not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
(along with the next few posts that will appear on the blog, this one should have been put up some time ago. Blame life for getting in the way, or me for letting it.)
My previous post started out as an attempt to grapple with the joys and pains I encountered reading The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding. Better known simply as Tom Jones, this novel is as good an argument for fighting one’s way through a book as I’ve ever encountered, and I started my previous essay attempting to explain the sensation of reading Fielding’s masterpiece. But I discovered two things in my exploration of the ideas of literary “difficulty:” one, that the concept itself was worthy of at least 1500 words (which I should have anticipated), and two, that the experience of reading Tom Jones is different from the usual experience encountering a “difficult” text. When reading most works that predate the 20th century, you tend to move toward the novel’s understanding of “entertainment.” It might take a comparatively inexperienced modern reader 100 pages or so to get past the archaic style and diction of a Charles Dickens novel, but once he has firmly settled into the Dickensian mode, he can go back to the beginning and discover that, for example, the first two chapters of Oliver Twist are just as bleak and vicious as anything in the middle (guess what I’m reading right now!).
Fielding’s novel, however, moves toward the reader as it progresses; even as the reader gradually acclimates to Fielding’s digressive and intrusive narrative voice, and settles into the unhurried pace of the first hundred or so pages, Fielding sends his narrator into the novel less and less (finally bidding the reader adieu with 50+ pages to go) and gradually amps up the pace, until characters and letters are pursuing each other in coaches at breakneck speed up and down the worryingly-crowded streets of London, and a slight romantic comedy has turned into a literal question of life or death for the novel’s eponymous protagonist. The first hundred pages remain as much of a chore as they ever were, and the reader is likely to feel that Fielding is, like Daniel Defoe, gradually figuring out how to write a novel as his narrative goes forward. But then those final 50 pages come, and Fielding reveals that he’s known exactly where he’s been heading from the start, as every detail from those first hundred pages (even the first description of Tom Jones, that he was “born to be hanged”) pays off in the novel’s denouement.
As I said, the plot swerves from romantic comedy to legal drama near the end, as the question changes from “will Tom get the girl?” to “will Tom get to keep his life?” but the apparent change in genre emphasizes what the novel’s true aim is: the judgment of its hero’s moral character. The questions: “does Tom deserve the girl?” and “does Tom deserve his life?” are really the same one, “Is Tom good?”- and to the novel’s credit, this question is never quite as straightforward as the reader would like it to be. Make no mistake, by the time Tom is sent to the gallows, we are on his side one hundred percent. His indictment is a result of monstrous legal injustice and an untruthful twisting of every good deed he has done to that point, and if, upon finishing the chapter in which Tom is imprisoned, I happened to meet a person with the temerity to suggest Tom deserved his imprisonment, my first and best instinct would be to punch that person in the face.
But this visceral, throat-rattling support for the central character makes us aware that we are on Tom’s side, right or wrong. That’s a telling phrase, and while it is good and right that we are on Tom’s side after such injustice, it does not logically follow that Tom is himself either good or right. This ambiguity about Tom’s character was a major sticking point for Fielding’s contemporaries, who found it very hard to root for a character with certain persistent moral weaknesses. And by “persistent moral weaknesses,” I mean that Tom Jones fucks his way across the English countryside, and once in the city hires himself out as a gigolo to a wealthy lady, excusing all or most of his behavior as part of a justified effort to win the true object of his affections, the Lady Sophia. Worse, he never gets punished for it in any permanent manner – even the morally pure Sophia doesn’t seem too concerned that, for the entirety of the novel, she literally does not discover a single location devoid of individuals with carnal knowledge of her “true love.” Even if readers admit that Tom does have justifiable reasons for sleeping with other women, and does suffer some sort of punishment each time he does, the frequency of these episodes were enough to leave a bad taste in the mouths of 18th-century critics: most of the novel’s defenders eventually revert to the defense that the novel was so unrealistic that it would be impossible for anyone to mistake it for a celebration of immorality.
True, us readers in modern times are less horrified by the idea that people may have sex out of wedlock – may, indeed, have sex for reasons other than love – but we are also more horrified by the discrepancy in sexual standards for Tom and Sophia. Not only is Sophia not allowed to have sex at any point in the narrative, but we get the feeling that, if she ever did, Fielding would feel obligated to punish her in a much more permanent manner than he ever does Jones. It is stated throughout the narrative that Jones values Sophia for her purity, and is thereby implied that if she did once what he does almost daily, he would lose all regard for her, even after he has fallen into so many different women that it becomes difficult to consider these episodes mere “slips.” It’s possible for modern readers with liberal sexual attitudes to see Tom’s behavior as immoral even without this sexist discrepancy (whatever he might think at the time, in reality Tom rarely sleeps with women for any good reason), but it helps to drive home some of the same basic revulsion an eighteenth-century reader was likely to feel.
But rather than being a fatal misstep (as Samuel Johnson, among others, believed it to be), the novel’s seemingly cavalier attitude towards morality invests the moral quandaries of Tom Jones with an urgency unmatched by the more didactic moral novels of other 18th-century authors such as Samuel Richardson. Many critics have noted the structural similarity of Fielding’s novel to Paradise Lost, with Jones being expelled from a life of pastoral innocence and condemned to death in a fallen world, only to be given a miraculous reprieve at the last moment, and be led into his father’s house, finally recognized as its rightful master. I have seen less criticism that notes two other affinities with Milton: Fielding is careful to point out that, in a system of strict justice, his man (Hebrew word: Adam) does not really deserve his final reward, and that part of what makes Sophia such an exemplar of morality is her ability to forgive Jones even in those instances where he doesn’t deserve forgiveness.
Also like Milton, Fielding turns the moral platitudes of Richardson into a moral interrogation of the reader. He makes us aware that Jones is not deserving of his reward, that we want Jones to get that reward anyway, that Squire Allworthy’s Godlike sense of absolute justice tends to tip into legalistic buffoonery and lead to exactly the wrong conclusions, that every other system of philosophy in the novel seems designed to contort Allworthy’s goodness into toadyism and corruption, and that most of them succeed. As in Paradise Lost, our ability to reconcile these moral quandaries, and the way we tend to interpret them, possibly tells us things about our own sense of morality that we hadn’t realized before. The novel is as much a moral litmus test as a moral declaration, and in attempting to make some sense of its philosophy, we sharpen and refine our own.