Thursday, June 4, 2009

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding

Tom Jones is one of the rare classics that I would recommend to the average reader. Or the above-average reader, maybe - not someone who survives on a diet of John Grisham and Stephanie Meyer (which, though, yeah, the Twilight series is awful...her adult novel, The Host? Pretty interesting), but someone who picks up on buzz about fancy new authors and likes to read the current literary sensation (I am not going to get sidetracked by a rant about how much I hate Zadie Smith or Michael Chabon again, but, suffice to say, they are responsible for my general contempt for current literary sensations, however unwarranted).

I need a new paragraph after all those parentheses. See, I'd recommend Tom Jones to someone who can be spurred to pick up novels that require a little bit of effort to get through, who will be patient with crap because it's the current literary sensation, but still need books to have a strong plot, really need that plot to keep moving, and don't tolerate wacky modern trickery. That kind of above-average reader.

Moving on, before I incriminate myself with any more vaguely insulting commentary. The thing about Tom Jones is that it is fun. It's a light-hearted, delightful, comic novel. At the same time it's wickedly smart, full of intellectual games. I picked it up after Middlemarch and it was the perfect palate cleanser, elegant and fizzy like champagne.

The plot of Tom Jones is pretty simple: the eponymous protagonist, Tom Jones, is a bastard baby adopted by a wealthy squire as an act of charity. The squire, Allworthy, lives up to his name: he's wise, just, and compassionate. He has no children of his own, and raises Tom along with a nephew. He treats both children as equals, though the whole community mocks him for doing so.

The two boys couldn't be more different. Tom is good at heart, but totally lacking in self-control. He gets into fistfights, he's kind of a player, he speaks his mind when it would be wiser to keep quiet. He's a troublemaker, a handful, a scoundrel. While the book is about abandoning youthful folly in favor of maturity and wisdom, the author doesn't spoil the fun of all that misbehavior - the energy and gusto with which Tom throws himself into sin is ultimately to his credit. I was reminded of Rabelais a bit (not surprising since Fielding refers to Rabelais with some reverence in Tom Jones).

Tom has a rival and a true love. The rival is Blifil, the squire's nephew, who couldn't be more different from Tom: he seems like an angel, but is rotten to the core. Blifil resents Tom's popularity with his family, and schemes to remove Tom from his uncle's affections (and, more importantly, his will).

The true love is Sophia, the girl next door. She's the perfect woman, beautiful and good and feminine and rich. Sophia is in love with Tom, but knows her father would never allow her to marry a bastard, no matter how well brought up. She accepts her fate like a dutiful daughter...until she is betrothed to Blifil. Sophia sees Blifil for what he truly is, and she loathes him. She refuses the match, her father puts his foot down, and Sophia decides to run away.

So while all of this is going on - a whole series of madcap adventures, sudden turnabouts, and unlikely coincidences - Fielding inserts little introductory chapters that break up the story, written from the author's perspective. He alternately explains why he's written the book as it is and insists that he's relating a true biography compiled through endless research; he speaks directly to his critics, telling them how he expects them to respond to various events in the novel, and answering the criticisms before they can be made; and he addresses his readers in a teasing, friendly way, sometimes giving instructions on when and how to imagine events that he does not describe.

Here's an example: "As this is one of those deep observations which very few readers can be supposed capable of making themselves, I have thought proper to lend them my assistance; but this is a favour rarely to be expected in the course of my work. Indeed, I shall seldom or never so indulge him, unless in such instances as this, where nothing but the inspiration with which we writers are gifted can possibly enable anyone to make the discovery."

Because of the introductory chapters spliced into the novel, reading Tom Jones was like watching a magician at his act, showily insisting that there is no trick right before performing it, delivering his patter to distract the audience from a sleight of hand. In fact, I started to wonder how the 20th century authors who have staked their reputations on playing with the structure of the novel - cleverly breaking the fourth wall, toying with the possibility of truth in fiction, etc. - could hold their heads up, because apparently it's all been done before. And, just to give a hint about what's next, it's been even more shocking, and disillusioning, to read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

The upshot is that I'm kind of in love with the 18th century, and can't wait to find out what else I've been missing out on. Why have I ignored English literature for so long? This stuff is great.

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