Monday, December 27, 2010

Henry Fielding's Work and Contribution

The eighteenth century--"our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century"-is known in the history of English literature particularly for the birth and development of the novel. In this century the novel threw into insignificance all other literary forms and became the dominant form to continue as such for hundreds of years.

The pioneers of the novel were Richardson, Fielding, Smollett, and Sterne. The work of this foursome is of monumental significance, particularly because they were not only our first novelists but some of our best. No doubt the seeds of the novel were already there in the English literary soil but they burgeoned only with the arrival of these masters. Addison and Steele (Coverley papers'), Defoe, and Swift {Gulliver's Travels) had already provided the raw material for them to work upon. It is debatable whether Defoe be denied the title of "the father of the English novel", as many of his stories like Moll Flanders, Roxana, and Robinson Crusoe are very close to being novels, if at all they are considered not to be genuine novels. "Whether Defoe was", observes David Daiches rightly, "properly a novelist is a matter of definition of terms, but however we define our terms we must concede that there is an important difference between Defoe's journalistic deadpan and the bold attempt to create a group of people faced with psychological problems." Defoe was a realist in his own right, but his "interest in character was minimal." Critical opinion, therefore, is not inclined to accept Defoe as the first true English novelist or even as one of the pioneers of the novel.
Fielding's Greatness:
Of the four pioneers of the English novel named above, the first two were considerably superior to the rest. Of the two—Richardson and Fielding-Fielding has been recognized to be the greater. Edmund Gosse in A History of Eighteenth Century Literature (1902) characteristically refers to Richardson as "the first great English novelist" and to Fielding as "the greatest of English novelists." Though it stands to reason if Fielding was the greatest of all English novelists, yet two things cannot be denied-first that he was one of the greatest, and secondly that he was greater than Richardson. Among his contemporaries, no doubt, there raged an interminable debate as to the comparative merits of the two. It is also on record that Richardson enjoyed much the greater popularity and praise in the Continent. Modern critical opinion is, however, in favour of placing Fielding higher—considerably higher-than Richardson in the hierarchy of English novelists. The lachrymosic sentimentalism, prudish morality, and the sprawling epistolary manner Richardson adopted in all his three novels along with his smugness and conspicuous want of the sense of humour and comedy-all go against him today. Fielding's lively realism, his sunny humour and satire, his insistent sanity and fundamental tolerance of human frailty, his keen eye for the comic, his racy narrative, his giftof plot-construction displayed in Tom Jones if not elsewhere too-all contribute towards his excellence as a novelist. Louis I. Bredvold refers to the contrast between Richardson and Fielding in these words: "From the first appearance of their earliest novels a literary feud has persisted in regard to the relative merits of the novels of Richardson and Fielding. In personality, artistic method and ethical outlook the two men are as far apart as the poles." This "literary feud" has by now been resolved, and the palm has been awarded to Fielding whose work and contribution to the English novel we are now set to examine.
"Joseph Andrews" (1742):
It is Fielding's first novel. It is a classical example of a literary work which started as a parody and ended as an excellent work of art in its own right. The work Fielding intended to parody was Richardson's first novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded which had taken England by storm in the years following 1740 when it was first published. Richardson's smug and prudential morality and his niminy-piminy sentimentalism were Fielding's target Richardson in his novel had shown how a rustic lady's maid (Pamela) wins a dissolute noble for her husband by her rather calculated and discreet virtue. In his novel Fielding intended in the beginning to show how Lady Boody (aunt of "Lord B." in Richardson's novel) attempts the virginity of Joseph Andrews, described as the virtuous Pamela's brother but in the end discovered to be different. The whole intention was comic. But after Chapter IX Joseph Andrews seems to break away completely from the original intention. Parson Adams, who has no counterpart in Pamela, runs away with the novel. He, according'to Louis I. Bredvold, "is one of the most living, lovable, comical bundles of wisdom and simplicity in all literature." In the words of Edmund Gosse, "Parson Abraham Adams, alone, would be a contribution to English letters." He indeed is the hero of the novel, and not Joseph Andrews. Fielding was aware of giving a new literary form with Joseph Andrews which he called "a comic epic in prose."
"Jonathan Wild" (1748):
Fielding's next novel was a loose narrative suggested by the notorious gallows-bird Jonathan Wild who was hanged in 1725. It is a deep, cynical and sarcastic satire on "greatness" in general and the "great" Walpole in particular, as also on the many biographers of the age who indulged in exaggerated eulogy of the persons whose lives they handled. It is so different from Fielding's subsequent, works, namely, Tom Jones and Amelia, that Austin Dobson suggests that it must have been written earlier than Joseph Andrews even though it was published a year later. Throughout the work Fielding keeps up a sustained ironical pose reminiscent of the favourite method of Swift. Walter Allen observes about Jonathan Wild: "Some pages of Swift apart, it is the grimmest and most brilliant prose satire that We have; and perhaps it is even more effective than Swift's because it is not the work of a misanthrope."
"Tom Jones" (1749):
Tom Jones, indeed, is Fielding's magnum opus. It is, according to Hudson, "the greatest novel of the,eighteenth century." Moody and Lovett observe: "In structure, in richness of characterization, Jn'sanity and wisdom of point of view, Tom Jones stands unrivalled in the history of English fiction." In Tom Jones Fielding has a very vast canvas on which he paints with appreciable authority a representative cross-section of the society of his age. The swarming multiplicity and variety of characters make one feel that here is "God's plenty"~the same that Dryden found in Chaucer's Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. A ve$ remarkable merit of the novel is its excellent structure. Fielding is a master of that architectonic ability which we find so lamentably lacking in the works of most novelists. In Tom Jones, unlike in Joseph Andrews, Fielding does not pay any attention to Richardson and tries to represent his own view of English manners and morals and life in general. What he particularly excels in is his sense of comedy in which he, according to Louis I. Bredvold, can be placed beside Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.
"Amelia" (1751):
Amelia is the last of Fielding's novels In tone and execution it is markedly different from all the rest. It is the pathetic story of a patient and virtuous wife who suffers much and suffers long. Fielding here works on a much smaller canvas and his vigorous joviality and sense of comedy are conspicuous by their absence. His fast deteriorating health and the maturity of his years seem, at least partly, to be responsible for this cataclysmic change. Amelia is the only full-length female character drawn by Fielding. She is described by Walter Allen as "a character whose quiet radiance illuminates and softens a world of viciousness and deceit. Amelia is the rarest of successful characters in literature, the absolutely good person who is credible." Amelia is a domestic novel, not "a comic epic in prose" like Joseph Andrews or Tom Jones.
Both in his technique and "the philosophy of life" Fielding set glowing examples for all novelists to follow. Major novelists such as Jane Austen, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, and Meredith as well as the minor ones like Fanny Burney and Maria Edgeworth accepted his influence in varying degrees and ways. Even Lessing and Goethe paid Fielding some very glowing tributes. The English novel, in various respects, is considerably indebted to him. Fielding might have been less popular with his contemporaries than Richardson, yet on the development of the English novel he exerted a much greater influence.
Fielding was the pioneer of realism in English fiction. Both Richardson and Fielding were, broadly speaking, realists, and both reacted against the French romance so popular in their age, as also the effete taste of their predecessors like Aphra Behn. Fielding also reacted against Richardson's sentimentalism as a.falsifying influence on the study of reality. Fielding does not reject sentimentalism altogether-his Amelia is-rich in pathos and sentiment. "His desire", says Cazamian, "is to give sentiment its right place; but also to integrate it in an organic series of tendencies where each contributes to maintain a mutual balance."
Fielding is one of the few writers who, despite the wideness of their scope are capable of observing the demands of reality with perpetual ease. He works on a crowded canVas but, as has been said, "all his characters inhabit the same plane of reality." His novels hold up to view a representative picture of his age. He is as authentic a chronicler of his day as Chaucer was of the later fourteenth century. Fielding's truth is not the crude and bitter truth of Smollett's. A. R. Humphreys observes : "Fielding's is the higher and more philosophical truth which epitomizes the spirit, the ethos, as well as the body, of the time which deals primarily not in externals but in the nature of man and in an intellectual and moral code."
Humour, Satire, and Sharp Sense of Comedy:
Fielding is one of the greatest humorists in English literature. The same comic spirit which permeates his plays is also evident in his novels. As he informs us, the author upon whom he modelled himself was Cervantes; it is not surprising, therefore, that comedy should be his method. Fielding's humour is wide in range. It rises from the coarsest farce to the astonishing heights of the subtlest irony. On one side is his zestful description of various fights and, on the other, the grim irony of Jonathan Wild. Higher! than both is that ineffable, pleasant, and ironic humour that may be found everywhere in Tom Jones but is at its best in Joseph Andrews where it plays like summer lightning around the figure of Parson Adams-an English cousin of Don Quixote. Fielding's very definition of the novel as "a comic epic in prose" is indicative of the place of humour and comedy in his novels and, later, those of many of his followers. It may be pointed our here that Richardson had no sense of humour; he was an unsmiling moralist and sentimentalist. Comparing the two, Coleridge says : "There is a cheerful, sunshiny, breezy spirit that prevails everywhere strongly contrasted with the close, hot, tfay-dreamy continuity of Richardson." Fielding's humour is sometimes of the satiric kind, but he is never harsh or excessively cynical as Smollett and Swift usually are.
Healthy Morality and Philosophy of Life:
No reason proves so compulsive with Fielding in prompting him to parody Richardson's Pamela as Richardson's hoity-toity moralism added to a somewhat mawkish sentimental ism. Fielding must have heartily laughed at Pamela's self-regarding virtue. In his own novels he appealed to motives higher than prudery and commercialism while dealing with matters moral and ethical. He endeavoured to show the dignity of the natural and inherent human values. Thus Fielding preached a morality of his own which, in the words of David Daiches, is "goodness of heart rather than technical virtue with sins of the flesh regarded much more lightly than sins against generosity of feeling." Whether a man is virtuous or not is decided, with Fielding, not by his external and self-regarding conduct but by the presence or absence of inner goodness which generally means generosity of feeling. "This," says Cross, "is a complete repudiation of Richardson, if not of Addison: the point of view has shifted from the objective to the subjective, from doing to being, and the shifting means war against formalism." Virtue is, according to Fielding, its own reward and vice a punishment in itself. In the dedication to Tom Jones he says: "I have shown that no acquisitions of guilt can compensate the loss of that solid inward comfort of mind, which Js-the sure companion to innocence and virtue; nor can in the least balance the evil of that horror and anxiety, which in their room, guilt introduces into our bosoms." Even when Fielding insisted that nothing in Tom Jones "can offend even the chastest eye on perusal," he was charged by many with grossness and ribaldry Richardon says Edmund Gosse, "bitterly resented allthis rude instrusion into his moral garden, and never ceased to regard Fielding with open aversion." Richardson was really mortified, but, in the words of Oliver Elton, he only "shook his throat like a respectable turkey-cock."
Fielding was not only a great novelist but a great master of plot-construction also From Chaucer down to the modern times English writers have mostly ignored the architectonic part of their compositions. Fielding came to the novel from the drama, and though his plays are ill-constructed, yet his experience as a dramatist served him in good stead. Tom Jones is, according to Elizabeth Jenkins, an "amazing tour de force of plot-construction." Coleridge placed it among the three best constructed masterpieces of world literature-the other two being Sophocle's Oedipus Tyrannus and Ben Jonson's The Alchemist. Fielding defined the novel as "a comic epic in prose." But, as Oliver Elton points out, in Fielding's novels there is more of the dramatic than epic quality. The last scenes of his novels, particularly, resemble the last scenes of a well-knit comedy, such as one by Ben Jonson. "Fielding was," according to Hudson, "much concerned about the structural principles of prose fiction a matter to which neither Defoe nor Richardson had given much attention. To him the novel was quite as much a form of art as the epic or the drama". Unfortunately, Fielding's successors did not learn much from his example, and offended in respect of plot-construction as his predecessors-Defoe and Richardson-had done before him.
Fielding is a great master of the art of characterisation also. His characters are very lifelike—excepting few caricatures like Beau Diddaper. They are not only individuals but also representative figures. He himself remarks : "1 describe not men but manners, not an individual but the species." His broad sweep as a master of character is quite remarkable. A critic avers : "Since Chaucer was alive and hale, no such company of pilgrims—poachers, Molly Seagrims, adventures and Parson Supples-had appeared on the English roads." Fielding's broad human sympathy coupled with his keen observation of even the faintest element of hypocrisy in a person is his basic asset as a master of characterisation. He laughs and makes us laugh at many of his characters, but he is never cynical or misanthropic. He is a pleasant satirist, sans malice, sans harshness. He gives no evidence of being angry at the foibles of his characters or of holding a lash in readiness. His comic creations resemble those of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Parson Trulliber and Falstaff, if they were to meet, would have immediately recognised each other!

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