Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Two Omnipresent Authors

Both of these classic novels share many characteristics, but one among them all prevails, permeating the stories and, for this reader, making them stand out among the many novels I have read.  That is the omnipresence of the author through his commentary on the story.  This was commonly done in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and none did it better that Fielding and Thackeray.  Near the beginning of Tom Jones Fielding writes, “Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion," thus alerting the reader to his intentions while not directly disclosing the delight that will be the result of his digressions (Laurence Sterne would make digressions the centerpiece of his Tristram Shandy only a decade later, but omits the warning).  Thackeray is more brittle with his comment when he says, “Vanity Fair is a very vain, wicked, foolish place, full of all sorts of humbugs and falsenesses and pretensions.”  Yet, both authors entertain, not only with their very fine story-telling, but also with their authorial wit.

Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair 

“Are not there little chapters in everybody's life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?”   ― William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

The story is about two girls with two very different personalities and temperaments. Amelia Sedley and Becky Sharp form the center of this lengthy story "without a hero". By the end I was almost convinced that all is 'vanity' in this world, or at least in this novel. It reminded me a bit of Balzac (e. g. Cousin Bette), but with more humor.
The best thing in the book was the authorial presence as Thackeray comments on the people and their actions at regular intervals. The two most memorable aspects of the book for me were the voice of the author and the character of Becky Sharp, certainly one of the most memorable in all of my reading. Unlike Dickens, the author does not deal with the ills of society at large (e. g. education or debtors' prison), but focuses on the characters of the individuals and the consequences of their character and actions on their lives.

The characters seem like puppets on a stage at times, while he uses them to reveal general truths about human nature. Becky is the best example as her greed and selfishness know no bounds. When dealing with most of the other characters you almost don't mind since they usually deserve the treatment they receive from her; however, her unmotherly actions toward her son betray a more vile nature than one would expect from anyone other than Becky Sharp.

This is a novel that explores the dichotomy between love and money, those who depend on the largess of others are often disappointed and all the love in the world does not pay the bills. Thackeray manages to keep the story interesting primarily because, in spite of her character flaws, Becky is both smart and charming. He explores her nature in a way that is both profound and detailed and ultimately, with a large supporting cast, creates a world in Vanity Fair that seems not too unlike our own.

Tom JonesTom Jones 
by Henry Fielding

“Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion, of which I am myself a better judge than any pitiful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs or works which no ways concern them; for till they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall not plead to their jurisdiction.”   ― Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

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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