Tom Jones as a Comic Epic in Prose
In English literature, there are four novelists who are popularly known as the four wheels of the novel. Henry fielding is one of them. Tom Jones is his best novel. Fielding himself calls it a comic epic in prose.
When Henry Fielding started writing, novel was not a acceptable genre of literature. To make it acceptable he propounded a new theory of the novel. He says that the novel is a comic epic in prose. In the preface to Joseph Andrews, Fielding is of the opinion that the epic is divisible like drama as comic epic and tragic epic. Homer's Marquites is a comic epic and his Iliad is a tragic epic. As an epic may be comic or tragic, so it may also be either in prose or in verse. A work might be styled as a prose epic if it had all the parts of an epic poem - fable, action, character, sentiment, diction. Only meter will be absent. Combining these ideas of the comic epic and the prose epic, Fielding evolves a new genre - comic epic in prose.
Thus comic epic in prose chiefly promises a variety of characters involved in a very comprehensive action. The novelist's tone is light. He gives mildly satirical, ironical exposition of the ridiculous. It is epical in scale and it is comic since it concerns the ridiculous in human life.
Let us now examine the impact of this theory on Tom Jones. First of all it would be better to show the comic tone of this novel. To show its comic spirit, some beautiful examples can be cited. The description of Mrs. Wilkin's character is comical. She is a manly lady. Neighbours are afraid of her sharp and scandalous tongue. She was not of forgiving temper. She was a classic evil dropper. In Book II we have a highly comic description of the battle between Partridge and his wife. Mrs. Partridge attacks her husband with tongue, teeth and hands. She has been compared to a cat and Partridge himself to a mouse.
The scene at the Upton Inn also produces the height of comedy. Tom and Mrs Waters enter the Upton Inn and the landlady abruptly pounces upon them. The ensuing battle involves soldiers of both the sexes. The weapons include the tongue, the broomstick, the cudgel and the fist. Fielding's handling of his characters also have a touch of the comic. Squire Allworthy, Squire Western, Lady Bellaston, Molly and many other characters are portrayed in the comic vein. Thus this novel, no doubt, has comic tone.
If Tom Jones is comic in spirit, it is epical in scale. It offers at least forty well portrayed characters. They are taken from different cross sections of society. They are lords, lawyers, servants, highwaymen, parsons, inn keepers, soldiers and many others. In this context we can say that this novel is epical in scale.
The plot of Tom Jones has epic magnitude. It has variety of structure. Like an epic, it has numerous stories, digressions and episodes. They are closely linked up with the central theme. The novel presents the whole society, life and manners of the time. Here the novelist shows his concern for the epic unities. Here we find unity of time, place and action. Thus the plot and action of Tom Jones have epic grandeur.
In Tom Jones Fielding has freely used mock heroic style and diction. The description of the battle between Mrs. Partridge with her husband is mock heroic. The entire Upton episode has been written in mock heroic style. Even the rape attempted on Sophia is described in the same style. On the basis of the purpose, the novel has epical tone. Like an epic it has a very solemn purpose. The purpose of the novel is to show the loveliness of virtue and the ugliness of vice.
In this way, Tom Jones has all the features of a comic epic. Unlike a serious epic, its action is light and ridiculous.. Its characters are of inferior rank. Here the novelist has used the grand epic style to narrate the light and ridiculous events. The use of heroic similes is frequent. With all these epical devices, Fielding produces comic effect. Thus Tom Jones is a comic epic in prose.