Henry Fielding's Theory of Novel

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Fielding's Theory of Comic Epic in Prose

New Province of Writing

      The new province of writing, differing both from romance and burlesque, would be a comic romance which is a "comic epic poem in prose differing from comedy, as the serious epic from tragedy, its action being more extended and comprehensive, containing a much larger circle of incidents, and introducing greater variety of characters". The province of this "comic epic poem in prose" is the ridiculous and the only source of the truly ridiculous is affectation. "Affectation proceeds from one of these two causes—vanity or hypocrisy—for as vanity puts us on affecting false characters, in order to purchase applause, so hypocrisy sets us on an endeavor to avoid censure, by concealing our vices under an appearance of their opposite virtues".

      Fielding calls his novel a history. In other words, it is a fictitious biography of a fictitious hero. Through his 'History' Fielding presents to us a picture of the age and society to which his hero belongs. Thus The History of Tom Jones contains a panoramic view of the life and society of the eighteenth century. Fielding is a historian of society and social manners.
Fielding's novels, especially Tom Jones, are comic epics in prose. In other words, Tom Jones is an epic of the eighteenth century, written in prose. The portrayal of life in it, is on an epic scale. Just as an epic presents a picture of a nation, Tom Jones offers to our view a picture of English society, as it was known to Fielding. Excepting the royalty, the entire English society is presented in the novel. The people from the lowest to the highest social stratum, from beggars to aristocrats, are all portrayed in it. Besides, life is portrayed from the point of view of a humorist. Fielding concentrates on the comic aspect of life. Man's folly, hypocrisy and affectation become a source of the comic to him, and he paints them with a gusto. Just as Hardy dwells on the tragic aspects of life, Fielding dwells exclusively on its comic aspect. Fielding has taken the bulk of his characters from the lower ranks of society; for, the comic springs from the folly and weakness of such persons. Men belonging to the upper classes hide their natural identity behind affectation, so that they are more the object of satire than the source of humor.

      There are certain essential qualities without which a writer cannot become a successful novelist. He must have genius, i. e., extraordinary talent, without which he cannot invent a plausible story and create living characters. The novelist's genius is his basic and essential faculty. But this power must be supplemented by his acquaintance with life. He cannot portray life convincingly unless he is fully acquainted with it; rather, we should say unless he has himself lived it. Life provides, to the novelist, raw material which he turns into a work of art with the help of his creative faculty.

      Creative power and knowledge of life—these two are essential for a novelist. But he should also have read widely, at least in his own branch of literature. He should know the types of novels his predecessors have written and his contemporaries are writing. He should know the tools which the other novelists have used, and the manner in which they have built up their art. There is another reason also why a novelist should be well-read. Life provides him with materials for his art, but so does literature. The art of Cervantes influenced the English novel through the centuries. Plato influences the romantic poets of the early nineteenth century. Thus, life and literature, both influence the novelist, and he should be acquainted with both. Literature of the highest type places the best model before him. Great novels will create, in a novelist the urge to write like great masters. He will learn from them how to create living characters, and to weave events into a web of stories which hold children from play and old men from the chimney corner.

      Lastly, the novelist should be able to feel himself, and to report, to his readers the feelings of his characters. Fielding lived in an age when the cultivation of feelings was recommended on ethical grounds. Richardson's art is based on the theory of the cultivation of feelings. In his third novel, Amelia, Fielding himself follows the cult of feeling and sensibility. But, even apart from this, the novelist cannot depict the feelings adequately unless he first feels them himself. The poet Burns, once wrote to a friend that his pathetic lines cost him many a tear. Since the novelist's characters are the children of his own soul, their joys and sorrows are his own joys and sorrows. Unless he experiences their sorrows and joys as actually as they do, unless he weeps or laughs with them, he cannot describe their feelings accurately.

      In the Preface to Joseph Andrews, Fielding draws a distinction between burlesque and his "comic romance" or "comic epic in prose". He says that he has, sometimes, used burlesque in diction, but has carefully excluded it from sentiments and characters. "For, there it is never properly introduced, unless in writings of the burlesque kind, which this is not intended to be; indeed, no two species of writing can differ more widely than the comic and the burlesque for, as the latter is ever the exhibition of what is monstrous and unnatural, and where our delight, if we examine it, arises from the surprising absurdity as in appropriating the manners of the highest to the lowest, or e' conveiso, so in the former, we should ever confine ourselves strictly to nature, from the just imitation of which will flow all the pleasure we can this way convey to a sensible reader." Fielding professes to copy nature or life, and adds that "life everywhere furnishes an accurate observer with the ridiculous."

      According to Fielding the only source of the true Ridiculous is affectation, which proceeds from vanity or hypocrisy, chiefly from the latter. Affectation turns the misfortunes and calamities of life, or the imperfection of nature, into objects of ridicule. "Surely he hath a very ill-framed mind" says Fielding, "who can look on ugliness, infirmity, or poverty, as ridiculous in themselves; nor do I believe any man living, who, meeting a dirty fellow riding through the streets in a cart is struck with an idea of the Ridiculous from it; but if he should see the same figure descend from his coach and six, or bolt from his chair with his hat under his arm, he would then begin to laugh, and with justice."

      Fielding is putting forward the classical view of comedy, which, later on, is restated by Meredith in his famous essay. He points out rightly that Ben Jonson, "who of all men understood the Ridiculous the best, hath chiefly used the hypocritical affectation." But as Walter Allen points out, "if we approach Fielding's novels with him (Ben Jonson) in mind we shall find an art very different in its whole nature from Jonson's. We shall find an art much more akin in spirit to Shakespeare's." Fielding does present humor issuing from affectation. But that is only one aspect of his humor. His most memorable comic characters, such as Partridge and Parson Adams, are not creatures of affectation. They are creations of pure humor. Parson Adams is different even from Don Quixote. In fact, he is an absolutely original character. "The secret of the pleasure he gives us can no more be reduced to a critical formula than Falstaff's

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