Tom Jones as ‘Comic Epic-Poem in Prose’
Enjoying the freedom of an artist, Fielding in his ‘Tom Jones’ bursts on the literary scene giving thousands of hours for a kind of writing, which is in his own words, “I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language”. His immediate inspiration was the Spanish Classic, ‘Don Quixote’. However in discussing his work Fielding refers to Homer and Aristotle, the former for practice and the later for theory. This kind of appeal to authority was extremely important during the Neo-Classical Age. The classification is most apt for this is the period of literary history in which writers and critics based their views of literature on classical figures, most important of who were, Homer and Aristotle. Alexander Pope has succinctly stated the prevailing view in one of the couplets from his ‘Essay on Criticism’, “Learn hence from ancient rules a just esteem;
To copy Nature is to copy them.”
However, ‘Tom Jones’ as Andrew Sanders puts in, “is Fielding’s most meticulous response to the challenge of Classical Epic and his most considered comic redefinition of what he called, ‘comic epic-poem in prose’, which he thus describes in his ‘Preface’ to ‘Joseph Andrews’, “Now a comic romance is a comic-epic in prose; differing from tragedy; its action being more extended and comprehensive containing a much larger circle in incidents and introducing a greater variety of characters. It differs from the serious romance in its characters, by introducing persons of inferior rank, and consequently of inferior manners, whereas the grave romance sets the highest before us; lastly in its sentiments and diction by preserving the ludicrous instead of sublime.”
Thus he outlined the concept of a comic epic-poem in prose. His ambition for prose were comprehensive; he proposed to take the wide range of character, incidents, diction and reference from the epic and to re-mould this material according to ‘comic’ rather than ‘serious’ principles.
‘Tom Jones’ is, first and foremost, a great comic novel; a good story well-told, with something of a fairy tale element in its theme: It’s a novel of life, of men and women, playing out the great comic scene of society. In the words of George Meredith, Fielding’s contemporary, “Comedy is a game played to throw reflections upon social life and it deals with human nature in the drawing-room of civilized men and women, where we have no dust of the struggling outer world, no mire, no violent crashes, to make the correctness of the representation convincing. Credulity is not wooed through the impressionable senses, nor have recourse to the small circular glow of the watchmaker’s eye to raise in bright relief minutest grains of evidence for the routing of incredulity. The comic spirit conceives a definite situation for a number of characters and rejects all accessories in the exclusive pursuit of them and their speech. For, being a spirit, he hunts the spirit in men; vision and ardor constitute his merit: he has not a thought of persuading you in him. Follow and you will see…”
‘Tom Jones’ is an epic of human nature written in a comic style. “Man therefore is the highest subject which presents itself to the pen of our historian, or of our poet.”(Book-8, Chapter-1) Fielding in this so-called epic poem to dwell upon human nature, what pertains to a man on this planet? He of course interprets life through the medium of humour. ‘Tom Jones’ may not be an ideal from the point of view of the orthodox opinion because of the sexual aberrations. Dr.Johnson too spoke to Hannah More abusing ‘Tom Jones’, “I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it; a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know more corrupt a work.”
Yet we may claim that Fielding introduces all that is good in a man particularly from the point of view of magnanimity. He hunts the comic spirit in men: he laughs, not...
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