Topic :- Tom Jones as a Comic Epic in Prose
Name :- Upadhyay Devangana s.
Sub. :- The Neo-Classical Literature
Paper :- 2
Std :- M.A. Sem-1
Roll No :- 07
Submitted to :- M.K. Bhavnagar University
“Tom Jones as a Comic Epic in Prose”
‘Tom Jones’ Fielding’s masterpiece and in all probability the greatest novel of the eighteenth century, was written between 1746 and 1749. S.Diana Neill describes it as “a great novel in itself and a microcosm of the next hundred years in prose fiction.” Modern criticism rational and liberated, acclaims its greatness in most unequivocal terms. But Fielding’s contemporary society was sharply divided in their appreciatation of its merits. While a number of readers admired it for the masculine vigour and the healthy morality of its author. Most of them devoted to Richardson’s sensibility cult, could not rise above their own morbid sensibility and failed to appreciate it.
· Outline of the plot
‘Tom Jones’ has such a complicated plot that it is just not easy to sum it up in a few lines. The wealthy, benevolent Squire Allworthy, living in somerset with his unmarried sister Bridget, returns one night from a three months’ absence to find a baby Iying in his bed. The child is adopted by Allworthy given his own Christian name of Thomas and the surname of the presumed mother, one Jenny Jones. Her former employer, the schoolmaster partridge denies the accusation of paternity, but his hysterically jealous wife gives evidence against him and he is dismissed from his post.
Soon after the discovery of Tom, Bridget marries the unpleasant and grasping Captain Blifil; the Captain dies two years later, leaving behind him a son, who is to become Tom’s antagonist. Tom and Master Blifil grow up together under the tuition of the Clergyman Thwackum and the philosopher Squars. Nearly lives the fox- hunting squire Western, his worldly and politic sister, and his beautiful daughter Sophia, with whom Tom falls in love. Western however is ambitious to secure the marriage of Sophia with Blifil, so that the estates can be joined. Tom’s high-spirited escapades are eventually used by Blifil to achieve the deception of Allworthy an Tom’s expulsion from the household.
At the same time Sophia, to escape a forced marriage with a man she loathes, runs away; and the middle part of the novel is taken up with various adventures on the road-first as Sophia follow Tom’s trail, and after the climactic event in the inn at Upton-on-severn, as Tom pursues Sophia.
Meanwhile Tom has, quite by chance, met Partridge, now set up as a barber-surgeon, and they go along together. He rescues a Mrs. Waters from attempted murder, and accompanies her to Upton where he succumbs to her charms. It is only towards the end of the novel that Partridge identifies Mrs.Waters as Jenny Jones, and the horror of presumed incest is added to Tom’s many other misfortunes.
Finally all the main characters end up in London. To gets involved with the middleaged nymphomaniac Lady Bellaston, whose crony Lord Fellaman attempts to gain Sophia by force. Fellaman also employs a press-gang to remove Tom, but their aid is made unnecessary by Tom’s encounter with Fitzpatrick, a hot-headed Irishman whom he had met at Upton and who now attacks him in mistaken jealousy. Tom wounds him-fatally, it is thought and is arrested. With the press-gang prepared to give false witness against him, things look bleak for Tom; but at last the wheel of Fortuns and brings him to the top.
· What, then is a Comic Epic in Prose?
Thus a comic epic in prose chiefly promises a variety of characters involved in a very comprehensive action. The novelist’s tone is light, even frivolous, and he gives mildly satirical, ironical exposition of the ridiculous. It is epical in scale and it is concerns the ridiculous in human life. It is not romance since it is highly, down-to earth realistic. It is not history for it is not a superficial study of events, nor is it not history for it is not a superficial study of events, nor is it a burlesque, for a burlesque distorts while it does not. Behind the frivolous tone of the novelist, there is a strict moral responsibility which he shares with the writers of the serious epics. What Fielding was attempting was an entirely new species of literature in his language. And he was right to claim;
“This kind of writing I do not remember to have seen
hither to attempted in our language.”
· The Comic tone in “Tom Jones”
The comic tone of the novel is establisbed from the very beginning when Mrs. Wilkins unexpectedly summoned by her master, confronts him in what she thinks to be a grossly indecent dress for a gentleman an ironic comment on the prudence of decency in dress and gives a loud shriek Squire Allworthy’s confidence in the rightness of his judgment his insistence on meeting out justice and his expulsion both of Tom Jones AND Partridge ironically revealing an utter lack of insight into human nature ane treated quite lightly.
In Book 2, We have a highly comic description of the battle between Partridge and his wife which is sparked off by Mrs. Partridge’s suspicion that her husband is the foundling’s father. She attacks the poor schoolmaster ‘with tongue, teeth and hands’ reducing him to a bloody wreck, but feeling tired of his exercise falls into a fit of weeping and succeeds in winning the sympathy of neighbors. The same Book gives a graphic description of Captain Blifil’s ecstatic pleasures that he early death of Squire Allworthy. It is amusing to note that it is the Captain himself who dies and not the Squire. The description of the bitter, rift-ridden wedded life of the Blifils ends with a description of the warm and moving tribute engraved on the Captain’s tombstone by “his inconsolable wife”. This is a very quiet but very effective comic touch. In his preface to Joseph Andrews, Fialding says that the only source of the true ridiculous is affectation and affectation proceeds from either vanity or hypocrisy. Captain Blifil’s conjured-up pleasures betray this vanity while the epitaph is sheer hypocrisy and Fielding uses both of them to produce good comedy.
In Book V, Tom’s Bacchus celebration of his paron’s recovery and his indiscreet sexual revelry with Molly that results in a quarrel with Bilfil Squire and Thwackum produces interesting comedy. The unexpected arrival of Squire Western and the miscalculated cause of Sophia’s fainting in the light of the amorous encounter that had already taken place between tom and Sophia appears quite amusing.
Book VI, poens with violent outbursts of Squire Western as he getsthe news of Sophia’s being in love:
“How! in love! In love without
Acquainting me! I’ll disinherit her;
I’ll turn her out of doors stark
Naked without a farthing.”
This violent display of temper is as ridiculous as his later approbatory outburst when sophia’s aunt interrupts his to remark that she might have fallen in love with a youth of his choice. Squire Western immediately says;
“If she marries the man I would ha’her she may
Love whom pleases. I shan’t trouble my head about that.”
The meeting between Blifil and Sophia in the same Book is also dealt with in a comic spirit. Nobody speaks for the first quarter of an hour: then Bilfil suddenly breaks forth into a torrent of far-fetched verbosity answered by Sophia with monosyllables. This meeting has a parallel later in the encounter between Sophia and Lord Fellaman which produces comedy in a mock-tragic frame. The stereotyped extravagance of Lord Fellaman’s declaration and the fortuitous rescue of Sophia cannot be mistaken for tragedy. A central position in the structure of ‘ tom Jones’. It also produces the height of comedy. Tom and his companion, the disheveled Mrs. Waters enter the Upton Inn and the landlady, apprehending a gross violation of the sanctity of the premises abruptly pounces upon them. The ensuing battle involves soldiers of both the sexes; the weapons include the tongue, the broomstick the cudgel and the first. This fight over, another of amorous nature follows. As Tom gets busy with the beef and the ale, his fair companion starts playing her ‘artillery’ to subdue him. Fielding employs mock-heroic style and diction to describe this battle of wits. He even invokes the graces before he begins this description. Finally Mrs. Waters wins and enioys the fruit of her victory. This is followed by Mr. Fitzpatrick’s efforts to claim kindred with squire Western and his negligence of all pleas are also comic in tone.
Whenever the situation is in danger of getting a tragic coloring and whenever the chief protagonists find themselves in some precarious predicament Fielding provides a comic turn or offers a timely resolution. Torn between his love for Sophia and moral responsibility for Molly, Tom finds himself in a state of actual mental conflict. This conflict is resolved by the discovery of the philosopher square behind the curtain in Molly’s bedroom. The whole scene ends practically in a farce. This pattern is repeated in London when lady Bellaston is behind the curtain and Honour is indulges in scurrilous denouncement and later when Honour is behind the curtain and Tom Jones’s meeting with Lady Bellaston is interrupted by the appearance of Nightingale in a between the two ladies and their subsequent reconciliation offer hilarious comedy.
The autobiographical account of the Man of the Hill and Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s story are tragic but the comic tone of the author saves them from being unrelieved tragedy. In the case of the man of the Hill, it is partridge’s attitude and his amusing interruptions of the narrative that extenuate ts tragic effect, while Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s account being a parody of sentimental romance contains within itself many comic possibilities.
Fielding’s handling of his characters also has a touch of the comic. The excessive solemnity of squire Allworthy and its ironic implications have already been commented upon. Squire Western is portrayed purely in the comic vein. His violence is more amusing than horrifying. It is really interesting to know how he abandon the furious pursuit of his daughter and joins a party of fox hunters since it is such a fine day for hunting. The moral scruples of Tom and the justification he gives for his involvement with Lady Bellaston have a comic touch:
“ Gallantry to the ladies was among his principles of honor”
“and he held it as much incumbent on him to accept
A challenge to love as if it had been a challenge to fight”
Even the hypocrisy and villainy of square Thwackum and Blifil are unfolded through comedy rather than was too genial to attempt a satire or a lampoon.
· ‘Tom Jones’ is epical in scale
If ‘Tom Jones’ is comic in spirit, it is epical in scale. It offers at least forty well-portrayed characters drawn from different cross section of society. There are lords, justices of peace, lawyers, servants, highwaymen, parsons, innkeepers, soldiers, gypsies, country squires and many others.
· The prose in ‘Tom Jones’
‘In prose’ is not merely a tag to fill out the phrase ‘comic epic in prose’ It was a well-known belief that poetry is appropriate to the expression of the more elevanted thoughts and the celebration of great actions. ‘In prose’ plants us firmly once and for all in the ordinary world with which Fielding was primarily pre-occupied. As a realist attempting a comic epic he found prose with a comic turn given to its phrase as a very suitable medium although when he goes really high in Tom Jones, his prose turns lyrical and soars high like ‘an archangel brooding over mankind’.
· Epic unities
In ‘Tom Jones ‘, Fielding also shows his concern for the epic unities. The headings of the various Books indicate the time taken by the action described in them Book 1 tells us ‘as much of the birth of the foundling as in necessary’. Books 2 and 3 summarise events till Tom is arrived at the age of seventeen. Book lV is described as ‘ containing a year’ material is given in the first four Books the action is made to come well within a year. The action in all the important epics ,The Iliad, The odyssey ,The Aenied, is completed within a year.
The action is comprehensive and well extended in space. It includes within its folds the countryside, the highways and the great urban society of London. The rural as well as the urban society is portrayed almost in entirety. The action is so distributed that three units consisting of six Books each strictly observe the unity of place.
But the action of the novel is gives an organic unity which is far more important than mere bringing the major action within a certain time limit or observing the unity of place in three different sections of the novel. Tom Jones is not a chronicle and its action is constructed according to dramatic principles. Eeverything turns about a single action-the discovery of a child in squire Allworthy’s bed and the resolution of the mystery of its parentage. But for two digression- the story of the Man of the Hill and Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s account- the novel has a single, whole organically perfect action. And even the two digressions have a certain thematic relevance and are strictly in accordance with the epic tradition.
If we refer to Aristotle’s original triangulation. We find that non-dramatic equivalent of the comedy is lampoon, of tragedy, epic. With the new opening before him, Fielding takes cross bearings on the old land marks and attempts a comic epic. ‘In prose’ gives him a third bearing and his triangulation is complete. He leaves an old track, but he does not get lost. W.L. Renwick in’ Essays and Studies’, rightly remarks:
“ In that great phrase ‘comic epic in prose, Fielding evoked
a critical tradition, claimed his authority, asserted right
of the new ……to the craft of the comedy and the dignity of
the epic and assumed moral responsibilities of both along
with the freedom of prose.”