Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Literary Cornucopia

Tom Jones (Oxford World's Classics)
Tom Jones 

"Peradventure there may be no parts in this prodigious work which will give the reader less pleasure in perusing than those which have given the author the greatest pains in composing. Among these, probably, may be reckoned those initial essays which we have prefixed to the historical matter contained in every book, and which we have determined to be essentially necessary to this kind of writing, of which we have set ourselves at the head.
For this our determination we do not hold ourselves strictly bound to assign any reason, it being abundantly sufficient that we have laid it down as a rule necessary to be observed in all prosai-comi-epic writing. Who ever demanded the reasons of that nice unity of time or place which is now established as so essential to dramatic poetry?" (V, 1)

Having read Sterne's Tristram Shandy and Homer's Odyssey to name two thematically related however chronologically different literary creations I should have been ready for Fielding's foundling. However, it is taking a while to warm up to Fielding's style of storytelling. What we have is an omnipresent author/narrator whose story includes many fascinating characters, one of whom is that author/narrator himself. The reader is treated to a series of eighteen books each containing several chapters the first of which in each case is an essay by the author about the story itself or just about most anything the author feels is relevant or necessary for the reader's edification.
But I digress, under the influence of Fielding, from the story itself which is billed as a history of Tom Jones who, as the name suggests, is a sort of every-man, a more common version of Odysseus or Don Quixote for the eighteenth century. The history is a fiction and as such is populated by fictional characters. The characters surrounding him, from his teachers, Thwackum and Square, to the Squires, Allworthy and Western, are clearly drawn with wit and wisdom; lest I forget the women for Tom has a strong and healthy interest in them whether they are low like Molly or high like Sophia Western -- women continue to perplex Tom and enliven the plot.  And Tom has a good opinion of himself as the narrator notes,  "Can any man have a higher notion of the rule of right and the eternal fitness of things?" (Book IV, Ch. 4).  
As I entered the concluding chapters of this lively novel I found myself looking for a word to sum up my experience. I think I have found that word -- cornucopia. The abundance of characters, stories, places, and all that goes with each of these can best be considered a cornucopia. These melded with Fielding's continual insertions through essays and commentaries begins to suggest to me why this novel is considered great - one of the first of its kind in modern literature.
I also find myself comparing the hero of this story to other literary heroes whose name adorns the title of their stories. For example, David Copperfield, Adam Bede, Pendennis, and Jude the Obscure come to mind. All of these owe at least a part of their literary heritage to Fielding's Tom. Even though there is a significant change in the psychology of the characters from David to Jude, the foundation for them all and many others is the History of Tom Jones.

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