The Banquet Host and the Benevolent Dictator: Henry Fielding’s Authorial Metaphors in Tom Jones

“The Roses of Heliogabalus” (1888) by Anglo-Dutch artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Narrative Voice = The Mind

Two of my personal favorite narrative voices in Tropic of Orange are Rafaela and Bobby. Though they are physically far apart, their stories are intimately intertwined, through the connection of their deep love for one another and their son, Sol. Similar to their physical distance is the distance between their narratives; Bobby’s chapters are choppy and random, while Rafaela’s chapters flow easily and invoke emotion.

Bobby’s narrative follows Rafaela’s in the “Monday” section of the novel and addresses the reader in a conversational tone. “Check it out, esé,” he says, constructing his reader to be a peer, someone who understands his language and his thought process (14). In fact, the disorganized manner of Bobby’s narrative continues to assume that the reader follows along his tangents with perfect clarity. In one of his chapters, as he is waiting to meet the man to hear news about his cousin, he jumps from that subject to ginseng tea to Rafaela pregnant with Sol to quitting smoking. In one extended paragraph he simultaneously gives too little information (what does this have to do with the plot?) and too much information (listing the telephone and fax numbers off of a product)(97). As frustrating as Bobby’s narrative is, it is rather relatable; I think we all find our thoughts to be as scattered as his and making connections through sensory memories as he does. This effect can be attributed to Yamashita’s implementation of narrated monologue, a voice that sounds like it should be Bobby’s and follows his thoughts. In that sense, the reader can connect to the novel through Bobby’s narrative, working hard to make connections where they are scarce, like in Bobby’s own racial identity “Chinese from Singapre with a Vietnam name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown. That’s it” (15).

Rafaela’s narrative, on the other hand, begins the narrative poetically, creating a holistic picture and a more relaxed emotional feel than Bobby’s narrative. Her chapters include poignant imagery, sometimes invoking the supernatural. She often sets the scene in the Mexico sections of the book, using descriptive language and paying attention to the setting around her. In her chapters, Yamashita seems to use psycho narration to simultaneously describe what’s going on within and without Rafaela. For example, when the magical realism first appears in the form of the connecting thread, Rafaela’s chapter describes what she sees “a line… pulled with delicate tautness… barely visible,” as well as what she instinctively feels about the thread, “she always sensed its presence… in fact, she sensed that it continued farther in both directions” (12). Rafaela’s poetic narrative, with its imagery and emotion regarding her relationships, regularizes the sporadic nature of the other narratives, but does the same thing as Bobby’s: makes connections between seemingly disconnected events and objects.

Karen Tei Yamashita’s use of narrative voice forms a point of connection in a seemingly disconnected plot. Through Bobby and Rafaela, and their respective narrated monologue and psycho narration, Yamashita appeals to different ways the mind often forms connections using senses and emotions.

Who are you, Miss Smith?

In the opening chapters of Cranford, I found it curious that it was difficult to place the role of the narrator. She seemed to have a feminine voice, and then slowly she revealed that she wasn’t an omniscient eye in the sky, but rather a participant in the narrative.

In chapter one, the first paragraphs suggest an omniscient narrator. She speaks in the first person, but makes generalized observations about Cranford and its inhabitants—everything from their dress, to their manners, to their quarrels. Such an opening seems to suggest that the focus of the novel will be on the lives of these women (which indeed it is).

However, then the narrator begins to align herself with the people she describes, saying “we none of us spoke of money” (emphasis mine 7). She includes herself with the Cranford women and their idiosyncrasies: “If we wore prints, instead of summer silks, it was because we preferred a washing material…we were, all of us, people of very moderate means” (emphasis mine 8). The repetition in these lines even draws particular attention to the narrator’s inclusion. She is part of this “we.”

As the narrative begins to pick up with descriptions of Captain Brown and his daughters, the narrator makes it clear that she is very much a part of the story, saying, “I was surprised to hear his opinions quoted as authority, at a visit which I paid to Cranford…My own friends had been among the bitterest opponents of any proposal to visit the Captain and his daughters” (9). With this the narrator becomes a person present (as well as absent at times) from Cranford with personal connections to the inhabitants. Indeed we find out that she is staying with Miss Jenkyns—the party detailed in the first chapter is thrown in her honor—and she begins to enter into the story at small moments (to fetch a book etc.) that begin to increase throughout the novel.

However it seems that her role in the novel is always odd—a blend of outsider and insider. By the end of chapter one, we don’t really know who she is, though she does seem important as the voice by which Gaskell delivers her satirical commentary. Indeed, we don’t even learn that her name is Mary Smith until nearly the end of the novel in chapter fourteen.

Despite this precarious role, though, Miss Smith (or rather perhaps Gaskell) certainly wants to emphasize her authority for assuming the position of storyteller. The second chapter begins with the assertion that “It was impossible to live a month at Cranford, and not know the daily habits of each resident; and long before my visit was ended, I knew much concerning the whole Brown trio” (16). Her presence, her observations, make her an alleged authority on the people of the town.

But when she isn’t present, correspondence becomes her conduit for truth. Several times she speaks of letters written to her, of “several correspondents who kept me au fait to the proceedings of the dear little town” (18). She trusts these letters as means for obtaining truth when her own observations cannot be made. She describes the letters of several of the women, characterizing their usefulness, and even including a selection from Miss Jenkyns’. In particular, she emphasizes that “in spite of a little bad spelling, Miss Matty’s account gave me the best idea of the commotion occasioned by his lordship’s visit…,” giving the impression that while the letters are key for keeping track of the goings on—they aren’t infallible.

Overall we ought to carefully consider how Gaskell begins the odd narration of this novel of observations. Martineau was certainly concerned with how one ought to observe and the origins of truth etc., and here we see Gaskell—in the midst of these comical vignettes—considering these questions of epistemology and objectivity. Who is this Mary Smith who begins as an outsider and yet is revealed to be a participant? Why does Gaskell give her the narrative voice? Are we to see her as merely a conduit for hearing the story? And perhaps if she’s primarily a conduit, we can indeed consider more closely Gaskell’s method of telling the stories through observations both epistolary and personal. Throw satire into the mix, and Gaskell’s given us quite the experiment with what it is to determine and interpret the truth.

Progressive Digressions?

As in Tom Jones, with Tristram Shandy I found myself again drawn to the relationship between the narrator and his readers. And as I was puzzling it out, it became clear that wrapped up in Tristram (the narrator)’s shaping of this relationship was Sterne’s treatment of time and space.

One of the marks of TJ’s narrator is his deliberate and direct engagement with and instruction of the reader. Fielding creates what Chambers calls an “implicit contract” between the narrator and the reader (qtd in Sherman 236). The narrator of TS also directly interacts with readers, but the contract he negotiates relies less on holding back the secrets of the plot and more on how he holds back. Indeed, Sterne would seem to maintain his contract by mocking its very creation.

Sterne very deliberately and transparently delays what appears to be the main action of the narrative—at this point in the novel the birth of Tristram. He even takes the entirety of chapter 22 in volume I to justify his digressions by discussing how his work is still “progressive” (64). At first, this delay would seem to seek out and accomplish what Fielding attempts in TJ: compelling the reader to keep reading through a plot revealed little by little. But as volumes pass in TS  and Tristram is still yet to be born, the delay becomes ridiculous. While TJ is fairly successful at obtaining and maintaining my attention through this secrecy (and was certainly successful for 17th century readers, according to Sherman), I am frustrated at the lack of progression (despite Sterne’s protestations) in Tristram Shandy. However, it seems that it is this frustration that Sterne relies on for his contract with the reader. He mocks this convention of secrecy that Fielding embraces by taking it to an extreme, such an extreme that it becomes clear that it is the delay and thus the passage of time that takes center stage rather than the action itself.

By drawing readers’ attention to this delay, Sterne focuses attention on the passage of time within the novel. He negotiates a complex narrative in which time passes (or pauses) at different rates within the main narrative, within Tristram’s digressions, within the world in which Tristram writes, and within the space created between the reader and the narrator. Passage of time is one of Watt’s key characteristics of the novel (22), but just as Sterne employs satire to mock nearly everything else in the novel, in TS he seems to not merely explore this convention, but push it to an extreme to poke fun.

He repeatedly mentions the ‘main’ story line that he has left behind, but only to continue with his digressions. However during these digressions, time passes not only in the world of the ‘main’ narrative but also for Tristram as he writes and also as he imparts the story to his readers. He states, “I declare I have been at it these six weeks, making all the speed I possibly could,—and  am not yet born,” at once revealing the passage of time within his writing world and mocking the slow progression in the world of the narrative (35). In Tristram’s direct addresses to the reader, we also see time passing within the theater space Sterne has created for his audience to enjoy his novel. (I don’t have the space or time here to discuss this theater space, but consider the interaction Sterne depicts between Tristram and “Madam” in chapter 20, where he seemingly pulls one member out of the audience to converse with—who leaves and returns, as well as Sterne’s use of scene and stage throughout the novel.) Tristram reckons that “about an hour and a half’s tolerable good reading” has passed (referring to the time within the realm of the reader) and then discusses how the time within the narrative has only been “two minutes, thirteen seconds, and three-fifths,” as would be measured by a pendulum (92). He plays with this notion of time passing, suggesting that the reader may think it hasn’t been long enough for the action to have been probable, but then in true Sterne fashion, turns the discussion into a mockery by revealing that indeed it has been enough time, as Toby ran into Dr. Slop in the yard.

So what is Sterne’s purpose in manipulating and mocking this convention of the passage of time? Perhaps it will become clearer as the novel progresses, but at this point it would seem that Sterne creates his contract with the reader by mocking the conventions of the novel. He draws the reader on not through anticipation of the plot but by a conscious delay of the plot and mocking readers’ willingness to keep reading regardless.

The Many Faces of the Narrator

In their attempts to define the amorphous genre of the novel, several of the critics we’ve read thus far have considered the attempts made by the “first novelists” themselves—Fielding included—to define their works. Bakhtin finds these “formative definitions” of “more interest and consequence” than the “generic characteristics” replete with  “reservations” that had characterized the scholars’ attempts up to the writing of his article (8). As tackling the whole of Fielding’s definition of the novel would be too broad for the scope of this post, I’ve elected to look more specifically at the various roles Fielding ascribes to the narrator of Tom Jones as he works out what a novel ought to look like, particularly in its conveyance of knowledge.

Some of the most notable places we see the narrator at work in the novel are the introductory chapters to each book.  In the chapter beginning Book V, the narrator addresses the value he sees in these introductory materials, taking his commentary to a meta-level. Though elsewhere he calls them “digressive essays,” here the narrator identifies these “initial essays” as “essentially necessary,” composed by the author with “greatest pains” (181).  Fielding wants readers to pay particular attention to these opening chapters in which the narratorial voice is highly self-conscious and fulfills several roles.

In Book II, for example, the narrator devotes several paragraphs to the passage of time in the novel. In these paragraphs, the narrator both justifies Fielding’s authorial choices and informs the audience as to how they ought to consume this new genre of writing. He will include sufficient detail about occurrences of interest as to avoid falling into the category of newspaper histories, but he also views his readers as subjects “bound to believe in and obey” the laws he creates as “the founder of a new province of writing” (68).

This same rather heavy-handed direction crops up in the narrative as well. In the end of chapter five of Book III, the narrator interjects, concerned that the reader may mistakenly believe that “Thwackum appeared to Mr. Allworthy in the same light as he doth to him [the reader] in this history,” an understanding enabled by the information bestowed to the reader by the narrator. He even goes as far to say that thinking poorly of Mr. Allworthy would be a “very bad and ungrateful use of that knowledge which we [the narrator] have communicated to them [the readers]” (117).  Again we have the narrator taking a very bold, directive role in the reading experience.

A few pages later, we have another interjection by the narrator, and I found this appearance most interesting. The narrator devotes a paragraph to address young readers specifically about the importance of virtue and prudence. Following this lesson, the narrator switches from first-person plural to first-person singular to “ask pardon for this short appearance, by way of chorus, on the stage” (122). The shift from plural to singular is in itself interesting, perhaps indicating that this particular voice is Fielding’s.  However, this selection is also intriguing in its depiction of Fielding’s experimentation with the role of the narrator. We’ve had the narrator as both reading and morality instructor as well as the medium for authorial justification, and now he characterizes himself as the chorus. He states, “I could not prevail on any of my actors to speak, [so] I myself was obliged to declare” (123).  This metaphor introduces noteworthy ideas to consider as far as the narrator’s role in the novel. On one hand, these lines illustrate the narrator self-consciously separating himself from the narrative (the use of I, naming the characters “my actors”), but in claiming the role of the chorus—well-established by literary precedent as integral to the progression of the narrative, he indicates that the reader should take his words as part of the “history.”

Bakhtin asserts that “when the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the most dominant discipline” (15). Fielding’s experimentation with the roles of the narrator demonstrate that very emphasis—how ought the reader to know? What is truth within the narrative as well as without, and how is it conveyed to the reader?  By giving the narrator these many roles, Fielding explores this formation and transmission of knowledge.

Our Lovely, Undecipherable Narrator Strikes Again…And Again

What are we to do with this narrator? We’ve already spent some time discussing his (lack of) reliability, sarcasm, and inconsistency. He claims to know all, yet holds some information back. Sometimes we know what is written in the letter or on the note, and sometimes not. Sometimes we are led to believe that the narrator’s words reflect his own views, but often they (supposedly) do not.

Significant to this problem of the narrator is how Thackeray chooses to frame his novel, beginning with the prologue entitled “Before the Curtain.” He (either Thackeray, the narrator, or the Manager, or some combination of the lot, we cannot be sure) describes Vanity Fair as a show, with the characters of the novel first as actors with face paint and masks and then as puppets and dolls. The whole story is a performance we, as members of the audience alongside the Manager, are sitting down to watch.  This is problematic because throughout the novel the narrator continuously shifts roles, and thus determining Thackeray’s intentions becomes much more difficult.

As Andy brought up in discussion last week, periodically we see the narrator deigning to step down into the action of the novel in a manner of sorts. Andy suggested that it could be visualized as the Manager/narrator sitting next to you at the play and pausing the action to comment and bring you in on some of the inner-workings and issues at hand.  However in chapter 62, the narrator makes an unprecedented move and actually enters the story. He states, “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance,” referring to those main characters who were vacationing in Pumpernickel. He even attends the same play (of all things) as “our friends” as he refers to them (793). Besides the obvious contradiction of his assertion that his “history” (not tale or story) is true, we now must puzzle over what these paragraphs tell us about the narrator’s omniscience and role in the story.  Who is he, and why/when should we believe him?

Thackeray maintains the play construction all the way through the novel to the final page, ending: “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out” (878). The illustration paired with words depicts two children beside a toy box. Various dolls are strewn about within and around it, and the inside of the lid reads “FINIS.” Rather than returning to the idea of the characters as painted and masked actors, Thackeray chooses to finish with the characters as dolls and puppets put away in a box for another time. The effect is a telling contrast between the triviality of the playthings and the penultimate lines: “AhI Vanitas Vanitatum! Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? Or, having it, is satisfied?” (878). The narrator has ended not simply mocking and criticizing the individual characters and their respective stereotypical roles, but rather the novel as a whole; all the decisions, worries, and experiences are worthless, the insignificant and frivolous stuff of child’s play.  He ends having negated all the supposed messages of the novel, leaving his audience to decipher Thackeray’s intentions.

In this final scene—if it can be called that since the story has already finished—the narrator is lifted back to his meta-narrator role completely outside the novel, so outside that it is he who is instructing the children who ostensibly have been pulling the strings of the character puppets and walking the legs of the dolls. This final layer of ingenious and elaborate obfuscation complicates the novel yet again, still leaving us with the question, what are we to do with the narrator?

Thackeray, William. Vanity Fair. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.