Resolution in tragedy?

Despite his stated ambition of writing a true history, Henry Fielding routinely (and playfully) reminds his reader of the creative process behind the fiction he presents. In Tom Jones this authorial unmasking (insofar as Fielding ever bothered to disguise his authorial role in the first place) occurs principally in the introductory chapters to each book, where Fielding glibly preempts his critics and theatrically toys with the reader’s expectations.

In the first chapter of Book XVII, for example, Fielding laments that he might never be able to extricate Tom and Sophia from their misfortunes and achieve a happy ending. Fielding’s fear for his characters is, of course, feigned, but he raises an intriguing point about resolution in the novel (or in story in general).

He starts this chapter by stating: “When a comic writer hath made his principal characters as happy as he can, or when a tragic writer hath brought them to the highest pitch of human misery, they both conclude their business to be done, and that their work is come to a period.”

This all concurs strikingly with D.A. Miller’s basic thesis in “Problems of Closure in the Traditional Novel.” Miller starts with the fairly apparent reality that it is “unhappiness,” in all of its infinite variations, which makes the stuff of plot. Once happiness is achieved, there is nothing more to say and, as Fielding pertly explains, the “work is come to a period.”

Miller goes on from that point to explore the difficulty of resolving the novel given the inherently unstable nature of the climactic “happiness,” concluding that novelists have been forced, in various ways, to deal with the fact that happiness always contains the seeds of some new disaster or disappointment.

Fielding, however, points not just to happiness as a means of resolution in the novel but also to alternately misery. The tragic author can achieve an ending by reducing the characters to despair, just as the comic author ties things up by dispensing satisfaction and good will all around.

In light of Miller’s point then we must wonder: is the tragic ending of pure despair unstable in the same ways that the happy ending is? If every state of happiness conceals misery in potentia, does every state of (allegedly) pure sadness conceal the possibility of future happiness?

Fielding might seem at first to provide little in the way of an answer to this question, since his concern is focused on his own predicament as a comic author attempting to extricate his heroes from a terrible situation which might have been contrived by “the devil, or any of his representatives” but which was, in fact, contrived by himself.

Nonetheless, in discussing this difficulty, Fielding declares that his hero’s circumstances are so bad that, if he were a tragic author, his work would be more or less complete. In short, he claims that things have gotten so out of hand that he has to find a way to craft a happy ending out of a tragic one!

Might this hint at an answer to our question? Fielding, despite his own purported fears of failure, achieves an unequivocally happy ending for his novel, and, if we are to believe Fielding, he brought his heroes out of a tragic ending to get there. Does this mean that a tragic ending contains not merely the seeds of some small happiness but even the seeds of a straight-up happy ending?

Well, certainly, no reader is likely to actually have experienced Tom’s distress as anything approaching a tragic ending at any point in the novel; but even so the dramatic fluctuation of fortune evidenced in Tom Jones and many other novels is evidence to consider and might well suggest that despair is as unstable as happiness.

The constant factor which propels plot toward either happiness or misery and likewise renders those resolutions unstable is basically change. That is what prompts the reader on every page of the novel to begin to imagine the next page for himself and to imagine an imaginary next page even as he reads the last page of the novel. Perhaps no author could achieve a truly stable resolution, whether of happiness or despair, without subduing the reader’s imagination which conjures hope as much as it generates fear and catastrophe.

2 thoughts on “Resolution in tragedy?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *