Tom Jones: A Comic Epic in Prose

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Introduction: Fielding the Founder of a New Genre of Literature

      Fielding had already asserted in his Preface to Joseph Andrews that he was writing a new genre of literature. He calls his work "a comic epic in prose". He attempted to state theory on the new genre of prose literature. In fact, he was obviously keen on exploring the new possibilities which it offered. There was a tradition in comic epic, though it was not fully established. We have been told by Aristotle that Homer had written a comic epic which was related to comedy in the same way as his Iliad and Odyssey were related to tragedy. The prose epic was also quite familiar in that it involved all the ingredients of the epic poem, i.e. fable, action, character, sentiment, diction, except meter. Fielding combined the ideas of the comic epic and the prose epic and founded a new branch of literature, namely, the "comic epic in prose". He says in the prefatory chapter of Book II in Tom Jones:

For all which I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever; for as I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein. And these laws, my readers, whom I consider my subjects, are bound to believe in and obey

Differences between the 'Comic Epic in Prose' and the Serious Romance, Comedy, Burlesque and History

      In the Preface to Joseph Andrerus, Fielding points out the differences between the new form of writing, which he has invented, and the already extant forms of writing. The comic epic in prose differed from the serious romance obviously enough, in its fable and action. In the comic epic, the fable and action would be light and ridiculous instead of serious and dignified. It would have characters of interior rank and, therefore, of inferior manners. In sentiment and diction, too, it would preserve the "ludicrous instead of the sublime".

      The comic epic again differs from comedy just as the serious epic differs from tragedy. Its action is more extended and comprehensive and contains a larger circle of incidents, with a greater variety of characters. At the same time, the comic epic in prose is not to be confused with the burlesque. The latter is ever the exhibition of what is monstrous and unnatural, and where our delight arises from the surprising absurdity, as in appropriating the manner of the highest to the lowest or vice versa. The comic, on the other hand, is strictly confined to the "just imitation of nature". However, while the characters and sentiments in a comic epic must be entirely natural, a burlesque style can be admitted in the narrative or descriptive parts.

      The comic epic further differs from the heroic romances in that its characters are based on reality, and the events described fall within the realm of probability. Nothing is fantastic in the comic epic; everything is copied from the book of nature. To the extent that it Heals with people and actions that could have existed and happened, the work can be called a history. But Fielding prefers the term 'epic' to the term 'history'. He explains: The epic writer reveals, as the ordinary historian does not, the basic truths of human nature no matter when or where or under what condition it exists, had existed or will exist. History describes temporal and local phases of human life while an epic reveals universal truths.

Nature of a "Comic Epic in Prose": A Combination of the Comic and the Epical

      The comic epic in prose, as Fielding styles the new genre of literature which he evolved, admits a variety of characters and incidents. Its scale is epical, comprehensive and large. The tone, however, is light, comical, mildly satirical and ironical, often verging on the frivolous. It concerns itself with the ridiculous aspects of life. It is realistic, concerning itself with what happens on this earth, and hence different from the romances. The comic epic does not indulge in distortion as does the burlesque. It deals with the universals, unlike history. Behind the apparently frivolous and comic tone of the author, there is a serious moral purpose. The writer's moral purpose is similar to that of the serious epic writer. It was a new province of writing that Fielding was attempting to explore. It was a combination of the comical elements with the epical scale to produce a new species of literature, the kind of which had not been hitherto attempted in the English language. We see a very successful mixture of the comic with the epic elements in Tom Jones. The comic tone is sustained throughout the novel, while the scale is epical. Epic devices such as invocations, unity of action, time-scheme, are combined with mock-heroic style and a consistently comic tone.

      We will first consider the epic elements in Tom Jones and then consider how the whole is given a 'comic' treatment to justify the, title "comic epic in prose". That the novel is in prose, needs no further explanation.

The Epic Elements in Tom Jones

      The scale of Tom Jones, as has been remarked earlier, is epical. The novel has more than forty characters, of a variety in keeping with epical demands. We notice that the characters are drawn from several strata of society—the low classes, the middle classes, the landed gentry and the higher classes. We have lords, lawyers, judges, and highwaymen, servants and squires, parsons, and innkeepers, gypsies and thieves. Society is amply represented in the well-portrayed characters. Besides the wide variety of characters, there are other epic demands which are fulfilled by Tom Jones.

The Unities of Time and Action in Tom Jones

      Fielding shows his intention to keep to the epic unities in Tom Jones. At the head of each Book in the novel, Fielding indicates the time taken by the particular action described in it. In Book I, we are told "as much of the birth of the foundling as is necessary". In Books II and III, we are given a summary of events till Tom has reached the age of seventeen. Book IV spans a 'year'. Book V contains "the portion of time somewhat longer than, half a year". The first four Books give us material antecedent to the actual action of the novel. After this antecedent material has been given, the action is restricted to fall within a year. Of course, one might note that Fielding's method here does not follow the rule of limiting the action to one year and working in the antecedent incidents in the course of the action. But it announces quite definitely the fact that, once the stage is set, the principle of duration of epic action is strictly followed. The epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey and the Aeneid followed the time-scheme of one year within which the action was completed, and Fielding too followed the practice.

      The most important unity is that of action. More than the unity of time, it is the unity of action which Aristotle stressed upon. The action of Tom Jones is comprehensive and well extended in space. It included the countryside, the highways, and the urban society of London. We have an almost complete picture of the rural and the urban society of England in Fielding's time. The action of Fielding's novel is given an organic unity; which is remarkable. We have been told that Tom Jones is not simply a chronicle. Thus his time-scheme of giving the antecedents before and concentrating on the main action afterward, and limiting that action to a year, makes the action more unified. Its action is constructed along dramatic lines. Everything is pivotal on a single action, which is the discovery of a child in Allworthy's bed and the unraveling of the secret of that child's birth. The action of Tom Jones is an organic and coherent. whole. Each incident is made to bear a relation with the whole and with one another. The events do not follow one another haphazardly, but are logical consequences, having structural or thematic relationship to the whole. Even the two major digressions in the novel, namely that of the Man of the Hill and Mrs. Fitzpatrick's account, have some thematic relevance. Further, they are in true epic tradition.

      The action of Tom Jones develops slowly but there is a proportion about the entanglement and the unraveling of action. The first six Books develop the complication in Somersetshire, ending with Tom's expulsion from the Allworthy household. The next six Books develop the action on the road. The complications reach the climax in the middle, at Upton Inn, where all the important characters turn up almost together. The last six Books concentrate on London, with the novel ending in unraveling all the mysteries.

The Hero is Good but not Perfect

      Tom Jones is a young man of good impulses, but he falls from grace because he has not learned to temper his impulses with good sense or prudence. Tom is not possessed of all the virtues. In other words, he is not perfect. He has his share of shortcomings, more so because Fielding was writing a 'comic' epic, and in any comic writing, the writer deals with ordinary men and women. But Fielding's practice is also in keeping with the serious epic tradition, according to which the hero is good, but not perfect.

Solemn Purpose or Moral View of the Author

      Fielding had a serious purpose behind the writing of his novel. Tom Jones was called an epic also on account of the writer's solemn purpose of instructing the reader. The novel was not to be taken as mere entertainment. It was to be considered as a fit vehicle for propounding serious thought which would influence the readers' behavior and ideas. Tom Jones was to be a means through which the readers would realize the loveliness of virtue and the ugliness of vice, the need to follow virtue and avoid vice in one's own interest, and the need to temper good intentions with intelligence.

Comic Tone Pervades over the Epic Elements throughout the Novel

      The above-mentioned factors are all in true epic tradition. But Fielding was writing a 'comic' epic. As such, we find that the tone of the novel is entirely comic. The tone is established from the very beginning, and is sustained all through the novel. The treatment is light and ironical rather than serious and high-flown. In the process Fielding sometimes makes use of the 'mock-herois' technique which is so typical of the 'comic' epic.

      The discovery of the foundling in Allworthy's bed is suitably comic. Mrs. Wilkins, summoned by her master, sees him in what she considers to be highly indecent dress for a gentleman, and gives a ladylike shriek. It is ironical that Allworthy's great confidence in his own judgment is manifested in the hasty expulsions first of Partridge and then of Tom. It shows his actual lack of insight into human nature. It is all treated in a light tone.

      The battle between Mrs. Partridge and her husband is in true comic vein. She attacks the poor schoolmaster with "tongue, teeth and hands". The ecstatic condition experienced by Captain Blifil at the possibility of Squire Allworthy's death, is graphically and comically described. Ironically enough it is Captain Blifil who dies early. The moving inscription on his tomb made at the instance of his "inconsolable wife" is an ironic culmination of the bitter and acrimonious wedded life enjoyed by Blifil and Bridget. The laughter springs from the true sense of the ridiculous, as Fielding promised us in Joseph Andrews. It is Blifil's vanity in his apparent health and Bridget's hypocrisy which gives rise to the affectation, which, in turn, produces an ironic effect and laughter.

      The comic air prevails during the meeting between Blifil and Sophia in Book VI. Complete and presumably uncomfortable silence reigns for the first quarter of an hour between them. Then Blifil bursts forth into magniloquent verbosity and monosyllabic answers come from Sophia. The encounter between Lord Fellamar and Sophia, later on in the novel, is a parallel to the meeting between Sophia and Blifil. The Fellamar-Sophia encounter is modeled on the tragic-romance rape of the heroine, but we are never allowed to forget that Fielding's intention is comic. There is no place for tragedy in the stereotyped eloquence of Lord Fellainar and the timely arrival of Squire Western on the scene.

      The scene at Upton Inn is in the style of farcical comedy. Indeed, it is the comic climax, one might say. Tom's arrival at the inn in the company of a highly disheveled Mrs. Waters, sparks off a confrontation with the landlady and the landlord. Everybody in the vicinity joins in, and diverse weapons are brought into use—the tongue, the broomstick, the cudgel and the fists. After this battle, the 'amorous' attack begins, with Mrs. Waters employing all her 'artillery' in her attempt to entice Tom into indiscretion. Mrs. Waters gains victory in this battle with a not-too-unwilling foe. In the process, Fitzpatrick enters on the scene, claims Mrs. Waters as his own wife without properly noticing her, and then ensues another battle between Fitzpatrick and Tom. Mrs. Waters shrieks, "Rape! Rape!" in order to escape being termed a whore. Sophia and Mrs. Honour arrive at the inn; and the latter produces plenty of laughter with her pretension of gentility which she lacks. Boisterous scenes follow the arrival of Squire Western.

Comic Tone Prevents Incidents from Becoming too Solemn

      The comic tone and technique prevent any incident or situation from taking on too serious or tragic a coloring. When any of the main characters is in some dangerous situation, a comic turn brings about a happy resolution. When Tom is faced with the mental dilemma of whether to desert Molly in favor of Sophia, the situation is threatening to become a serious problem of moral issues. But everything is quite comically and happily resolved with the discovery of the philosopher Square behind the curtain in Molly's room. The serious problem ends in a farcical manner. A similar situation occurs in connection with Lady Bellaston, Tom and Mrs. Honour. Acrimonious exchanges take place between Lady Bellaston and Honour after which they are reconciled in the most amusing manner. Similarly, when Sophia is on the point of being raped by Lord Fellamar, we have the timely arrival of Squire Western. It is the comic tone of the author that saves the story of the Man of the Hill from becoming too serious and tragic. Fielding brings about the comic sense with Partridge's attitude and constant interruptions.

Comic Touch to Characters

      The characters are various, and on epical terms as far as range is concerned. But they do not have the serious dignity of the serious epic. The comic touch lends liveliness and irony to them. Squire Allworthy's high opinion about his own judgment, as has been mentioned, is ironical. Squire Western is a supremely comic creation. His violent display of temper is as ridiculous as his approbatory outbursts. His violent turns are more amusing than frightening. It is most amusing when he leaves off his chase after his daughter to join a chase after a fox. Apparently, his fox-hunting interests him more than his daughter's welfare. Tom himself is not free of comic touches. His succumbing to Lady Bellaston is treated comically. Fielding remarks in this connection "Gallantry to the ladies was among his principles of honor, and he held it as much incumbent on him to accept a challenge to love as if it had been a challenge to fight. Even the beautiful Sophia is not spared a comic touch. She toys with the idea of making herself a martyr to her father's wishes and marrying Blifil, in the tradition of romance-heroines. But better sense prevails.

Mock-heroic Style

      The mock-heroic technique makes itself apparent especially in the Hattie scenes in Tom Jones. He heads a chapter "A Battle Sung by the Muse in the Heroic Style and which none but the Classical Reader can Taste". It indicates the mock-heroic technique which is to follow. It deals with the jealous attack made by some women on Molly because they resent her fine dress. Nor can one miss the mock-heroic touches in the scenes at Upton Inn. The tears which run down Sophia's cheeks are described as "a shower of tears ran down into her bosom". The description of Sophia is very much in the epic style. We have a sprinkling of Homeric similes. There are invocations to the Muses, sometimes a serious one, as in the case of describing Sophia. Mostly, however, we have a burlesque invocation, as in the scene of the battle between Molly and her enemies in the churchyard. In true comical vein Fielding prays:

      Ye Muses, then, whoever ye are, who love to sing battles, and principally thou who whilom. A didst recount the slaughter in those fields where Hudibras and Trulla fought, if thou went not starved with thy friend Butler, assist me on this great occasion. All things are not in the power of all.

'Discovery' in True Comic-epic Style

      The end of the action is brought about by the 'discovery'. The comic overtone is sustained by the happy ending. Tom, the hero of the novel, rises from a low position to the height of happiness, after having reached the lowest point in his life. The 'discovery' is not made through some sign or outward device. It is Mrs. Waters who, after getting very much involved in the plot, reveals the truth about Tom's birth.

Significance of the Term 'Prose'

      We can understand Fielding's contention that Tom Jones is a comic epic, but why does he insist on appending the term 'prose', when it is apparent. A novel, after all, is written in prose. There is, however, a greater significance in the use of the phrase "comic epic in prose". Poetry, it was generally supposed, was suitable for the expression of elevated thoughts and actions. The use of the term 'prose' firmly indicates the ordinariness of the world as presented in Fielding's work. He was a realist trying his hand at a comic epic. He found prose a better medium of expression in which he could indulge his comic sense.


      Tom Jones is thus a manifestation of Fielding's theory of the "comic epic in prose" — a genre which he claimed to have pioneered. Indeed, one cannot deny that in the "great phrase 'comic epic in prose', Fielding evoked a critical tradition, claimed his authority, asserted right of the new. He adapted the dignity of the epic to the craft of the comedy and assumed moral responsibilities of both, along with the freedom of prose. He did indeed find a "new province of writing".

      The epical structure of Tom Tones has been commented upon by several critics. E. A. Baker calls it "an alteration of epical and dramatic, the narrative complicating itself so as to bring various conflicting interests and rival intrigues to a close encounter and then, by means of a sudden disclosure, unraveling the complication. In common with epic and with the higher comedy, it is distinguished by the rigorous linkage of cause and effect, the agency of causation residing in the characters, in whom the play of motive is clearly exposed." Observing that "an epic unfolds a large scene and space of time", A.R. Humphrey remarks that Fielding's work fills the mind with "a social pattern that goes beyond the personal and becomes as it were the distillation of communal consciousness." K M. W. Tillyard, however, feels that Tom Jones lacks "sustained intensity", does not make the "heroic impression" and thus "fails of the epic effect"'. He considers the novel to be "a comedy in the form of a narrative fiction, reflecting the manners rather than the soul of a generation."


Discuss Fielding's conception of the novel as "a comic epic in prose". How far is this description applicable to Tom Jones?
Write an appreciation of Tom Jones as a "comic epic in prose".
Write a note on Fielding's theory of the novel and apply it to Tom Jones.

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