Tom Jones

No, I am not talking about Sir Thomas John Woodward. I’m talking about the Tom Jones, the protagonist of the novel bearing his name: “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling,” written by Henry Fielding. The one whose name Sir Thomas John Woodward hijacked.

I picked up the paperback at a local bookstore a couple of months ago. It is a fat thing, with 871 pages of the novel itself and an assortment of other pages containing an introduction by an expert of some sort and a substantial section called “Explanatory Notes” at the back. I paid a pittance for it at Mitchell’s Books near the end of their “going out of business” sale.

I’ve never read the book before. I guess I never was in quite the right frame of mind to tackle such a project. The book was published in 1749, so reading it will involve some open-mindedness on my part in regard to the language and sentence structure. I’ve read other fat books during my reading career, including Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. That story was broken into three pieces, but it is really one long novel.

Anyone who has read “Ulysses” could probably wade through just about any sort of printed material, regardless of length or language. That book is the ultimate English language reading challenge, not because it contains a total of 265,000 words (about average for a novel), but because it contains 30,030 unique words, many of which are rarely used and abstruse to most readers. You must train for weeks to read the thing, and then be pleased with yourself if you do not slip into a catatonic stupor while trying to figure out whose thoughts you’re reading and what on earth they’re trying to think. Most of the text consists of random, stream-of-consciousness stuff that requires hard work to digest.

I started reading Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” after buying a three volume set years ago, but I did not have the stamina then and I’m not sure I’ll ever have it. That book has 1.5 million words. That’s a lot of remembered past. It’s a wonder I even remember trying to read it in the past. Maybe I’ll get back to it again one of these days when I have several weeks at a stretch with nothing better to do.

But I digress. Back to Mr. Jones.

I have only begun the task of reading “Tom Jones.” I’m not sure how long it will take. I have three or four other books lying about that I’ve started and probably should consider finishing before Tom becomes an acquaintance of mine, but I probably will not. The other books are interesting and thought provoking, but I need some fiction.

I saw the movie “Tom Jones” many years ago. I remember several things about it, one of which is that the actors would, from time to time, look up and talk to me. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might think I’m being a little weird. But it happened. Several times. And why should it not? The narrator of the book, Tom Jones himself, speaks directly to the reader. We’re just not used to seeing such behavior in films or on the stage, but it does seem to occur more nowadays than it did before the movie “Tom Jones” hit the theaters in 1963.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the novel from Wikipedia:

Tom Jones is a foundling discovered on the property of a very kind, wealthy landowner, Squire Allworthy, in Somerset in England’s West Country. Tom grows into a vigorous and lusty, yet honest and kind-hearted, youth. He develops affection for his neighbour’s daughter, Sophia Western. On one hand, their love reflects the romantic comedy genre that was popular in 18th-century Britain. However, Tom’s status as a bastard causes Sophia’s father and Allworthy to oppose their love; this criticism of class friction in society acted as a biting social commentary. The inclusion of prostitution and sexual promiscuity in the plot was also original for its time, and also acted as the foundation for criticism of the book’s “lowness.”

I love “biting social commentary” and stories about people searching for their identities. Sex, of course, always enhances any story. Prostitution and sexual promiscuity are not unusual in fiction these days, but their inclusion in fiction in 1749 was scandalous. But the novel survived, as did Henry Fielding.

I’ll post updates about my progress in the reading of “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.”

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