit berating Toby’s stupidity, Toby attends to his brother “with infinite pity,” wiping his tears and stroking his head, forgiving Walter’s hurtful remarks. Tristram refers to his uncle’s compassion as a “generous (tho’ hobby-horsical) gallantry.” Toby’s steadfast fellow feeling is a rare quality in the world of the novel and inseparable from his cluelessness. (Remarking on Toby’s metaphysical ignorance, Walter ejaculates: “‘twere almost a pity to change it for knowledge!”)

It also bears emphasis that Toby is the only man in the house who seems to care a whit for the health of Mrs. Shandy. While Walter and Dr. Slop skirmish over airy postulations, it is Toby who reminds them that, at that very moment, Elizabeth is in the throes of labor: “I think, replied my uncle Toby,—it would not be amiss, brother, if we rung the bell.” That’s a pretty low bar for chivalry, but only Toby jumps it. We also count on Toby to foil Walter’s pompous intellectual thrusts, whether by a well-meant interjection or by rejecting the thorny theorizing that causes so many headaches in the household. Toby’s intercession in the hair-splitting debate over rechristening Tristram is emblematic: “But my brother’s child, cried my uncle Toby, has nothing to do with the Pope—’tis the plain child of a Protestant gentleman, christen’d Tristram against the wills and wishes of both of its father and mother, and all who are a-kin to it.” Common sense has rarely felt so poignant.

It can be baffling, when you’re up against a big page of Slawkenbergian Latin, to remember that Shandy was a runaway best-seller and Laurence Sterne an overnight celebrity—that Tristram Shandy was the definition of pop, and that Toby’s amours captured the imagination of whole cities in England and on the continent.

Sterne’s detractors alternately criticized the bawdiness of his jokes and the novel’s excess of “sensibility”—the joyous deregulation of the emotions, as when Tristram falls for the “nut-brown maid” on his gallop through Europe, one of the many surprising moments when sentiment challenges, and undoes, laughter. These gestures of gallantry, this attunement to the sweet and fatal charms of women, this radical compassion, are Tristram’s inheritance from his uncle, the man who would not hurt a fly:

Go,—says he, one day at dinner, to an over-grown one which had buzzed about his nose, and tormented him cruelly all dinner-time,—and which after infinite attempts, he had caught at last, as it flew by him;—I’ll not hurt thee, says my uncle Toby, rising from his chair, and going across the room, with the fly in his hand,—I’ll not hurt a hair of thy head:—Go, says he, lifting up the sash, and opening his hand as he spoke, to let it escape;—go, poor devil, get thee gone, why should I hurt thee?—-This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me.”

….The lesson of universal good-will then taught and imprinted by my uncle Toby, has never since been worn out of my mind: And tho’ I would not depreciate what the study of the Literae humaniores, at the university, have done for me in that respect, or discredit the other helps, of an expensive education bestowed upon me, both at home and abroad since;—yet I often think that I owe one half of my philanthropy to that one accidental impression.

For those who love it, Tristram Shandy is not some drily mordant exercise. There are innumerable technical satisfactions in the comic performance, but no one would still be reading this novel if it didn’t also stir feeling, sympathy, affection, and conscience, and mingle them all while making you laugh. It’s a work of big brain and even bigger heart, and we can thank Toby for this happy ratio. Formal complexity aside, Shandy is singular in its range of moods and the suddenness of its flights between them, the dizzy ways Tristram veers between ecstasy, annoyance, sorrow, and laughter, all in the space of a page. And when, at last, our narrator alights from a lampoon on (say) Popish scholasticism, his eye more often than not fixes on Toby, whose humble presence brings us to ground once more—in the parlor, or the Widow Wadman’s garden, as the case may be. Alongside the dead and hollow reasonings of a Phutatorius, Toby’s charity and forbearance are animating virtues—they give the novel life. Enjoying his foolishness, we overlook his saintliness, the humility that allows him, whether in battle or conversation, to absorb the lowest blows with a strange and moving dignity. Toby looks and sounds like a supporting character; in fact, he’s the moral center of the book. And while Toby’s foibles cannot help but make us laugh, Tristram also invites us to join the recording angel—to marvel at Toby’s goodness, and to drop a tear.