I’m still working my way through “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.” It is truly an experience of a lifetime.
For a short but interesting synopsis of the story, check out the original movie trailer —
The author, Henry Fielding, provides the reader with one golden nugget of wisdom after another. It’s the wisdom in works of fiction that I most love about reading. Sometimes wisdom is found in the actions of the characters. Sometimes it’s found in dialogue. Sometimes it’s found in the narrative of the author. You can find all versions in “Tom Jones.”
A good example of wisdom in narrative can be found in Book XI, Chapter XI. After having surmised that he and his two traveling companions are lost, Tom Jones brings this possibility up to his guide:
Jones now declared that they must certainly have lost their way; but this the guide insisted upon was impossible; a word which, in common conversation, is often used to signify not only improbable, but often what is really very likely, and, sometimes, what hath certainly happened; an hyperbolical violence like that which is so frequently offered to the words infinite and eternal; by the former of which it is usual to express a distance of half a yard, and by the latter, a duration of five minutes. And thus it is as usual to assert the impossibility of losing what is already actually lost. This was, in fact, the case at present; for, notwithstanding all the confident assertions of the lad to the contrary, it is certain they were no more in the right road to Coventry, than the fraudulent, griping, cruel, canting miser is in the right road to heaven.
Here’s some narrative in Book VI, Chapter III, on wisdom itself:
True wisdom then, notwithstanding all which Mr Hogarth’s poor poet may have writ against riches, and in spite of all which any rich well-fed divine may have preached against pleasure, consists not in the contempt of either of these. A man may have as much wisdom in the possession of an affluent fortune, as any beggar in the streets; or may enjoy a handsome wife or a hearty friend, and still remain as wise as any sour popish recluse, who buries all his social faculties, and starves his belly while he well lashes his back.
To say truth, the wisest man is the likeliest to possess all worldly blessings in an eminent degree; for as that moderation which wisdom prescribes is the surest way to useful wealth, so can it alone qualify us to taste many pleasures. The wise man gratifies every appetite and every passion, while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one.
It may be objected, that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, Not wise in that instance. It may likewise be said, That the wisest men have been in their youth immoderately fond of pleasure. I answer, They were not wise then.
Wisdom, in short, whose lessons have been represented as so hard to learn by those who never were at her school, only teaches us to extend a simple maxim universally known and followed even in the lowest life, a little farther than that life carries it. And this is, not to buy at too dear a price.
Fielding’s wisdom knows no bounds. Consider this section on the art of ass kissing, expanded from the threat of violence upon Tom Jones by Mr Western:
“I wull have satisfaction o’ thee,” answered the squire; “so doff thy clothes. At unt half a man, and I’ll lick thee as well as wast ever licked in thy life.” He then bespattered the youth with abundance of that language which passes between country gentlemen who embrace opposite sides of the question; with frequent applications to him to salute that part which is generally introduced into all controversies that arise among the lower orders of the English gentry at horse-races, cock-matches, and other public places. Allusions to this part are likewise often made for the sake of the jest. And here, I believe, the wit is generally misunderstood. In reality, it lies in desiring another to kiss your a— for having just before threatened to kick his; for I have observed very accurately, that no one ever desires you to kick that which belongs to himself, nor offers to kiss this part in another.
It may likewise seem surprizing that in the many thousand kind invitations of this sort, which every one who hath conversed with country gentlemen must have heard, no one, I believe, hath ever seen a single instance where the desire hath been complied with;—a great instance of their want of politeness; for in town nothing can be more common than for the finest gentlemen to perform this ceremony every day to their superiors, without having that favour once requested of them.
It is taking me a good long while to make my way through this book. That’s OK though. I’m in no hurry, especially when a hurried reading might cause me to skim over good stuff like the quotes above. Sometimes it’s not so much what’s going on in the action that makes a book really unforgettable, it’s what’s going on in the mind of the writer.
I’ve made it to page 588, Book XII, Chapter XIII. Tom is in hot pursuit of Sophia. Sophia is in London, having just arrived with a female cousin who is on the run from an abusive husband. Sophia was on the run from her father and aunt who had conspired to get her married off to a man Sophia could not stand. I can’t imagine how Tom will find Sophia, hidden as she is in the big city. I also can’t imagine how many more women Tom will meddle with before he finds her. I will have fun finding out.