Comic Effect & Human Nature in Tom Jones

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Human Nature

      Introduction. F.R. Leavis gives a decidedly negative view of Fielding's achievement in Tom Jones. He contradicts the views of numerous critics who have acclaimed Fielding as a great novelist. He ridicules the talk of Tom Jones having a perfect construction. His view is that Fielding does not have enough range or variety to deserve the compliment of being a perfect artist in plot construction. He remarks:

Fielding's attitudes and his concern with human nature, are simple. Not such as to produce an effect of anything but monotony (on a mind, that is, demanding more than external action) when exhibited at the length of an "epic in prose".

      The view expressed is extreme. A close study of Tom Jones, will, however, prove it to be invalid.

      Fielding's Attitude towards Human Nature is not Simple. Fielding's treatment of the action in Tom Jones is certainly external. He does not probe into the minds of his characters. The characters of the personages are, more or less, fixed, and their actions fit their given characters. But this does not necessarily imply that Fielding's attitude towards human nature is simple. While it is true that we are not given the intricate working of any one character's mind, the general representation of human nature in the personages of the novel show Fielding's acute powers of observation and insight into the human mind and behaviour. Fielding had his own reasons for keeping to the external and superficial level of characterization. The most important reason was his comic purpose. It required an external approach, which would keep the reader at the necessary distance and prevent his intimate involvement with the characters. Unless he Was detached, he could not appreciate the irony and humour. The action is, to some extent, symbolic—we could say that it represents the journey of Tom towards self-realization. In the process, it is true, we are not given free internal workings of the character's mind. But the fact that Fielding presents simple characters should not lead to the conclusion that he lacks perceptivity or that his attitude to human nature is simple. The very fact that his characters present a human mixture of the 'good' and the 'bad', shows his keen insight into human nature.

      Range and Variety in Tom Jones Disproves the Charge of Monotony. That Fielding's attitude towards human nature produces a sense of monotony, is disproved by the remarkable variety of characters in Tom Jones. Each character represents a different type of human nature. Human nature for Fielding represented a balance or proportion between the instinctive drives and intellectual predilections. The proportion in which the two aspects are balanced determines the nature of a personality. We have some of the most interesting examples of human nature in Tom Jones.

      Squire Allworthy, good, generous, kind, but so very blind as far as judging others is concerned; Squire Western, hard-drinking and hard-swearing, at once hot-tempered and indulgent; Tom, generous, warmhearted, but weak as far as females are concerned; the unrelieved villain in Blifil; Sophia, beautiful and good; the hypocritical Square and Thwackum; the naive, cowardly and garrulous Partridge with his Amazonian and shrewish wife; the independent and opinionated Mrs. Western; the flirt of a Molly Seagrim; the depraved and disgusting Lady Bellaston; the generous but morally lax Jenny Jones—this wide range of characters is not only representative of every section of English society in the eighteenth century, but embodies the different traits of human nature in general. Each of these characters comes alive on the pages of the novel, even though they are not 'complex' characters. They are made to act and react on one another in the dramatic manner. The effect is anything but that of monotony.

      Conclusion: (Fielding's Deep Perception of Human Nature). F.R. Leavis, then, makes a comment which does not hold valid. It is somewhat presumptuous, even though we admit the greatness of Leavis as a critic. Fielding's novels, says Middleton Murry ironically, in a defence of the novelist, bring little grist to Leavis's highly specialised mental processes. The moral preoccupations with which they are concerned, are not the sort that makes an impression upon him. "Their durable achievement", sums up Murry, "in the creation of characters of whose reality we are convinced and who abide in memory, is one which he (Leavis) cannot recognise because he cannot account for it by his critical methods."

      Fielding's attitude towards human nature could not be regarded as simple. His method of characterization is simple, i.e. none of his characters are 'rounded' or complex. But that does not mean that his own perception of human nature was simple and superficial. Indeed, his representation of the human traits in Torn Jones shows his capacity to go deep into the core of human nature, to show the reality behind the sophisticated hypocrisy. His perception is clear; his presentation is authentic. His humorous style keeps monotony at a safe distance. F.R. Leavis's contention seems prejudiced and unacceptable.

Comic Effect

      (in outline) (i) Fielding's characterization is typically that of a comic writer. He avoids complex characters. He also forbears from delving into their mind and heart. As a result, the reader does not get involved. He can appreciate the general comic effect better from a detached perspective.

      Generalised treatment of human character leads to the lack of involvement. Readers do not identify themselves with the characters. As a consequence, they are able to laugh at the characters.

      The narrator's attitude and treatment of his material prevents the situations and actions from becoming serious and grim. Even the most serious situation is given a comic turn by timely intervention of the narrator with a suitably ironic or humorous comment. The omniscient narrator gives a cheerful impression all the time. He thus assures the reader that nothing terrible will happen to Tom.

      The action of the novel is typical of the plots of comedies. Tom begins at a low position, socially and materially. He goes on to reach the lowest point, and then rises to the height of his life. Fielding provides the resolution to Tom's social status in a most ingenious manner.

      The happy ending is characteristic of comic writing. Tom and Sophia marry and live happily ever after. Furthermore they marry in full compliance with their guardians wishes. The secret of Tom's birth is revealed in a masterly manner. Looking back on the novel after reading it, we can find no retrospective improbabilities in the plot.

      Fielding has built up the atmosphere so well that our interest is not so much in wondering if Tom will get out of his entanglements, as to how he will manage to do so.

      The style of Fielding, involving irony, and the mock heroic technique, helps in maintaining the comic atmosphere of the novel.

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