Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749)

I think reading books written in unfamiliar idioms is probably good for your brain, don't you? Give the ol' neurons a workout. Oddly enough, I sorta kinda think this may be the first eighteenth-century novel I've ever read. Sure, I've read postmodern pastiches of the form (The Sot-Weed Factor, Mason & Dixon), but maybe not the actual thing! But, here we are. I read Tom Jones, and although I feel like it's unlikely that there's such a thing as a thousand-page novel that never bogs down, it was mostly a delightful experience.

The plot: Tom is found as an infant and taken in by the wealthy Squire Allworthy, who raises him more or less as his own son. Tom falls in love with Sophia Western, the daughter of a neighboring landowner, which love is returned, but they are thwarted by the fact that A) he's, well, a foundling; and B) her father is hellbent on marrying her off to Allworthy's horrible nephew, Blifil. Eventually, it comes to pass that, thanks to the loathsome Blifil's machinations, Tom is alienated from Allworthy, and ends up wandering around the country doing this and that. This goes on for a while, and then there's a happy ending. The characters aren't exactly "realistic," but they're effective. You can really feel the depth of Tom's affection for Sophia, and GODDAMN, that FUCKING Blifil--GAH!

The thing is, though, no book makes the point more apparent: you cannot describe a novel (or at least one that's other than pure escapism) by outlining the plot. There's a well-regarded 1962 movie based on the book, and maybe it's a fine movie, I don't know, but I can say without seeing it that it sure ain't Tom Jones in any meaningful sense. Fielding's novel's defining characteristic is its digressive, wry, conversational tone; he frequently talks at the reader, and often announces that he's going to skip over something because he deems it either uninteresting or irrelevant to the plot. It's the kind of thing that could drive a person crazy, if not for the fact that Fielding is just so darned delightful. How would you possibly replicate that in filmic form? And make no mistake: he can be hella funny when he wants to be. There's one scene towards the beginning that's a Homeric parody, in which a young woman at church is the subject of scorn from other churchgoers and reacts accordingly, that is absolutely dead-on and hilarious. And that's just for starters. Fielding's like a guy telling you a long, rambling story over drinks, and the only thing to do is accept his friendship and enjoy it.

One thing that was notable, at least to me, was the novel's attitude towards sex. NOW DON'T GET ME WRONG: I am well aware that Victorian repression* was a historical aberration. I've read my Chaucer. Still, I guess on some unconscious level I assumed, the eighteenth century being so close to the nineteenth, that attitudes would be similar in kind if not degree. MORE FOOL ME, I guess. Here's Fielding's basic take: single people are fucking, and married people are fucking people they're not married to, and sure, we're all Christians, so we don't recommend this behavior per se, but at the same time everyone does it, so what are you going to do, and let's face it, it's not THAT big a deal, it certainly doesn't make you a bad person, and like as not it's actually pretty funny. Tom sleeps with THREE SEPARATE WOMEN before he marries Sophia. Can you imagine? One certainly wouldn't call Fielding's sexual politics wholly modern (it's notable that, unlike Tom, Sophia remains virginal until marriage, and it's impossible to imagine it being otherwise). Still, it feels a whole lot modern-er than you get with the Victorians. You'd rather have a beer with Fielding than you would with Dickens, I'll tell you that much, and by quite some margin.

*Look, I'm calling it "repression," so just deal with it; we are not going to get into a discussion of Foucault right now, and anyway, you bloody well know what I mean.

There are some parts of the novel where I wasn't quite sure if Fielding was doing something really subtle, or if the differences between his sensibilities and mine were just coming out. For instance, Squire Allworthy: his name none-too-subtly indicates what a great guy he's putatively supposed to be, and he is. Kind of. And yet, I couldn't get away from the impression that there's also something of the bully in him; that he's a little bit excessively in love with his own righteousness, and that when he does charitable things for people, it's at least partially because he enjoys their worshipful attitudes, in spite of Fielding's insistence that he tries to keep his works on the down-low as much as possible. There's a kind of awful bit near the beginning where he's lecturing Tom's (supposed) mother on the depth of her sins, and you just want to tell him, oh, get over yourself, you self-satisfied, self-righteous prig. Actually, that bit kind of made me not want to keep reading the book, but I persevered, and things got a lot better. Fielding does do complex characterizations; with few exceptions, most of his characters have their good and bad sides. But is this meant to be indicative of anything about Allworthy, or am I just approaching things from an angle Fielding never would've anticipated?

(If nothing else, I think he's meant to be somewhat clueless, not realizing for a long, long time how his awful nephew is playing him.)

Similar case, maybe, with Squire Western, Sophia's father--who, we are told, loves his daughter more than anything, and wants above all else to see her happy…except that he is also absolutely insistent that she should marry a man she hates, as often as she assures him it would utterly ruin her life. He gets in these towering rages at her over it. Clearly, this isn't supposed to be laudable behavior, but beyond that, it seems to me that it makes him a much more horrible person than the book maybe wants him to be. When he ultimately finds cause to change his allegiance and insist that she marry Jones instead, I feel like we're supposed to sort of indulgently roll our eyes, but I dunno. I feel like Fielding's way more forgiving than the man deserves, unless there are shades I'm missing. 

Then again, I don't know. Maybe I'M the uptight one. This is, after all, a comedy. Deserve got nothin' to do with it, as Clint Eastwood said, and also Snoop from The Wire. I'm content. Browsing through online reviews, I see that--no surprise--a number of people hate the book with a violent intensity, but I love it, and I recommend it to any literate English speaker willing and able to deal with a book written in a different time, and for different people. How different are they, really?


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