Sunday, January 23, 2011

Book Review: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

"We are now, reader, arrived at the last stage of our long journey. As we have therefore travelled together through so many pages, let us behave to one another like fellow-travellers in a stage-coach, who have passed several days in the company of each other; and who, notwithstanding any bickerings or little animosities which may have occurred on the road, generally make all up at last, and mount, for the least time, into their vehicle with chearfulness and good-humour; since, after this one stage, it may possibly happen to us, as it commonly happens to them, never to meet more." --Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

I started reading Tom Jones last month, in my nine-hour stay at the Toronto airport terminal. (Why nine hours? Well, you know the little voice in your head that tells you that you should start a trip as early as possible in case something goes wrong? Well, sometimes, being as early as possible IS something wrong.) Sadly, it was NOT, as some may expect, the story of a Welsh-born crooner. Rather, Tom Jones is Henry Fielding's 18th century tour du force, a "history" (and more on that word choice later) of the foundling Tom Jones from his birth onwards. I'll be honest--I've read so much 18th century literature at this point of my scholarly career that I can't read a book such as this on its own terms, as either entertainment or moral instruction; instead, I'm approaching it as more of a cultural artifact. There's plenty to talk about on those grounds, so let's get started.

First, let's do an overview. The book is very, very long. Reading it felt like a marathon exercise, a struggle so epic that it doesn't compare to anything I've read since... since... well, since I read Infinite Jest last month. (Maybe I'll go for a "ridiculously long trifecta" and try another giant page turner in February. What should it be? War and Peace? Les Miserables? Atlas Shrugged? Write in with your suggestions!) Actually, the difference between the two, structurally, makes an interesting comparison. Infinite Jest didn't really have chapters; the book was divided into parts that ranged from a half dozen to twenty or so pages, often with paragraphs that overlapped multiple pages. Tom Jones is divided into 18 parts (called "books" by Fielding), each of which consists of ten or more chapters, which in turn are about 6 pages long. In other words, while Infinite Jest felt like an organic whole that I couldn't put down for long without losing the entire thread, Tom Jones was more of a regimented system that I could digest in chunks. The result, for better or for worse, is a less intense, but more structured reading experience.

Infinite Jest (and about six other books) happened in between starting and finishing Tom Jones, so I'm a little shaky on the early parts of the novel. As far as I can recollect, the book can be divided into three parts. In the first part, the characters and background are set up. Squire Allworthy (a classic example of 18th century subtlety in naming) decides to raise a bastard foundling alongside his sister's son, and to treat both as his own. The foundling, Tom Jones, grows up to be an exemplary young man, save that his passions sometimes overwhelm him. His foster brother, Master Blifil is the opposite--he's coldly calculating, but puts on the face of a dutiful relative when it suits him. Tom eventually falls in love with Sophia Western, the daughter of the neighbouring squire. However, said neighbouring squire gets it in his head that Sophia should marry Blifil. A series of unfortunate events lead Allworthy to assume Tom to be "no good," and he is soon kicked out of his childhood home and forced to make his way in the world. In the second part, he wanders through the English countryside, acquiring a loyal servant and supposed father in the form of Mr. Partridge. The duo eventually make their way to England in search of Sophia, who has fled there to avoid her impeding, unwilling nuptials. And in England, we have the third part of the novel. The two would-be lovers face a series of obstacles including ill-timed duels, potential suitors, willful relatives and a misplaced marriage proposal, but in the end, things turn out... well, largely as expected. (Spoiler Alert.)

Naturally, I'm glossing over a lot. 800 pages requires a fair bit of plot-jiggering on the writer's part. Since going over everything in detail would be rather exhausting, we'll go over a few of the issues I found particularly interesting: gender standards, exemplars, the use of letters, and the book sections' prefaces.

Let's start with the prefaces. Each of Fielding's 18 books start with what's essentially a nonfiction essay wherein Fielding waxes philosophically concerning some topic that, at best, is tangentially connected to the book's content, but usually corresponds nicely with his goals for the novel at large. Book 4, for example, starts with a justification for the use of ornament in writing; Book 9 begins with a description of the traits a writer should have under his belt before he is allowed to write a novel (He should, for the record, possess natural genius, book learning, and real-world experience). The essay chapters fulfill a number of different purposes. First, they explain what it means for a novel to be a history. A history carries with it an air of authenticity that comedies and dramas (according to Fielding, anyway)lack. And as it's supposedly based on the real world, it can serve as a source for proper didactic models. The prefaces also prove that Fielding fulfills his own definition of the ideal writer--they demonstrate his wit and learning, to an extent greater than the novel itself usually has opportunity. Finally, there were exactly two points in this book where I had a genuine, emotional reaction (besides frustration, anyway). The first I'll discuss in a moment with the novel's use of letters, but the second was during the quotation above. I had to admit, by the end of the novel, I agreed with Fielding; it's a little mawkish, but I felt like I had gone on a journey of sorts, with the narrator as a companion, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. The narrator of the book felt like a character in his own right by this point--better developed, in fact, than most of the characters in the actual novel proper. By that eighteenth hole, I was looking forward to the digressions almost more than the story.

Next up: the use of letters. I bring this up because it's an example of how media changes us. Throughout the novel, letters are basically the only way of communicating with someone not physically present. They're also a form of intimacy; a letter allows the gentleman and ladies of the novel to express themselves without having to worry about the formality of face-to-face conduct, or the difficulty of arranging a meeting. In essence, then, the writing of letters in Tom Jones is treated as a Romantic endeavor, with a capital R--it exists to further intrigue, or to make "exciting" plot revelations. And though it doesn't come up as often, it's also a clear indication of class--Sophia's maid servant, Honour (subtle naming again), sends Tom a letter at one point, and it's written in essentially the manner in which she speaks, only riddled with spelling errors; the implication is that writing, and the emotional tumults associated with it, are a privilege that only the upper-class and well-educated should practice. Incidentally, in terms of intimacy and romance, I think we still regard the written letter the same today. The difference is that it's also somewhat antiquated, and even quaint. We still have intimate person to person exchanges--in fact, we've got more methods of doing that than ever before, with phone-calls, texting, Skyping, emailing, instant messaging, and so forth. The difference is, as Virilio would point out, the speed. In the 18th century, you could send a letter, and the respondent could take hours to reply--perhaps even days. Now, with the possibility of near instant reply, the tenor and purpose of the message changes considerably. Crafting a long, involved message is still possible, but the expectations and meanings of that message shift greatly, especially in an online context (kind of like how no one wants to read a long convoluted blog po--ooooh).

I've got more to talk about, and the letters subject brings me to my favorite scene in the book, but a) the post is getting long, b) I left my copy of Tom Jones at the office, so I can't look the scene up, and c) after a week of essentially not posting, I feel like I should put up SOMETHING. So we'll make this part I, and I'll finish up at a later date.
Or should I say...
Later Days.

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