to avoid all confusion in what will be said upon [noses], . . . it may not be amiss to explain my own meaning, and define with all possible exactness and precision. . . . In books of strict morality and close reasoning, such as this . . . depending so much as I have done, all along, upon the cleanliness of my reader’s imaginations. (III.xxxi/177-78)Then, following “Eugenius[’s]” forefinger pointing (pointedly) at the word “Crevice, in the fifty-second page of the second volume of this book of books,” and a discussion of “two roads, . . . a dirty and a clean one,” Shandy presents a baroque, paragraph-long tautology, crowned with: “I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less” (III.xxxi/178). This circumlocution actually does “avoid all confusion” and does “define” meaning, firing the reader’s imagination, in the same way as, nine pages later, “a long nose . . . will do excellently well, ad excitandum focum, (to stir up the fire)” (III.xxxvii/187). Essentially winking from behind his equivocation, Shandy knows quite well how clean his readers’ imaginations are, and he rubs their noses in the truth of the matter.7
“Fair and softly, gentle reader!-----where is thy fancy carrying thee? . . . What a life of it has an author, at this pass!” (III.xxxiii/180). And again, Mrs. Shandy, passes by the parlor door and hears the word “wife,” which “caught her by the weak part of the whole sex:——You shall not mistake me,—I mean her curiosity” (V.xii/303).In some instances, Sterne further emphasizes double entendre with ostentatious typography. “The chamber-maid had left no ******* *** under the bed:——Cannot you contrive, master, quoth Susannnah, lifting up the sash . . . cannot you manage . . . to **** *** *** ******?” (V.xvii/310). The context leaves no possible meaning other than chamber pot, for the first series of asterisks, and piss out the window for the second. In another passage, the asterisks’ meaning seems more elliptical, and yet: “He died, said my father, as * * * * * * * * * * * * *——And if it was with his wife, said my uncle Toby–—there could be no harm in it.—–That’s more than I know—–replied my father” (V.iv/294). Uncle Toby’s remark about “wife” and “no harm” fires the imagination, and Walter Shandy’s reply fans the flames: his singular disdain for sex makes his reply ambiguous—it could refer to either “was with his wife,” or “no harm in it.” The ambiguity creates a focus, bringing the reader back to further examine the otherwise innocuous thirteen asterisks. A catalogue of double entendre in Tristram Shandy would make a small book, in itself.
7 When William Warburton, Bishop of Gloucester complains of Tristram Shandy’s indelicacy, exhorting Sterne to write appropriately, as “where priests and virgins may be present,” Sterne scorns Warburton’s concerns (Curtis 119). Sterne probably would have included Warburton in the novel, as a comic foil, except for ‘friendly persuasion’ by third parties (New 120).