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In examining the effects of a work of literature on a reader, it is vitally important to understand why a reader completes the work. In other words, the forces that drive the reader to turn page after page of a novel are directly related to the entire reading experience what values and stories the reader takes from the book, the overall feeling that the book creates within the reader, and impact of the reading on future actions of the reader. It is with this in mind that we turn to the claim that Tom Jones is the most plot-driven book in English. Although Henry Fieldings Tom Jones is an intricately plotted novel, it is not plot-driven. The force that drives the reader from page to page through the novel is not the plot, but rather the narrator.
This is not necessarily an obvious insight, so we will take care to show its truth by presenting the narrators argument for this interpretation, the logical consequences of such a claim, and an argument that the readers reaction under Tom Jones as a plot-driven novel would not account for the novels place in literary history today. Although the latter approach certainly ignores the readers of Tom Jones who did not finish or find any value within the work, any in-depth examination of those readers experiences with the novel is not likely to yield anything of much interest. Thus, we will only consider the readers of Tom Jones who find it to be useful or interesting. Fielding, in the introduction to the final book, comparing the process of reading the novel to the travel of a Stage-Coach. This is a very useful metaphor for understanding the relationship between reader, narrator, plot, and novel.
The Stage-Coach takes the trip from the Country to London, and travels around both locales rather extensively, visiting many houses and several inns and pubs. It also frequently jumps around from location to location, and leaps around in time, to revisit some events that it had previously skipped over. Thus, the linear passage of reading the novel turning page after page, only going in one direction is equivalent to the linear time it takes for this Stage-Coach to visit all these locations in space-time. The non-linear path the plot takes as its form is just the non-linear path that the Stage-Coach makes in its journey. Finally, to complete the picture, we must find the man who is navigating the Stage-Coach, and it is clear that this is none other than the narrator himself. He decides when we shall leave one character to visit another, and what pieces of the story to tell in what order including skipping tantalizing details, such as Bridget All worthys deathbed message.
Thus, the narrator has a dual role in the framework of Tom Jones, not unlike a talkative cab driver. He is both the driver of the story, who dictates our path with We shall therefore take our Leave at present of Sophia, and also a constant companion in the passenger compartment, filling the journey with authorial commentary (549). This is the narrators argument for the experience of reading Tom Jones: he has taken the reader as a passenger in his Stage-Coach, and is driving him down the road of a story, using the texture of the plot to comment on morality, reading, and life. The plot is placed in two dimensions, under the feet of the three-dimensional Stage-Coach, narrator, and reader.
It is important to note that the reader is a character in this model. Although he is silent, he is the impetus for the journey and the commentary. This journey (the story) of Tom Jones and Sophia happens anew every time the passenger (the reader) enters the Stage-Coach (the novel). It is also interesting to note that this model puts the reader very close to both the narrator and the book itself. The reader is physically inside the book; he is a character alongside the narrator.
Instead of observing the action from outside the pages, Fielding invites the reader to sit with him inside the story, as he skillfully navigates through it. It is clear that this metaphor puts the insights of the narrator at a higher dimension and in much more direct connection to the reader than the plot itself. In addition, the metaphor implies that the narrator completely controls the plot. The reader interacts with the plot only through the narrators guidance, and thus reading about Toms exploits is more like listening to a good storyteller spinning a yarn than taking an emotional journey taken side-by-side with Tom. Yet, this is not troublesome to Fielding, since it allows him more control to provide insight as it pertains to the journey.
He tells us, in the end, that his company in the passenger compartment is really what has kept us interested in this trip. He calls his insights Pleasant[ies] and thinks that they might have prevented thee from taking a Nap when it was beginning to steal upon thee (595). Thus, as long journeys may often put us to sleep, even as they travel over a variety of terrain, an interesting companion sitting in the seat next to us will keep us alert. This is quite a remarkable assertion for Fielding to make, since he has certainly provided enough twists and turns in his plot to keep it an object of praise for centuries.
Yet it is clear that his dedication to his commentary is total, and that his concern for the plot is at a much lesser degree. The care to which he edits Tom Jones in its fourth edition shows his love for the work; yet the end of the final book which contains only plot, and no commentary stands out as a particularly poorly-edited section of the novel, with three rather careless errors in only two pages (630 - 631). Editor Sheridan Baker, in one of his footnotes, explains one as a result of Fieldings haste to wind things up (630). If the plot were Fieldings darling creation, certainly he would delight in polishing off the story to its satisfying conclusion. However, not only does the end contain errors, it also rips through the action with frenetic speed, never really stopping to enjoy any of the moments of resolution.
Thus, just as the driver of the Stage-Coach is more concerned with his driving than with the intricacies of the road beneath him, Fielding holds his narrators commentary in much higher regard than the plot he has created to serve as his path. It is therefore easy to conclude that Fielding believes this narrator-driven Stage-Coach metaphor is apt; however, whether it is true for the reader is another matter entirely. Perhaps the best way to test this model is by contradiction. Let us assume that Tom Jones is a plot-driven novel. Then the motivating factor for the reader to read every line and turn every page is the desire to find out what happens next. This clearly delegates Fieldings commentaries and digressions to a secondary level, below the plot in importance.
Furthermore, the reader must have developed some strong attachment to at least one of the characters in the novel to find the plot so captivating. However, there is simply not enough texture to any of the characters drawn in the plot provided in Tom Jones to place the characters as legendary in literary history. Tom himself seems no different in character from Country to London, sleeping with every woman who wants him along the way. The description of Toms character is also constant, and fairly simple: a kind and honest heart, but wanting in prudence. While he may engage in some interesting rhetoric that displays some of the depth of his beliefs, these have little influence on the plot, and are therefore are unwanted for the plot-driven reader. Likewise, Sophia is forever saying and doing the same things throughout the novel.
She has some very basic principles: she wont marry against her fathers will, and she wont marry against her own will. She is always beautiful, and frequently frail. These characters are not strong or interesting enough to warrant an attachment that induces fervor for more details on their lives through 650 pages. The only other possibility is that the action of the novel, and not the characters, is the driving plot force, similar to The Count of Monte Cristo. However, the matters of plot in this story are simply not that exciting. The entire novel consists almost entirely of traveling and talking, with sprinklings of fighting and sex.
In fact, a plot summary of Tom Jones could consist of two paragraphs about the first six books, two sentences about the next six, and four paragraphs about the last six books (Bantam Notes Plot Summary on Tom Jones). The character portrayal and the depth of the plot are both insufficient to adequately drive a reader through the novel with the plot alone. It is clear that, if Tom Jones were plot-driven, it would have no place as one of the most significant contributions of the eighteenth century to English literature. The pleasantry of the novel, as Fielding puts it, is in the unique relationship that the narrator has with the reader: the narrator as driver. Fielding creates a relationship between his narrator and the reader out of the pages of Tom Jones, and uses the plot merely as a device to impart his delicious sense of humor and morality.
The plot is interesting, but the novel is captivating; the difference lies in the way in which the narrator navigates and presents the plot to the reader.
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