In the first chapter of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding self-consciously sets out the rules for himself as author: he constructs himself as the host of a banquet at a “public Ordinary,” presenting a series of courses for the readers’ consumption. Each volume is a course, and each introductory chapter is a bill of fare, the description of what will be served in this course and (ostensibly) what the reader will be charged.
However, as the novel continues, this metaphor grows more and more problematic. First, though Fielding asserts that he is setting out a clear bill of fare for readers, he doesn’t always effectively address the cost of said course. What does the reader give in exchange for this feast? Perhaps Fielding is assuming the guest has a wealth of reason and imagination to contribute. For example, in the preface to the third volume, he gives the reader some leeway to imagine what occurs during the twelve years that our hero grows up. He expects the reader to contribute his or her “true Sagacity,” for, “As we are sensible that much the greatest Part of our Readers are very eminently possessed of this Quality, we have left them a Space of twelve years to exert it in” (108). Could it perhaps be that the reader is donating his or her time to the author as well? I’m not sure that Fielding sufficiently explains this metaphor.
Additionally, is it really possible or desirable for the reader to know what to expect before entering a novel of this size? Most innkeepers throughout the book don’t publish a bill of fare; rather, they adjust their prices based on their estimation of the wealth of the guest– is Fielding doing the same thing?
Perhaps the most striking/unsettling comparison at the end of the introductory chapter occurs when the author compares himself to Heliogabalus, a Roman emperor renowned for his lavish banquets and cruel sense of humor. Legend recounts that Heliogabalus put gold and jewels in his guests’ boiled peas, suffocated guests with showers of rose petals (see 1888 painting by Dutch painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema), and perhaps even caused people to die of over-eating. The notes in the Penguin edition of Tom Jones also indicate that Fielding elsewhere used the pseudonym Heliogabalus for a gluttonous correspondent in his political journal the True Patriot (884). And he does not initially qualify this comparison: “By these Means, we doubt not but our Reader may be rendered desirous to read on for ever, as the great Person, just above-mentioned, is supposed to have made some Persons eat” (37). How does this fit into our ideas about the ethics of reading? Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins, and in a Platonic framework, results from the ungoverned free reign of one’s appetites, which destroys the soul. It seems this isn’t the best way to start a novel when one has to defend the virtue of the novel genre itself.
Fielding in the next introductory chapter tries to reassure us by framing himself as the benevolent dictator/philosopher-king; he states that though he makes all the laws, “I do hereby assure them, that I shall principally regard their [readers’] Ease and Advantage… I am, indeed, set over them for their own Good only, and was created for their Use” (74-75). However, based on the first introduction, I’m not sure I quite trust this narrator to decide what will be to my “Ease and Advantage,” and I’ll be sifting through my peas and watching out for flecks of gold that just might crack my teeth. But perhaps this discernment is Fielding’s goal for his readers all along.