Enjoying the freedom of an artist, Fielding in his ‘Tom Jones’ bursts on the literary scene giving thousands of hours for a kind of writing, which is in his own words, “I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language”. His immediate inspiration was the Spanish Classic, ‘Don Quixote’. However in discussing his work Fielding refers to Homer and Aristotle, the former for practice and the later for theory.
This kind of appeal to authority was extremely important during the Neo-Classical Age.
The classification is most apt for this is the period of literary history in which writers and critics based their views of literature on classical figures, most important of who were, Homer and Aristotle. Alexander Pope has succinctly stated the prevailing view in one of the couplets from his ‘Essay on Criticism’, “Learn hence from ancient rules a just esteem; To copy Nature is to copy them. ”
However, ‘Tom Jones’ as Andrew Sanders puts in, “is Fielding’s most meticulous response to the challenge of Classical Epic and his most considered comic redefinition of what he called, ‘comic epic-poem in prose’, which he thus describes in his ‘Preface’ to ‘Joseph Andrews’, “Now a comic romance is a comic-epic in prose; differing from tragedy; its action being more extended and comprehensive containing a much larger circle in incidents and introducing a greater variety of characters.
It differs from the serious romance in its characters, by introducing persons of inferior rank, and consequently of inferior manners, whereas the grave romance sets the highest before us; lastly in its sentiments and diction by preserving the ludicrous instead of sublime. ” Thus he outlined the concept of a comic epic-poem in prose. His ambition for prose were comprehensive; he proposed to take the wide range of character, incidents, diction and reference from the epic and to re-mould this material according to ‘comic’ rather than ‘serious’ principles. Tom Jones’ is, first and foremost, a great comic novel; a good story well-told, with something of a fairy tale element in its theme: It’s a novel of life, of men and women, playing out the great comic scene of society. In the words of George Meredith, Fielding’s contemporary, “Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilized men and women, where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent crashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing.
Credulity is not wooed through the impressionable senses, nor have recourse to the small circular glow of the watchmaker’s eye to raise in bright relief minutest grains of evidence for the routing of incredulity. The comic spirit conceives a definite situation for a number of characters and rejects all accessories in the exclusive pursuit of them and their speech. For, being a spirit, he hunts the spirit in men; vision and ardor constitute his merit: he has not a thought of persuading you in him. Follow and you will see…” ‘Tom Jones’ is an epic of human nature written in a comic style. Man therefore is the highest subject which presents itself to the pen of our historian, or of our poet. ”(Book-8, Chapter-1) Fielding in this so-called epic poem to dwell upon human nature, what pertains to a man on this planet? He of course interprets life through the medium of humour. ‘Tom Jones’ may not be an ideal from the point of view of the orthodox opinion because of the sexual aberrations. Dr. Johnson too spoke to Hannah More abusing ‘Tom Jones’, “I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it; a confession which no modest lady should ever make.
I scarcely know more corrupt a work. ” Yet we may claim that Fielding introduces all that is good in a man particularly from the point of view of magnanimity. He hunts the comic spirit in men: he laughs, not derisively but kindly; he chides but gently. There is an unconventional accent upon human goodness in the novel which is different from the pure ideals of an epic. An epic is a tale of human virtue and so is ‘Tom Jones’ with Fielding’s aim to follow virtue wherever she may lead , and to laugh men back into good humour which is his term for right conduct.
The comic tone of the novel is established from the very beginning and it runs throughout the novel. The pivotal point of the action of this novel and its physical centre, is the episode at Upton Inn, which takes up most of the Books IX and X. Here we can see, perhaps better than anywhere else, Fielding’s skill as a master of situation comedy. He understands the art of comic elaboration, of what a critic calls, “…the smile within the smile within the smile;” he knows that an incident which is funny, it happens may become more than twice as funny the second time.
In the scene between Sophia and her aunt (in Book- VI, Chapter-V) he develops the comedy of mutual understanding; and the novel is full of such stage situations as unexpected entrances and discoveries, best known, perhaps in Book XV, Chapter V, where Squire Western bursts in to interrupt Lord Fellamar’s attempted rape of Sophia. But Fielding’s humour of action, a knock-about comedy of fights and horseplay, something told in the mock-horror vein. There is the more delicate and all pervading humour of verbal irony when a smile may be evoked by a single aptly chosen word.
And there is the humour of character. Partridge is never funny as Fielding seems to think: he is a thin shadow of Sancho Panza. But there are a host of minor comic characters and one creation in Squire Western who is a surprisingly complex figure of comic violence and who has admirably been described by a critic as, “A cantankerous, greedy, rampaging hog, snorting and snouting round all the graces of life, yet capable of tears and an almost poetical tenderness. ” Fielding’s is then, on the whole, a broad, sane, extroverted humour, never malicious and never petty.
He is less violent and brutal than his contemporaries such as Smollett and Sterne. He does not employ caricature to anything like the extent that Smollett does, and he has none of the other man’s undercurrent of hatred and anger. And his humour is quite different from that of the other eighteenth century comic novelist, Sterne, who is by comparison introvert, off-beat and even surrealist. Sterne’s comedy is slow-moving and analytic; that of Fielding is swift and crisp, and it stays more on the surface of things.
But one may speak of ‘Tom Jones’ as did Dryden of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, “Here is God’s Plenty. ” The bulk of the novel is a challenge to an epic. We cannot possibly call ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Great Expectations’ an epic because of their concentrated action and small area of movement. ’ an epic because of their concentrated action and small area of movement. Whereas ‘Tom Jones’ moves on rambling to any distance. An Epic is an honest narrative with a plain design wherein the characters assert their personality with a moral ardor.
The writer of an epic is not much of an artist in the sense that he neither hides facts nor knits surprising situations. He overawes a reader by virtue of certain classical heaviness and we are made to applaud hero or the heroine for their sacrifice or some extraordinary performances. Fielding does not attempt ‘Tom Jones’ in the pure style of an epic. He makes the novel cross-bred genre of writing in which we find the width of an epic and the cunning of the novelist. It is not a pure epic though it has the appearance and design of its style.
Fielding in his Book II, Chapter I of ‘Tom Jones’ declares about the approach in writing the following words, “I am in reality a founder of a new province of writing. So I am at liberty to make laws I please therein. ” The writer is certainly at liberty to enjoy a unique freedom and this freedom has been employed profitably for giving us a novel with all semblance of an epic. The movement of the novel has the speed of an epic. The story goes on revealing new facts, the incidents many and varied, come and go. But ‘Tom Jones’ is even something greater than the epic in the case it knits plot on the basis of novel.
As such, the novel eludes any classification. Roughly we may call it an epic or a novel but actually it would be difficult to classify it under one single heading. We cannot, possibly, be precise about its nature. It is an amalgam of both deriving its matter and approach from both the novel and the epic. An epic is not a history of a biography though it may well-contain the life events of a memorable personage for all his heroism, but our ‘Tom Jones’ is a history, a kind of fictitious biography of most ‘unheroic hero’. He writes about the conception of history of a person, the spinal chord of the novel n the following manner: “Such histories as these do, in reality, very much resemble a newspaper, which consists of just the same number of words… that may likewise be compared to a stage-coach, which performs constantly the same course, empty as well as full. ” (Book II, Chapter I, ‘Tom Jones’) Fielding’s accents on the ‘history’ of Tom Jones makes this work of art veer from the epic proper, but luckily, at the same time the atmosphere, a cosmos of social life he builds about the novel, is obviously analogous to an epic.
The biography of a fictitious person is placed in the social orbit of a classical design wherein his movements and actions take place. But Tom Jones, unlike the hero of an epic has not been idealized. He is of an ‘average’ type, and thus he must share the limitations of an ordinary mortal. He does not appear on the scene with a fanfare of glory or in any impressive manner. He happens to be an illegitimately begotten brat, a foundling discovered in the bed of Mr. Allworthy. The conception of an epic is different.
It is a different story altogether if he comes before us as tragic hero suffering in life, but he has all the dignity of a Man. But Fielding reverses the position, though not in the case of the heroine called Sophia. The ‘unheroic hero’ appears on the scene with all his social indignity and the heroine, no doubt, appears with an ‘elevation of stile’, since it is a comic epic poem in prose such a hero may be allowed to pass as such: “Thus the hero is always introduced with a flourish of drums and trumpets … Our intention, in short, is to introduce our heroine with the utmost serenity in our power, with an elevation of stile. This mock-epic lifts characters bodily from life and though the narrative is in the lighter vein, unlike an epic of serious nature the point of virtue are brought home. The study of human nature is superb in the novel written after the style of an epic.
Fielding has a clear idea about it. He writes in his Book I, Chapter I of ‘Tom Jones’, “The provision, then, which we have here made is no other than Human nature… that in human nature, though here collected under one general name, is such a prodigious variety. But the accent on human nature is not the primary consideration of an epic. It mostly deals with the glorification of a hero and shows a tendency of selection of the part which elevates the character in our esteem. There is hardly any approach to the psychological depth in it. In ‘Tom Jones’ the writer probes deep into a human character elaborately on the scale of an epic personage. He brings to dwell on the character in ‘dressing up’ with a consummate ‘author’s skill’. To sum up, it would be misleading to say that everything in Fielding sums up tradition.
Although his claim to originality are largely justified, ‘Tom Jones’ contains many conventional narrative elements as well as which Fielding had already made use of in ‘Joseph Andrews’(1742) including an ostensible picaresque form, inserted narrative and the discovery of true identity. But as T. S. Eliot says in his essay ‘Tradition and Individual talent’, “The most individual part of work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors assert their immortality… vigorously. ” Hence, Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’ emerged as a blend of tradition and novelty, i. e. ‘a comic epic-poem in prose’. Taking the phrase as a whole and allowing that its members, checking and cross-reflecting on one another, do give a notion of the novel as Fielding conceived it, we may yet ask why he troubled with such elaborate allusion to critical theory. The answer is that Fielding had made a discovery and an important and delightful one. He had gone out to chase an ass and found a kingdom. This kingdom was unexplored and uncharted. If we refer to Aristotle’s original triangulation, we find that the non-dramatic equivalent of comedy is lampoon, of tragedy, epic.
With a new track opening before him and leading across new country, Fielding takes cross-bearing on the old landmarks: and his choice of base-point is as brilliant as it is crucial. ‘In Prose’ gives him a third bearing, and his triangulation is complete. He has left the old tracks but he is not lost. Sheridan Baker, in his ‘Preface to Norton Critical Edition of Tom Jones’ wrote thus of the novel, “It makes English novel thoroughly literate for the first time. It marries comedy and romance by the grace of classics, to produce a peculiarly fresh and ironic wisdom. ”
Cite this Tom Jones Comic Epic Essay
Tom Jones Comic Epic Essay. (2017, Jan 09). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/tom-jones-comic-epic/