Sunday, January 23, 2005

The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling ~ Henry Fielding

Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any farther together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress through this whole history as often as I see occaison; of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever.
It was at this point, at the end of Chapter 2, that I knew that Mr. Fielding and I would get along just fine. Good thing too, because Henry Fielding the Author is probably the most important and central character in Tom Jones. So much so that the BBC cast actor John Sessions to play Fielding in their adaptation; and I don't think you really could tell the story with out our good-natured and smart-assed narrator.
Matters of a much more extraordinary kind [than the affairs of Mr. Allworthy] are to be the subject of this history, or I should grossly mis-spend my time in writing so voluminous a work; and you, my sagacious friend, might with equal profit and pleasure travel through some pages which certain droll authors have been facetiously pleased to call The History of England.

For all its pseudo-philosophical digressions and satire, this novel has got an amazing, perfectly constructed plot. At first it seems pretty chaotic: Tom falls in love with the girl next door, Sophia Western, but his illegitimate birth, combined with meddling parents and scheming relatives, conspire against them; Sophia runs away to London to escape an arranged match, and everybody spends most of the novel chasing everybody else all over England, like some big ridiculous fox hunt. Characters pop up out of nowhere and then disappear, there's plenty of false starts and lost chances, and Fielding detours at every opportunity to take a swing at literary critics as a class. Having read mostly decorous stuff like Austen and Burney, novels that aimed for some measure of respectability, it was surprising how much frank sex and (comic) violence is in Tom Jones. Of course Fielding was a man so he had more freedom in his language and subject matter than even Mrs. Radcliffe could ever hope for, no matter how gothic she got. So Tom pretty much screws anything in petticoats and Squire Western (whom I love, in spite of myself. He's just so damn funny) cusses like a sailor and Fielding winks at his readers and notes that love is "the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantity of delicate human flesh." Boys will be boys. Tom himself is rather like David Copperfield, nice enough but kind of bland compared to the cast around him, like Reverend Thwackham, Lady Bellaston, the Man of the Hill, and the Shrewish, Abusive Landlady, one of Fielding's favorite stock characters. It seems like a big floppy mess of a novel, until you get to the end and you see how perfectly air-tight his plot is. It's very 18th century, very neo-classical, all neat and orderly, ultimately. I know it's a cliche, but it really does work like a well made clock.
There are a set of religious, or rather moral, writers who teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery, in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection: namely, that it is not true.

The irony is, of course, that ultimately our virtuous heroine and her rakish yet decent hero are rewarded, and that nasty hypocrites like Mr. Blifil get their comeuppance. Which, I'm willing to bet, is entirely intentional on Fielding's part. What better way to satirize the works of moralists like Richardson than to take their value system and apply it to a novel where the characters make a pretty good attempt at breaking all 10 commandments, and still get a happy ending.


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