Prefatory Chapters: Initial Essays & Incidental Comments in Tom Jones

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The initial essays and the incidental comments in TOM JONES


      Fielding intended that his novel should furnish not merely entertainment, but also instruction. He deliberately used it as a vehicle for the expression of his artistic and moral ideas and ideals. These explanations he put forward, partly in 'initial essays' prefixed to the several books, and partly in shorter comments interjected, when suitable opportunities occurred, into the narrative.


      The regular insertion of an essay, at the commencement of each division of the work, is a peculiarity of Tom Jones.

      The prefatory chapters have, for the most part, no organic connection with the chapters which follow in Tom Jones. Fielding compared them with prologues to plays. Just as prologues were, as a rule, so slightly connected with the dramas which they prefaced that the prologue to any one play could just as well serve for any other; so, said he, most of the initial chapters might as properly be prefixed to any other book in this history as to that which they introduce, or indeed to any other history as to this. The majority of them are, in fact, independent dissertations, which can be taken out of their places and rearranged in any order, or even without injury to the story, though not without loss of pleasure and profit to the reader— omitted altogether. Pierre Antodine dela Place, in his French abridgement of Tom Jones, did actually cut them out, with two exceptions. It seems probable that Fielding deferred the composition of the greater number until almost the last, when the main narrative was already practically completed.

      In these polished miniature essays, Fielding expounded some of his views on literature and life.

      The observations of a great novelist on the subject of his art are naturally of special interest and the student of literature may possibly regard the essay on this topic as the most valuable and important. Fielding claimed to be the founder of a new province of writing, which he named 'prosaic-comic-epic', or the 'heroic, historical prosaic poem'. In Joseph Andrews, he had described the general character of this new species; but he deemed it desirable in Tom Jones to offer some additional comments and explanations.

The Art of Novel Writing

      At the outset, he emphasizes the point that the writer of a comic prose epic has his rough materials provided for him in. the actual facts of human nature. He does not invent them out of his own brain as does the fanciful romance writer; he discovers them already existing in the world about him. Hence his work had better not be called a 'romance'; it rather resembles a 'history'. For just as the historian draws his materials from authoritative records, so a writer of the new fiction draws his materials from an authoritative source, namely, ''the vast authentic doomsday book of nature". The materials are then supplied; but they still need to be artfully 'dressed up' for the reader. And for a proper and judicious dealing with them, two principles are laid down. The first is the Principle of Selection. The good fiction-writer must, on no account, imitate the method of some 'painful and voluminous' historians, who consider themselves obliged to chronicle all happenings, important or unimportant, with equal fullness whose histories, indeed, 'resemble a newspaper; which consist of just the same number of words, whether there be any news in it or not'. On the contrary, he must practise the sagacious selection recommended by Horace, passing over commonplace and insignificant matters, and reporting those alone which are sufficiently curious or momentous to merit a place in his history. The second principle is the Principle of Lively and Varied. Presentation. A monotonous record of facts and events is inevitably boring. The story-writer, therefore, should seize every opportunity to include in his narrative 'sundry similes, descriptions, and their kind of poetical embellishments.

Four Major Qualifications of a Novelist

      For successful composition of the new style of fiction an author must possess, according to Fielding, four major qualifications. The first is Genius, which is defined as 'that power, or rather those powers of the mind, which are capable of penetrating into all things within our reach and knowledge, and of distinguishing their essential differences'. The second requisite is Learning, without the assistance of which 'nothing pure, nothing correct, can genius produce'. The third qualification is Conversation, or personal experience of men and women, for a sound knowledge of human nature cannot be acquired from books. It can be obtained only by direct personal intercourse—not with one class only or one particular social type but with 'all ranks and degrees of men'. The fourth qualification of the good fiction-writer is Sympathy, Sensibility, or the Feeling Heart. Neither gemus, nor learning, nor experience, nor all three together, can rise the writer to the very highest level, unless he possesses this quality also. The noble passions-particularly love, generosity, pity-can be adequately described only by one who is himself susceptible to such emotions.

      In the new realistic fiction it is by no means necessary that the characters and incidents should be trite and commonplace—such as might be met with "in the home articles of a newspaper" The author should rather endeavour to interest his readers by relating what is marvellous and surprising.

Law of Credibility in the Novel

      To safeguard the credibility of the story, three rules must be observed. The first is the 'Rule of Possibility'. Nothing should be related which is beyond the range of human capacity. Supernatural agencies should be eliminated. Even ghosts should be seldom, if at all, introduced. Miracles are banned. All the occurrences described must be capable of being explained as the effects of natural causes. The second rule is the 'Rule of Probability'. While it is admitted that many improbable things have happened, and do happen, in real life—things which are sufficiently attested by evidence, and which a historian of public transaction is consequently justified in recording—yet the novel-writer, if he would avoid 'that incredulous hatred mentioned by Horace', had better refrain from introducing such matters into his narrative. In his characterization also he would be wise not to picture persons of extraordinary goodness or extraordinary wickedness.

Principle of Plagiarism

      Among other initial essays dealing with literary topics, there is one in which Fielding defines his attitude with regard to plagiarism. He maintains that a modern author is at liberty to appropriate the good things of an old master, without mention of the source from which he has taken them; but denies that he has a right to pilfer anything from the work of a contemporary without acknowledgement. To this principle he claims to have himself most scrupulously adhered. In another paper, he launches an attack on literary critics for having arrogantly assumed a 'dictatorial power'. Instead of merely formulating the laws in accordance with which Writers of genius plied their craft, they had ventured to invent laws and to impose them peremptorily on writers. Nor, in construction of these laws, had they shown discretion.

His Dissertation on Love

      There is a notable dissertation on the nature of Love. Leaving out of account that capricious youthful sentiment which is sometimes improperly called love—'the idle and childish liking' of boys and girls, which is often fixed on outside only, and on things of 'little value and no duration'—Fielding emphasizes the distinction between lust and love. The former is simply 'the desire of satisfying a voracious appetite with a certain quantify of delicate white human flesh'. It might well be called hunger for a lustful man hungers after a woman in just the same way as a glutton hungers after a sirloin of beef, or an epicure hungers after choice food. This passionate hunger may be very violent for a while, but, like every other kind of hunger, it naturally ceases when it has been satisfied. Love, on the other hand, in its widest sense (e.g. love of parents, love of children, love of friends, love of mankind), is a kind and benevolent disposition, which is gratified by contributing to the happiness of others,' and indeed finds 'a great and exquisite delight in promoting their well being. Love, in the narrower sense of a special attachment between a man and a woman, is, in substance, this same benevolent disposition, with amorous desire added. But since delight in making a dear person happy is the substance of love, while desire, inspired by that person's youth and beauty, is only an accompaniment, love can survive in a good mind, after youth and beauty, and the amorous desires which they provoke, have passed away.

His Attitude Towards Human Weakness

      Another essay, headed "A Comparison between the World and the Stage", illustrates Fielding's tolerant attitude towards human weaknesses and shortcomings. It is pointed out that, as on the stage actors often play bad or foolish parts, without being personally bad or foolish, so in the world-theatre men sometimes act ill parts and play the fool egregiously, without being essentially detestable or contemptible. A single bad act no more constitutes a villain in life, than a single bad part on the stage. The passions, like the managers of a playhouse, often force men upon parts, without consulting their judgement, and sometimes without any regard to their talents. Thus the man, as well as the players may condemn what he himself acts. The moral of which is that sweeping and indiscriminate reprobation of those who admittedly lapse into errors, should be avoided.

His Estimate of Aristocratic Society

      Lastly, Fielding's estimate of aristocratic society is worthy of attention. He acknowledged, indeed, that the members of the highest class were elegant and refined and possessed 'a liberality of Spirit' that was scarcely ever seen in 'men of low birth and education'. But their 'politeness' was vitiated by affectation.

      What Pope says of women is very applicable to most in this station, who are' indeed, so entirely made up of form and affectation that they have no character at all, at least, none which appears. "I will venture to say that the highest life is such the dullest, and affords very little humour or entertainment. Here, except among the few who have a relish for pleasure, all is vanity and servile imitation. Dressing and cards, eating and drinking, bowing and curtseying, make up the business of their lives.”

      Yet, though Fielding deemed contemporary high society to the futile and silly, he did not regard it as exceptionally profligate. "In my humble opinion, the true characteristic of the present beau monde is rather folly than vice, and the only epithet which it deserves is that of frivolous". The leniency of this judgement is rather remarkable since in his later writings Fielding paints the highest class in the darkest colours—as thoroughly selfish, dissolute and corrupt, and actually responsible, to no small extent, for the general demoralization of the community.

Views of Critics

      Enough has been said to indicate the quality of these excellent introductory essays. It need only be added that two critics of distinction—Sir Walter Scott and George Eliot—have borne testimony to their interest and value. "Fielding", wrote Scott, "considered his work as an experiment in British literature and therefore he chose to prefix a preliminary chapter to each book, explanatory of his own views and of the rules attached to this mode of composition. Those critical introductions, which rather interrupt the course of the story and the flow of the interest at the first perusal, are found on a second or third the most entertaining chapters of the whole work". George Eliot, for her part, evinced high appreciation of Fielding's "copious remarks and digressions, and especially of those initial chapters to the successive books of his history where he seems to bring his arm-chair to the proscenium and chat with us in all the lastly ease of his fine English".


      It is not only in the initial essays that Fielding addressed his readers in propria persona. Even in the body of the novel he refused to efface himself. Throughout the entire drama which he presents, we are perpetually conscious of his presence in the background and every now and then, when the humour takes him, he stops the action altogether, steps forward to the front, and agreeably descants—on the characters, on the incidents, on the moral lessons to be drawn, on particular details, and on things in general. He compared himself, indeed, with the chorus of the old Greek comedy, whose function was to voice the poets comments on the transactions exhibited on the stage. Nor was he doubtful about the propriety of such parabases. The interpolation of direct communications to the reader into the main current of the narrative was actually a part of his deliberately formed plan.

      Under the last heading, we find a large number of acute observations or short disquisitions on the variuos subjects. A bare enumeration will give some idea of the multiplicity and multifariousness of the topics dealt with. In the course of a single novel, Fielding offers remarks, usually short but sometimes extended, on the following—on compliance under protest; on the cruellest kind of ingratitude; on centres of gossip; on the pleasure of tormenting one's partner in marriage; on the overlooking disposition; on the divergent diagnoses of physicians; on 'Preservers of the game'; on the exposure of fake professions of morality and religion; on the importance of prudence and circumspection.

      The incidental comments occur more frequently in the earlier Books of Tom Jones than in the later, when Fielding was in a hurry to get his work finished. They are also very considerable in value, perhaps the most interesting are those on the importance of prudence, on the function of conscience, on true wisdom, and on the sanguine temper. But apart from individual examples, the collection, as a whole, is important in affording us insight into the mind of the novelist.

      The utterances attributed to characters in the story may, or may not, express the opinions and sentiments of the author; but no doubt can arise in connection with the declarations which he makes in his own person. In these direct communications, Fielding frankly reveals himself. Through them, we enjoy the privilege of being brought, as it were, into contact with a man of the finest intellectual calibre—a man observant, reflective, humorous, tolerant, humane—above all, a man endowed with a profound understanding of human nature such as has seldom been equalled and never surpassed by an English fiction-writer.


"Tom Jones bristles with theories". Discuss this dictum.
What are the "views and opinions of Fielding on various aspects as in the prefatory chapters of Tom Jones?
Write an essay on Fielding as a guide and mentor in Tom Jones.
The prefatory essays and the incidental comments in Tom Jones inform the overall merit of the novel. Discuss.

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