The Function of the Narrator in Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones"

Term Paper 2007 20 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Index of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Narrator 1
2.1 Introductory Chapters and Self-Interest of the Narrator
2.1.1 Creating Suspense 4
2.2 Narrative Selection
2.2.1 Withholding Information
2.3 Narrator-Reader Relationship

3. Plot
3.1 Comic
3.2 Irony
3.3 The Man of the Hill

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In Henry Fielding’s picaresque novel Tom Jones. The History of a Foundling, published in 1749, the author represents our world and the people who live in it in a very naturalistic and detailed way. He himself describes his novel as a "Heroic, Historical, Prosaic Poem" (IV, I; 100), a form of "prosai-comi-epic Writing" (V, I; 137). He wants to depict reality drawn from live in his epic writing, in which the weaknesses of humanity and mankind are put on display abundantly in a broader way. This revolutionary scheme was a completely new approach to literature and let Fielding become one of the most popular and influential authors in the eighteenth century.

Furthermore, he contributed a lot to the development of the genre novel, which had to prove itself as a potentially literary form in this century. In Fielding’s time, prose fiction had to enforce its claim as a worthy pursuit, because it was not accepted everywhere in such a way. He was one of the first authors, who resolved to write fiction. In addition, the novel form had to stand up to the dominant genres of verse and drama. But Fielding succeeded in bringing in elements of comedy and drama into his narration. The most obvious influence of these genres are the complications of the plot in Tom Jones, which cause a lot of confusion for the reader and which are typically found in comedies.

Last but not least, the introductory chapters, preceding the individual books in Tom Jones, were an important contribution to the new fictional form he has created.

2. The Narrator

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In order to satisfy his aim, the author creates a new mode of telling a story. The result is a first-person narration, combined with an omniscient perspective, which sounds at first view a little bit contradictious. An implied and also nameless author, a real fictional person, narrates the story in elevated and complex prose. Concerning the fictive world and the characters of his novel, the omniscient narrator tells the “history” from a third-person point of view and adopts the position of a god-like figure, who knows everything. He is fully aware of present, past and future events and can also see into his characters, their thoughts and feelings. But towards his reader, he takes the position of an overt first-person narrator, foregrounding himself by his intrusive comments and direct addresses to his audience. By this, the narrator becomes visible to his reader as a narrative presence. But through adopting the role of an individual, autonomous figure and acting character in his narrative, he undermines his superior authority and destroys any illusion of omniscience thereby. Consequently, “ […] the narrator’s own character and motives acquire importance as data for the interpretative activities of the reader.”[1]

2.1 Introductory Chapters and Self-Interest of the Narrator

With the introductory chapters, which constitute the first extended body of work in English literature, Fielding creates a completely new fictional form. At first view, his prefatory chapters seem to give an outlook on future events and happenings, but there is more to it than that.

In the introductory essays, the narrator presents himself as a deep thinker, discoursing on the philosophy of writing. He directly addresses the reader in his comments on narrative methods, critics and other subjects of his choosing, including the purposes and the superiority of his story telling. Through self-glorifying statements like this, he introduces himself as a very self-confident and independent writer, who is totally aware of what he is doing. He does not adopt to rules and decides on his own what to present and which style is suitable for his presentation. For his “history”, the narrator calls for the right to make his own rules and he lets the reader know about his decision quite at the beginning:

“[…] 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.” (II, I; 53)

Informing the reader about the development of action, the intrusive narrator also discourses on the philosophy of writing in his introductory chapters. By this method, he emphasizes the act of narration itself.

Furthermore, he foregrounds in his frequent comments the artificiality and fictiveness of his perfectly constructed and ordered plot, whereby he prevents his “novel from ever taking on the appearance of a true chronicle of events.”[2] His so-called “Heroic, Historical, Prosaic Poem” (IV, I; 100) should not only remain a reproduction of dry facts, it should be “a mixture of fact and fiction”[3], which makes up the real “art of poetry”[4] for Fielding. Although he calls his novel a “History”, it combines both, elements of history and those of poetry and fiction, but any illusion of an objective presentation of realism is destroyed thereby. He wants to make it absolutely clear, that “Tom Jones is not an unmediated view of things but rather a highly constructed rhetorical creation filtered through an individual human consciousness”[5]. Through statements like this, the narrator again calls attention to himself and to the process of writing. What is told, the content of his story, seems to come second and the process of writing is centred once again as the “real” subject of the text. Another example for his self-interest and pride in his own writing abilities becomes obvious once more in the beginning of Book X, when he says:

“This Work may, indeed, be considered as a great Creation of our own; and for a little Reptile of a Critic to presume to find a Fault with any of its Parts, without knowing the Manner in which the Whole is connected, and before he comes to the final Catastrophe, is a most presumptuous Absurdity.” (X, I; 337)

Here, the author’s arrogance peaks out and it seems like he is trying to defend himself against critics and also against his readers. A certain self-interest of the narrator is consequently not to deny.

Therefore, the first important function of these opening chapters is rather to “define and explain the novel as a literary genre”[6]. In the preface in Tom Jones, Fielding describes his own fictional form as “prosaic-comi-epic writing” (V, I; 137). By defining the novel as an epic genre, the author’s intention to present a broad picture of life in this age is emphasised. In another essay, he also reflects about the appropriate subject of a novel in general, which should be human nature and real life. So he states in the introductory chapter of Book VIII, that there is no excuse for the “modern” writer to introduce supernatural agents.

2.1.1 Creating Suspense

A second function of these initial essays is, of course, to serve as guidelines for the reader, they help him to find the right “way”, the right meaning, in Fielding’ s labyrinth of plot. All the chapter headings are constructed for this purpose, they give information about what the reader will learn in the following chapter, without withdrawing suspense:

“Containing a very surprising Adventure indeed, which Mr. Jones met with in his Walk with the Man of the Hill.” (IX, II; 318), “Containing some Matters which may affect, and others which may surprise the Reader.” (XV, V; 515), “Containing better Reasons than any which have yet appeared for the Conduct of Partridge; an Apology for the Weakness of Jones; and some farther Anecdotes concerning my Landlady.” (VIII, VII; 276), and so on.

They tell the reader that something exciting is going to happen now, which makes him to read on in order to get to know about the “surprising matters”. Francis Coventry argues in An Essay on the New Species of Writing Founded by Mr. Fielding (1751), that “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.”


[1] Smith, J.F.: An inquiry into narrative deception and its uses in Fielding’s Tom Jones, p. 129

[2] Smith, J.F.: An inquiry into narrative deception and its uses in Fielding’s Tom Jones, p. 129

[3] http://www.ruthnestvold.com/tomjones.htm [31.10.2007; 1:30pm]

[4] Smith, J.F.: An inquiry into narrative deception and its uses in Fielding’s Tom Jones, p. 56

[5] See Robert Alter: Fielding and the Nature of the Novel (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968) 39 and Wolfgang Iser: The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1974) 29-56

[6] http://www.ruthnestvold.com/tomjones.htm [31.10.2007; 1:30pm]


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Title: The Function of the Narrator in Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones"