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Reading at arm's length: Fielding's contract with the reader in 'Tom Jones.' (novel by English writer Henry Fielding)(Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something Like It, 1684-1762)

Academic readers of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) have sensed in what John Richetti calls "its sustaining network of ironies" the hand of a self-assured author, directing readers through hermeneutic cruxes to an appreciation of the author's skill.(1) Readers are cast as vulnerable, challenged by a tricky text making strenuous hermeneutic demands. Such criticism attributes to Fielding a regime that restricts linear momentum. As Eric Rothstein observes: "What is one to say, about the freedom of the reader in a book that trains us to employ certain modes of reading-- irony, analogy--which are designed to lead us into error as well as knowledge?"(2) Other critics argue that Fielding sought to qualify readers, conferring pleasure with pain, and (as a type of benevolent patron) inculcating lessons on the nature of truth and discernment.(3)

A logical inference from this purported dialectic between writerly challenge and readerly "work" is that Fielding intended Tom Jones to be read more than once: on second and third readings "mystification [is turned] into a new source of both dramatic and verbal irony, at the expense of the characters and at our own expense in so far as we have been victims of deceptions on the first reading."(4) But did Fielding contemplate readers with such few, rarefied pleasures, that he could require such dedication? No. The inclination of modern criticism to establish a demanding text in the case of Tom Jones, has generated a fugue of arguments (centered on the effects of irony) that themselves fall into irony, eliding the historical reception of novels where readers felt entitled to make demands: Fielding's "new Province of Writing" (his new approach to the novel) would have had to respond to such demands.(5) The response would entail what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the "specific `impulse to continue' (what will happen next?) and the `impulse to end' (how will it end?) ... characteristic only of the novel."(6) In other words, Tom Jones, a novel--a self-conscious novel--had to provide a "good read," a rivetting experience.

In this article, I argue that far from taking readers for granted- positing willing, painstaking analysis, in repeated encounters--Tom Jones casts its "newness" into a test of whether it will be read at all. Will it, that is, satisfy "impulses" associated with the genre? In this most foundational novel, Fielding defines a program to retain novel-readers, making them an offer that it is hard for them to refuse. He acknowledges that novel-reading is gratuitous and that commitment to a text is provisional. While (sometimes) puffing "the narrator's control and unshakable confidence,"(7) he tempers writerly authority to readers' desires for gripping narrative. Contemporary response to Torn Jones evinces a consensus about such desires, demonstrating that Fielding accurately imagine (and attended to) readers he sought to engage.

In developing this argument, I do not dismiss critical readings depicting a master author. However, I do assert that anterior to such readings, we must respond to Tom Jones as a landmark text, which acknowledges the novel as a private (hence volitional) experience, "receptive to new forms of mute perception,"(8) unable to monopolize readers as did its oral/auditory counterparts (notably, theater). As J. Paul Hunter has shown, eighteenth-century critics recognized that novels did not entail the theater' s "power of communal response."(9) In Tom Jones, Fielding's rhetoric (for example, modulating the stage of the world into a stage-coach, as in book 2, chapter 1) "is part of his larger rhetoric of communality," where in one way after another he pretends that his `rational' approach to consensus socializes a mode that, he is all too aware, is ultimately a lonely and subjective one?(10) Fielding, as Hunter points out, "understood as well as anyone in the 1740s that writing for readers involved greeting them in the privacy of their closets where they were responsible only to themselves for their responses to a world of print."(11) It follows that lack of reciprocal, communal reinforcement allowed novel readers to indulge an idiosyncratic ethic of reading, unconstrained by material conditions of oral/aural performances where "an audience sharing laughter and pathos .... help[ed] to create a communal response by, in effect, responding to each other."(12) In his "closet," a reader could exercise radical freedom, a possessive individualism as to the task of reading: as Hunter observes, reading is "first of all a moment of intention about the investing of time and energy."(13) If he chose to keep reading, he could read something else; it was a reader's market.

Hunter suggests that Fielding attempts to "minimize the reality of a solitary reception of cold hard print" through rhetoric simulating sociality, noting elsewhere that "the illusion of convivial companionship" (the narrator's "teasing, hassling, wheedling") is intended to "create an illusion of intimacy between narrator and reader" (a return to orality, a rendition "by a human voice to a human ear"),(14) But I would complicate this view of Fielding's address to the reader, valencing "intimacy" with the narrator's affinity to an arm's-length dealing more reliable and predictable--more rational. In Tom Jones, Fielding proposes conditions (a literal contract with the reader) concerning mutual fidelity, continually orienting him towards narrative performances that confirm authorial fulfillment of such conditions (and hence justify the reader's perseverence). I shall discuss the premises of this "contract," the contract's ramifications in textual practice, and critical response that registered Fielding's success. I shall argue that Tom Jones is an anxious text, concerned to theorize (and moderate) the reader's perversity in a regime of "mute perception." Its strategies, obtrusive but percipient, accept "the reality ... of cold hard print," the risks of authoring novels, the futility of trying to reconstitute in print the comforts of oral/aural communality. Yet the text does not lack self-congratulation; it is aware that in anticipating the reader's desire for experience superior to any distraction, it probably satisfies that desire.

In the first prefatory chapter of Tom Jones, the narrator claims that he has "adhered closely to one of the highest Principles of the best Cook," and that "by these Means, we doubt not but our Reader may be rendered to read on for ever, as the great Person... is supposed to have made some Persons eat" (bk. 1, ch. 1, pp. 33-34). Before the narrative even begins, readerly tenacity is at issue. Though the narrator "doubt[s] not" that the reader will "read on for ever" (entropy or surfeit notwithstanding), he carefully encourages him, catering to a literary appetite that he is prepared continually to whet. Such prudence, thematically central to the narrative,(15) characterizes the narrator himself, adumbrating an authorial self-confidence less autonomous than it is contingent on attentiveness to the reader.

Solicitation of the reader is central to the next prefatory chapter, where again it is associated with a seeming declaration of autonomy:

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 as my Subjects, are bound to believe in and

to obey; with which that they may readily and chearfully comply, I do

hereby assure them that I shall principally regard their Ease and Advantage

in all such Institutions: For I do not, like a jure divino Tyrant,

imagine that they are my Slaves or my Commodity. I am, indeed, set

over them for their own Good only, and was created for their Use, and

not they for mine. Nor do I doubt, while I make their Interest the great

Rule of my Writings, they will unanimously concur in supporting my

Dignity, and in rendering me all the Honour I deserve or desire.

(Pp. 77-78)

Tom Jones is a little polity. Its narrator, its magistrate-in-chief, serves in a post-Revolutionary order wherein authority is constituted in the king by virtue of popular choice or covenant. It is a commonplace that by the early eighteenth century, "Whig, Lockean, and contractualist thought was dominant."(16) Fielding (through his alter ego, the narrator), enters into a contract with the reader analagous to such "Whig, Lockean, contractualist thought." He abjures the status of "jure divino Tyrant," avowing that he is "created for their [the readers'] Use." His laws are for their "Ease and Advantage." The declaration models a type of Revolution Settlement: Fielding is in place while a parliament of readers (albeit unassembled) is the repository of power.(17)

Now how does this play out as narrative strategy, that is, with respect to the politics of reading? The narrator states that so long as he makes the reader's "Interest" his "great Rule," readers will accord him a full measure of Dignity and Honour, presumably admiring and hence reading the text. The narrator's appeal for "Honour" and "Dignity" is in a sense ironic, acknowledging in overblown prose his contingent status. The narrator must appeal to the reader (make a request/sustain his interest), and so must offer a contract rather than issue a demand. The contract underlying Tom Jones stipulates that in order to merit the reader's deference--his attention--the text must continually serve the reader's interest: it must remain interesting.(18) The author's sustained performance is crucial (history shows that kings can be dispatched). His submission to readerly "Interest" is a serious undertaking, premised on management of text to everyone's material advantage. At one level, it invokes the notion of return on investment- -in this case, of time--measured in edification.(19) More broadly, it appeals to the reader's sense that the status of "reader" constitutes an entitlement, enabling him actively to pursue gain. As A. O. Hirschman has shown, during the Enlightenment, "`Interests' of persons and groups eventually came to be centered on economic advantage as its core meaning, not only in ordinary language but also in such social-science terms as `class interests' and `interest groups.'"(20) "Interest" reflects a fractured communality; it parallels the setting of the novel. In the contract between Fielding and the reader, "Interest" consolidates cognition (that is, reading) with notions analagous to financial gain, suggesting as well a politics of relative freedom. The idea that Tom Jones is a "public Ordinary," where "all Persons are welcome for their Money" to "censure," "abuse," and "d-n their Dinner" (p. 31), becomes more complex: the text models a politico-economic unit, managed to provide tangible advantage in excess of the right to carp. Indeed, as Johnson's Dictionary shows, by the mid-eighteenth century "interest" meant a "share, part in anything, participation." Fielding invokes this model, suggesting that in the polity of the text the reader is enfranchised, in its economy he is a stockholder.(21) He expects benefits.

In an uncanny way, the narratalogical/financial/political homology exploited by Fielding resonates with modern theories of narrative contract. It acknowledges that the reader's desires are legitimate demands, which if left unsatisfied will abort the reading experience. As Ross Chambers observes, author and reader (manifest unequals) must be repositioned into a parity that facilitates discourse:

Narrative... depends on social agreements, implicit pacts or contracts

in order to produce exchanges that themselves are a function of desires,

purposes, constraints .... It is only on the strength of such agreements

[contracts] that narratives can exert their impact and produce change

.... No act of narration occurs without at least an implicit contract, that

is, an understanding between narrator and narratee, an illocutionary

situation that makes the act meaningful and gives it what we call a


Without "contract," that is, some mutual understanding between author and reader calibrating "desires, purposes, constraints," there is no narration, no extended discourse embodying (and executing) a rationale. Contract supports narration as it does consumption, drawing parties together towards an intelligible, beneficial "point." It guarantees that there will be a story so long as it remains in force. The logic, virtually parallel to Fielding's, throws light on the position of the novelist who, Chambers asserts, lacks power relative to the reader. "Contract" facilitates "seduction": "narration as seduction," he asserts, draws authority from "a situation from which power is absent"; "the narrator ... is situationally condemned to operate without preexistent authority," and must "earn the authority to narrate in the very act of storytelling." In bootstrapping himself into this capacity, the author has to "master certain `tactical' devices"--contract, that is.(23)

Narrative theory premised on appeal to readerly desire, on the need to "earn" a privilege to narrate, is Fieldingesque. For Chambers, as for Fielding, "seduction" acknowledges the need (indeed requirement) to please: "Narrative conforms to the (projected) desires of the other in order to bring about its own desire to narrate, [and] is constitutive of the narrative situation as such .... There can be no narrative without the authority to narrate, and no authority without the authorization of another, whose desire must consequently be inscribed, however spectrally, in the narrative discourse itself."(24) I am arguing that Fielding's invocation of readerly "Interest" (in modern terms, "desire") is modern, projecting the novel into a politics of reading where communality yields to individualism, solidarity to the solitary. Chambers distinguishes the "traditional storyteller" from the novelist, citing a "shift from the function of transmitting information ... to an operation ... best described, albeit vaguely, as the arousing of `interest'" (11). Fielding recognized this first, literalizing (because they are "new"!) the terms of a relation that to a modern theorist can be accepted as implicit and more or less "vague."

How then does Tom Jones capture our interest? Chambers cites a formula: "secrecy--the claim to be in possession of a secret, together with an implied willingness to divulge it--forms the paradigm of all such tactics of narrative authority."(25) The "secret," of course, is the complex plot, with its multiple potential outcomes. The narrator continually teases us, suggesting the plausibility of opposite results: "Those Readers who are of the same Complexion with [Tom] will perhaps think this short Chapter contains abundance of Matter; while others may probably wish, short as it is, that it had been totally spared as impertinent to the main Design, which I suppose they conclude is to bring Mr. Jones to the Gallows, or if possible, to a more deplorable Catastrophe" (p. 816). The narrator, who has just displayed affection for Tom, suggests that if we cannot identify with Tom we probably want the plot to move on towards his hanging. This put-down of the ungenerous reader implies that what seems like a sure bet (Tom is, after all, an apparent felon) may itself still hang in the balance. In his exposition of Bakhtin, Gary Morson describes this type of narratalogical/epistemological phenomenon:

Bakhtin refers to the information unavailable to a character as the

author's "essential surplus" of knowledge. Readers are aware that

authors can know things about their characters that characters cannot

know about themselves or each other. Most obviously, the author can

know what will happen to a character ....

Readers participate in the author's essential surplus. Even on a first

reading, when they do not know what will happen to a character, readers

are at least aware that the author (or an earlier reader) knows; though

readers do not know the character's fate, they know that it is already


Fielding plays with this idea: he knows and we don't. Instead of just allowing us to remain vaguely conscious of our deficiency (wondering, in Bakhtin's words, "how will it end?"), we are forced to confront contingency as part of "the main Design." We are assured of contingency. The author wants to keep us guessing and we realize that we have to. It entices us to "read on for ever."

Indeed, the narrator insists that secrecy is a function of creativity, less a prerogative of the artificer than a rule he must follow. Addressing the allegation that Partridge fathered Tom, he opines:

Whether he was innocent or not, will perhaps appear hereafter; but if the

Historic-Muse hath entrusted me with any Secrets, I will by no means

be guilty of discovering them till she shall give me leave.

Here therefore, the Reader must suspend his Curiosity. Certain it is;

that whatever was the Truth of the Case, there was Evidence more than

sufficient to convict him before Allworthy... and yet, notwithstanding

the positiveness of Mrs. Partridge... there is a possibility that the

Schoolmaster was entirely innocent. (Pp. 101-02)

The secret is so recessive (so fraught with the whimsy of an "Historic- Muse"), that we are led to believe that the "essential surplus" is contingent: as the text is inscribed, the author may not have made up his mind as to Partridge (which is fair enough), but may also not even know whether such a determination will become part of the text (the matter "will perhaps appear"). Such caprice exceeds narrative convention. The reader is asked to "suspend his Curiosity" about an event (the disclosure) that may be a non-event. As Morson points out: "Novels depend on an implicit convention according to which what is still unknown will be treated as equivalent to what is still undetermined. Up to a point, the convention is effective, but we nevertheless are aware that it is a convention. Ignorance is not the same thing as indeterminacy."(27) That is, we know that we will know because stories have a point. By flouting this convention,(28) Fielding draws attention to it--we would otherwise just wait to find out. Now, however, our "Curiosity" is deepened. We see that this author may lead us down blind alleys. What else in the text may be a dead end? Can what seem like rational assumptions not be? The field of possibilities around every narrative unit widens, with the result that we have to "read on for ever" in the perverse pursuit of rational design where we believe one should be. We will not allow ourselves to be defeated by this text.(29)

Moreover, we are goaded to read by the suggestion that Partridge may or may not be guilty (by a suggestion that, in effect, there is an "essential surplus"--just wait, you'll see!). It makes sense, doesn't it, that a narrator would not raise extraneous possibilities? The implications are maddeningly circular, but rather than be played with (readers have egos), we play along. Fielding draws us into the fiction-making process, forcing us to reflect on how we are manipulated. We read ourselves reading, conscious of the artifice and "interested" in it. In an operation finally "outed" in Tristram Shandy, Fielding defines the novel as blatantly artificial (a generation earlier, Defoe pretended otherwise, notwithstanding its conformity to nature).(30) He coaxes the reader to "interest" himself not only in the story, but in the epistemology of its unraveling. Our "interest" comes to include formal appeal: we get hooked on the way the author hooks us, and even more so on his audacity in acknowledging his designs.

Fielding's audacity in stoking his readers' interest not only induces a type of a negative capability, the willing acceptance of conflicting plausible outcomes, but also works in the opposite direction, promising scripted determinism (if we'll just keep reading):

Mrs. Deborah had made a Discovery, which in its Event threatned at

least to prove more fatal to poor Tommy, than all the Reasonings of the

Captain ....

Now as this was a Discovery of great Consequence, it may be

necessary to trace it from the Fountain-head. We shall therefore very

minutely lay open those previous Matters by which it was produced; and

for that Purpose, we shall be obliged to reveal all the Secrets of a little

Family, with which my Reader is at present entirely unacquainted; and

of which the Oeconomy was so rare and extraordinary, that I fear it will

shock the utmost Credulity of many married Persons. (P. 81)

Who would put Tom Jones aside at this interval for bound copies of Addison and Steele? Fielding could as easily "reveal all the Secrets" in the course of things, but in telling us that he will, we know they are there, that the story will become more complex and ... well, shocking. He appeals directly to our desire to be rivetted. In our excitement to find out what there is to find out, we calm down: this author knows what we want. This dual state--excitement and reassurance--constitutes the "interest" propelling us to read. The text flaunts advertisements for itself, but rather than object we are heartened.

Indeed, the narrator frequently tells readers what they will learn in the next chapter, and chapter headings appeal to our interest as well: "Containing Matters which will surprize the Reader" (bk. 1, ch. 9), "Containing much Matter to exercise the Judgment and Reflection of the Reader" (bk. 2, ch. 5), "The narrow Escape of Molly Seagrim, with some Observations for which we have been forced to dive pretty deep into Nature" (bk. 4, ch. 11), "A most dreadful Chapter indeed; and which few Readers ought to venture upon in an Evening, especially when alone" (bk. 6, ch. 14), to cite a few.

If such devices seem gratuitous, they did not to contemporary readers. In An Essay on the New Species of Writing Founded by Mr. Fielding (1751), Francis Coventry notes that the "Titles to his Chapters" are themselves an art form: "Mr Fielding thought proper ... to shew the reader he would not permit the least Occasion to slip by which offer'd an Opportunity of amusing him" (p. 21). Moreover, he commends their instrumental value: "These little Scraps, if rightly manag'd, conduce more to his [the reader's] Entertainment than he is at first aware of. 'Tis quite opposite to the Custom of the very best Writers in this Way, to give too full an Account of the Contents: it should be just hinted to the Reader something extraordinary is to happen in the seven or eight subsequent Pages, but what that is should be left for them to discover." Coventry cites Fielding's "judicious Method of detaining the Reader in agreeable Suspence," affirming that "No Writer has so strictly kept up to this as Mr. Fielding, in his Tom Jones" (pp. 22-23). The analysis, thrust towards the production of "agreeable Suspence," confirms that Fielding understood readers' desires, their willingness to accept obvious, but "agreeable" manipulation. Coventry accommodates the conventions of fiction ("the Custom of the very best Writers"), and is happy if authors revise them towards promoting "suspence." To him, the chapter titles represent little markers, attesting to the author's compliance with a contract by which he must continue to serve ("would not let the least Occasion to slip by") the reader's "Interest."

Coventry's comfort around artifice is precisely the state Fielding would induce in all his readers: "We warn thee not too hastily to condemn any of the Incidents in this our History, as impertinent and foreign to our main Design, because thou dost not immediately conceive in what Manner such incident may conduce to that Design." He would have us read the whole text, to appreciate it as "Design." Toward this end, he tries to keep up our interest, but if it flags he wants us to keep reading anyway until, in a sort of nirvana, our interest reawakens in apprehension of the whole: "to presume to find Fault with any of its Parts, without knowing the Manner in which the Whole is connected ... is a most presumptuous absurdity" (p. 525).

Fielding was no doubt conscious of readers' desires to be energized by narrative, even as they sought an "agreeable Suspence." Such desire is reflected in The Candid Reader (1744), where Philip Skelton ("Mundanus") argues that Shaftesbury and Johnson

breathe the same free Spirit of Thinking. Both surprize us after the same

Manner, and by the same Facultie of digressing suddenly, and hurrying

the Reader in a Moment from the Sight of the first Subject, in Pursuit of

a new one, which escapes and leaves him on the Scent of a third, and so

on, till a thousand, one after another, are started and quitted in the same

Page. They both pursue their Themes with infinite Eagerness. (P. 48)

While The Candid Reader is broadly ironic, it acknowledges the compelling effects of suspense even as it mocks authors who travesty those effects. Alone with a text, the reader wants to be drawn out of himself towards a kind of hunt, engaging the senses in eager (if wholly imaginary) "Pursuit." John and Laetitia Aikin evoke the same need for a breathless chase:

The pain of suspense, and the irresistible desire of satisfying curiosity,

when once raised, will account for our eagerness to go quite through an

adventure, though we suffer actual pain during the whole course of it.

We rather cruse to suffer the smart pang of a violent emotion than the

uneasy craving of an unsatisfied desire.(31)

In this vein, the author of An Essay noted that while lethargic pacing may be excused in a play, it cannot be in a long book: "In Dramatic Pieces, where the Story must be stretch'd into Five Acts, there is some excuse for this Inaction, and Want of Incidents, but in these Performances, where the Length of the Work is left entirely to the Discretion of the Writer, little can be alledg'd in his Defence." Judged against this standard, he finds Tom Jones "perhaps ... the most lively Book ever publish'd" (pp. 43-44).(32)

With few exceptions, contemporary readers concurred: while some disapproved of Tom Jones's morals, they were propelled by the plot.(33) In "An Essay on the Life and Genius of Henry Fielding, Esq.," published in the 1762 edition of Fielding's Works, Arthur Murray opined that "no fable whatever affords, in its solution, such artful states of suspense, such beautiful turns of surprise, such unexpected incidents, and such sudden discoveries." He compared the text to "a river, which in its progress, foams amongst fragments of rocks," "seems pent up by unsurmountable opposition," "angrily dashes," "plunges."(34) The terms resonate with those of The Candid Reader. An unsigned essay in the London Magazine, published just after Tom Jones, provides a minute summary of the plot, while avowing (with no apology for spoiling the fun) that "through the whole, the reader's attention is always kept awake by some new surprizing accident, and his curiosity upon the stretch, to discover the effects of that accident; so that after one has begun to read, it is difficult to leave off before having read the whole."(35) Such was the general tone of criticism. A letter from Astrea and Minerva Hill to Samuel Richardson (27 July 1749) declared: "The whole Piece consists of an inventive race of Disappointments and Recoveries. It excites Curiosity, and holds it watchful."(36) Readers experience a "race" of events, propelling them to race, "excite[d]," through the text. A review from the Magazine of Magazines finds that the text "endeavour[s] to excite your curiosity, to stay your attention."(37)

The most learned eighteenth-century address to Torn Jones was in James Beattie's Dissertations Moral and Critical (1783). In the essay "On Fable and Romance," Beattie defines the "species of the New Comick Romance," "brought to perfection in England by Henry Fielding" (p. 571). Citing Tom Jones in particular, he notes that "even while [the `circumstances'] seem to retard, the catastrophe ... the curiosity of the reader is kept awake, and, instead of flagging, grows more and more impatient as the story advances, till at last it becomes downright anxiety" (p. 573). The Scots professor of moral philosophy was no different from anybody else: he liked a good read on the edge of his seat. He manifests readerly desire, and like a generation of readers, concludes that Fielding held his interest.

The similarity of these reviews suggests a mid-century consensus that novels should be irresistible. The events, like a river, should flow seamlessly into each other, leaving no logical place to stop. Beattie marvelled that in Tom Jones the circumstances "rise so easily from one another" (573). Fielding obviously played to this desire, but more importantly, he foregrounded his initiative. The narrator's fondness for bustling about the text, crafting chapter headings, reassured the reader that the plot would not let up until the end. It is symptomatic of Torn Jones's novelistic "newness" that Fielding felt compelled to display his hand so prominently, even admonishing readers that the text would require their full attention.(38) At the same time, however, the display--openly manipulating convention--works to define the novel as fluid, irreverent towards its own conventions. As Bakhtin observed, "characteristic for [the novel] is an eternal re-thinking and re-evaluating.(39)

Fielding's contract with the reader does not promise delivery of goods according to a specific formula. As readers acknowledged, it was precisely the unknown that they craved--the state of unknowing, defined by secrets that winked at them through loopholes in the next, but remained just beyond apprehension. Such "Pursuit" was exciting, anxiety-provoking in the manner of Burkean sublime,(40) As I have suggested, Fielding was anxious as well. When the narrator avers that he knows more than his readers, the boast is double-edged, tending to provoke "interest." If reading novels was a gratuitous act, Fielding could expect no reader to forego caprice. As he avowed in "An Essay on the Knowledge of the Characters of Men": "It is impossible that any Man endowed with rational Faculties, and being in a State of Freedom, should willingly agree ... to sacrifice his own Interest to that of another; it becomes necessary to... persuade him, that his own Good is designed, and that he will be a Gainer."(41) The last book, which offers to "make up" with the reader "any Bickerings or little Animosities" (p. 913), suggests that no more pokes at us are required. We are virtually at the end; the narrator's expansiveness is self-congratulation. But it was "bickering" with the reader that has, in part, brought us to this point. Had Fielding contemplated academic readers, he would have caricatured their prescription to read for the multiple galloping ironies that emerge upon multiple exposures. He hoped to prod us through the text even once. I know. I just read it three times.


I would like to thank Keith Booker, Murray Brown, Peter Herman, John Locke, and Simon Stern for commenting on this article.

(1) See Richetti, "The Old Order and the New Novel of the Mid- Eighteenth Century: Narrative Authority in Fielding and Smollett," Eighteenth- Century Fiction 2 (1990): 18396, 189. On the effects of irony in the reader, see for example Eric Rothstein, "Virtues of Authority in Tom Jones," The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 28 (1987): 99-126; John Preston, The Created Self: The Reader's Role in Eighteenth-Century Fiction (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1970), especially ch. 5; and Leona Toker, Eloquent Reticence: Withholding Information in Fictional Narrative (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1993), ch. 6.

(2) Rothstein, pp. 109-10.

(3) See, for example, Lothar Cerny, "Reader Participation in Fielding's Tom Jones," Connotations 2 (1992): 137-62.

(4) Toker, p. 119; see also Preston, p. 98. For a theorization of re- reading, see Toker's introduction, e.g., "the effect of unpredictability yields to that of irony: if on a first reading a unit arouses expectations that are frustrated, on a rereading this unit tends to be perceived as ironic" (p. 9).

(5) See Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, ed. Martin Battestin and Fredson Bowers (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1975), p. 77. As I shall demonstrate, such bravado modulates as what Fielding calls the "Laws" of the text are literally "enacted," responding to readerly interests. On Fielding's asserted "newness," see Jill Campbell, "Fielding and the Novel at Mid-Century," in John Richetti, ed., The Columbia History of the British Novel (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994), 102-26.

(6) Bakhtin, "Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel," in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), p. 32.

(7) Rothstein, p. 99.

(8) Bakhtin, p. 3.

(9) See Hunter, "The World as Stage and Closet," in Shirley Strum Kenney, ed., British Theater and Other Arts, 1660-1800 (Washington: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1984), pp. 271-87, esp. 278.

(10) Hunter observes that reading novels "intensifies and extends the experience [of loneliness] because of the magnitude of novels" (p. 456). He suggests that "from the beginning, novelists kicked against the solitary nature of their form, trying to outwit it, subvert it, or disguise its implications" (p. 471); "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader," Genre 10 (1977): 455-84.

(11) Hunter, "The World as Stage and Closet," p. 280. "Sophia was in her Chamber reading" when her aunt proposed the match with Blifil (p. 286). Battestin identifies the text as probably The Adventures of David Simple (1744) by Fielding's sister, Sarah (p. 286, n. 1). In the room next to Mrs. Waters' at the inn, a "young Fellow lay in Bed reading one of Mrs. Behn's Novels" (p. 530).

(12) "The World as Stage and Closet," p. 285. When Tom and Partridge attend a performance of Hamlet, Partridge's inane remarks "caused much laughter in the Neighborhood" of his seat (p. 853). Unlike a solitary scene, the theater allows Tom, Partridge, and Mrs. Miller to converse. On the transition from oral- to print-dominance during the eighteenth-century, see Alvin Kernan, Printing Technology, Letters, and Samuel Johnson (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), 48-51; and Barbara Stafford, Artful Science: Enlightenment Entertainment and the Eclipse of Visual Education (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), p. 1.

(13) Hunter, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader," p. 456.

(14) Hunter, "The World as Stage and Closet," p. 284; Hunter, "The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader," pp. 272-73.

(15) Battestin discusses prudence in Tom Jones in a note to p. 36, and, in more detail, in The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts, 2d ed. (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1989), pp. 166-79.

(16) See, e.g., Manuel Schonhorn, Defoe's Politics: Parliament, Power, Kingship, and "Robinson Crusoe" (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1991), p. 154.

(17) Colin Nicholson, Writing and the Rise of Finance: Capital Satires of the Early Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994). For Locke's influence on imaginative literature, see p. 20.

(18) In Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that "the modern meaning" of "interest"--having qualities that rouse curiosity, rather than merely establish importance--originated in 1768 (see the "Interlude: the Problem of the Interesting," p. 114). The case of Tom Jones, however, seems to challenge that assertion, at least insofar as it complicates the notion of "interest."

(19) The narrator's commitment reflects prevailing notions of government's responsibility to promote credit, trade, and investment. See P. G. M. Dickson, The Financial Revolution in England: A Study of Public Credit 1688-1756 (London: Macmillan, 1967).

(20) Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977), p. 32.

(21) Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755). This is the third definition of the term; the other five tend towards the specifically financial or more generally advantageous.

(22) Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 4, 9. On narrative contracts, see also Jonathan Culler, Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics, and the Study of Literature (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1975). For a discussion of such contracts with the reader in an eighteenth-century context, see Nicholson, chapter 2.

(23) Chambers, p. 214.

(24) Chambers, p. 218.

(25) Chambers, p. 214; the idea is also applied by Patricia Meyer Spacks in Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century Novels (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 42.

(26) Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1994), p. 44. Bakhtin discusses the "essential surplus" in Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, ed. and trans, by Caryl Emerson (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1984).

(27) Morson, p. 175. On suspense in Tom Jones, see Toker, ch. 6, developing theories advanced in John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

(28) Though one might argue that any "implicit convention" was still under construction in novels of the 1740s, Chambers's argument pertains to novel-like texts as opposed to epics, where the story is already known. In this case, the "convention" is clearly the basis of Defoe's narratives, as well as Richardson's.

(29) Arguably, the text's "fuzzy logic" is a gambit, a dare in the face of the reader (who will not, of course, admit to being intimidated). Compare the narrator's tactic after discoursing on love: readers who cannot "believe these Matters," have "already read more than you have understood; and it would be wiser to pursue your Business... than to throw away any more of your Time in reading what you can neither taste nor comprehend" (p. 271). Who would admit to lacking a heart?

(30) The narrator claims to be "admitted behind the Scenes of this great Theatre of Nature" (p. 327). His excussus on conformity to Nature and the laws of probability, especially in the delineation character, occurs in book 8, ch. 1, which states "it becomes us to keep within the Limits not only of Possibility, but of Probability too" (p. 402). See Paul Korshin, "Probability and Character in the Eighteenth Century," in Probability, Time, and Space in Eighteenth-Century Literature, ed. Paula Backscheider (New York: AMS, 1979), pp. 63-77.

(31) John and Anna Laetitia Aikin, Miscellaneous Pieces, in Prose (London, 1773), p. 123, cited in Spacks, p. 48. Cf. Critical Remarks on Sir Charles Grandison, Clarissa, and Pamela (London, 1754), where "A Lover of Virtue" argues that when Grandison was "appearing by piece-meal," it was "a very injudicious step, for who could be supposed to attend to any thing else, when lovely Harriet Byron continued in suspence, when the fate of Lady Clementina was undetermined" (p. 6).

(32) Paula Backscheider cites "the influence" of Tom Jones on the next generation of novels, noting that Frances Brooke's The Excursion (1777) "uses the same kind of suspenseful delayed gratification strategies"; see her introduction to The Excursion (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1997), p. xxviii.

(33) The most notable exception to the chorus of praise was An Examen of the History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (London, 1750), by one "Orbilius," which Battestin calls "one of the genuine monuments of ultracrepidarian criticism" (Tom Jones, p. lvi). Yet even this blast issued from within the discourse of readerly desire. Complaining of business in book 12, ch. 6, it declares that the scene intended "to stay the Appetite of the desiring Reader, till it can be gratified by more pertinent Stories concerning the chief Characters in this History" (p. 83). The critique aimed at means, not ends.

(34) Rpt. in Claude Rawson, ed., Henry Fielding: A Critical Anthology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973), p. 166.

(35) "Plan of a late celebrated Novel," The London Magazine, February 1748-49, xviii, 51-55, in Ronald Paulson and Thomas Lockwood, eds., Henry Fielding: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), p. 148.

(36) See Paulson and Lockwood, eds., p. 172.

(37) Review, April 1751, in Paulson and Lockwood, eds., p. 270.

(38) See p. 614.

(39) "Epic and Novel," p. 31.

(40) Burke's On the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) was published only eight years after Tom Jones. In context, readers' appreciation of "anxiety" amounting almost to terror, frequently as if affected by landscape, might evince an "episteme"--a "certain structure of thought that the men of a particular period cannot escape"--in which literary and natural texts are judged by a common standard. See Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York: Pantheon, 1972), p. 19. Foucault later undercut the concept, though here it remains suggestive.

(41) Rpt. in Henry Knight Miller, ed., Miscellanies by Henry Fielding, Vol. I [1743] (Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1972), p. 155.
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Author:Sherman, Sandra
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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