Saturday, June 27, 2009

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Tom Jones

Tom Jones / Henry Fielding
Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2008
Originally published: 1749
xliii, 916 p.

Fielding's comic masteriece of 1749 was immediately attacked as 'A motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery.'

Indeed, this novel overflows with a marvellous assortment of prudes, whores, libertines, bumpkins, misanthropes, hypocrites, scoundrels, virgins, and all too fallible humanitarians. At the centre of one of the most ingenious plots in English fiction stands a hero whose actions were, in 1749, as shocking as they are funny today. Expelled from Mr Allworthy's country estate for his wild temper and sexual conquests, Tom Jones loses his money, joins the army, and pursues his beloved across Britain to London, where he becomes a kept lover and confronts the possibility of incest. Rightly regarded as Fielding's greatest work, Tom Jones is one of the first and most influential English novels.

This carefully modernized edition is based on Fielding's emended fourth edition text and offers the most thorough notes, maps, and bibliography and up-to-date introduction.

Ok guys, I've been reading this book for like 2 months now. I'd go about 200 pages and then quit and read a short novel or two as a little break and then come back. Of all the 18th-century literature I've read (very little), I liked this the best. It was believable, eloquent, and legitimately funny, which is really didn't expect. but I think it appealed to me most because it had a much broader scope than other novels I've read from the time. It was loosely modelled after Don Quixote, and the picaresque quality -- especially of the second half -- paints a picture of English society on a scale larger than the more private worlds of say Pamela (which I did not like) or Roxana (which I did). It allowed Fielding to develop a large cast of diverse characters to critique a whole society rather than just a portion of one.

The only problem I had with the large scope of the novel was that many times I got confused as to who was who and what in the name of Dog was going on, especially in the last 250 pages. We all know what eighteenth-century prose is like, and my brain has a tendency to get swept up in it, too lost in the scansion to realize that I've gone three pages without taking in any meaning. Often I'd find a paragraph full of pronouns and have no idea to whom they referred. That's not to say Fielding is an unclear author. The opposite is true, in fact. I'm just kinda crap at keeping focused.

My favorite aspect of the novel was the voice of the narrator. While not a character in the story, Fielding (if it was indeed meant to be him) engaged the reader, often addressing him directly. The book is fraught with little asides about writing or opinions on what's going on, and it gives the novel and intimacy and charm I found very appealing. They can also guide the reader through how Fielding intends for them to interpret certain events, oftentimes contradicting what a modern reader would instinctually think. It's helpful for understanding the book in its context.

Also, the novel is divided into 18 "books" with about 12-18 "chapters" each, and the first chapter of each book deviates from the main story so the narrator can expound on a topic of his choice, usually a moral issue or something about the craft of writing. These aren't all interesting, and you can skip them entirely if you want, but I rather enjoyed hearing his take on reality vs. fiction, literary critics, or the art of writing prologues.

So if you're at all interested in the origins of the novel or 18th-century fiction and haven't really explored the body of work from that time, I recommend this as a good starting point. Tom Jones is a brick and a committment to get through, but it's highly entertaining and despite its age retains an oddly modern feel.


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