Irony in "Tom Jones" Author(s): E. Taiwo Palmer Source: The Modern Language Review, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Jul., 1971), pp. 497-510 Published by: Modern Humanities Research Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3723169 Accessed: 16/11/2009 12:39 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=mhra. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact email@example.com.
Modern Humanities Research Association is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to The Modern Language Review.
IRONY IN 'TOM JONES' TomJones is the perfection of Fielding's art because it is the novel in which matter and manner are most completely interrelated. In this work Fielding demonstrates astonishing technical virtuosity in the deployment of the mock-epic, burlesque, hyperbolic rhetoric, irony, and other devices, not for their own sakes, but to the end of elucidating his morality and his message. A much more philosophical and probing novel than Joseph Andrews,TomJones examines various views of life, religion, and morality, and subjects the behaviour of all sorts of people to scrutiny and criticism. Hence the need for the deployment of sharper literary tools than in the earlier novel. While the morality of Fielding's works has already been carefully studied by men like Sherburn and Battestin, insufficient attention has been paid to the texture, a significant oversight seeing that it is largely by means of Fielding's effective deployment of technical devices that he is able to convey his message. Fielding's irony, in particular, needs special attention. There seems to be some justification for a return to the study of Fielding's irony in TomJones,for the treatment of the subject hitherto has been inadequate. Professor A. R. Humphreys in a major essay, makes some brilliant comments on the nature of Fielding's irony in general, but refers only occasionally to TomJones, the essay being largely devoted to Jonathan Wild.l Although Eleanor Hutchens devotes a whole book to the study of irony in TomJones her categories of irony exclude some vital types including 'double irony', which is so crucial for an understanding of the novel.2 On the other hand, William Empson recognizes the operation of 'double irony' but does not go on to make a detailed analysis of its use and effectiveness.3This paper will attempt to demonstrate, through a detailed analysis of certain passages, not only the tremendous variety of Fielding's irony in TomJones, but also its effectiveness. The essence of irony is the disparity between the author's intended meaning and what the words on the page actually convey. Stated thus simply irony seems a relatively uncomplicated matter, but it is actually one of the most deceptively dangerous literary forms, demanding great skill from the novelist if his meaning is not to be missed. It is therefore a mark of Fielding's achievement that he has been able to use so many types of irony with such success. The simplest form of irony is that whereby the author says the exact opposite of what he means, and the reader's task is to reverse the surface meaning in order to get the author's real intention. What was thereforecomplimentary becomes derogatory and vice versa, and for this reason this form of irony can best be described as the 'praise/blame inversion'. Since it involves a complete reversal of the surface meaning it is ideally suited for the portrayal of characters who are either unquestionably good or bad. For instance Fielding uses it to great advantage in Jonathan Wild, where it is consistently applied to Wild and the Heartfrees. For obvious reasons it is most often used in TomJones in descriptions of Blifil: 'Young Blifil was greatly enraged at it. He had long hated Black George in the same proportion as 1 A. R. Humphreys, 'Fielding's Irony: Its Method and Effects', Reviewof EnglishStudies,I8 (I942), 183-96. 2 Eleanor Hutchens, Ironyin 'Tom Jones' (Alabama, I965). 3 William Empson, 'Tom Jones', Kenyon Review, 20 (1958), 2I7-49. 32
Jones delighted in him; not from any offence which he had ever received but from his great love to religion and virtue' (Book iv, Chapter 5). However, the 'praise/blame inversion' type of irony can easily become monotonous as is evident in JonathanWild; for this reason satirists use it very sparingly, and it occurs very seldom in TomJones. A much commoner and more subtle form of irony is what may be called 'tonal irony', for it is an apparent shift in the author's tone of voice which indicates the gap between the superficial impression conveyed by the words on the page and the real meaning. As we listen imaginatively to the author's imaginary voice and watch the movements of his lips, we detect a slight sneer or a heavy accentuation of certain words which indicates that the author has his tongue in his cheek although on the surface he sounds perfectly serious and sincere. The following is an example of its use: Miss BridgetAllworthy(for that was the name of the lady) very rightly conceivedthe charmsof personin a womanto be no betterthan snaresfor herself,as well as for others; and yet so discreetwas she in her conduct,that her prudencewas as muchon the guaid, as if she had all the snaresto apprehendwhich were ever laid for her whole sex. (Book1, Chapter 2)
The reader cannot miss the sneer on expressions such as 'very rightly', 'discreet', and 'prudence', indicating that the real interpretation of the passage is different from the surface meaning. We must note here the difference between the simple 'praise/blame' inversion and 'tonal' irony. We are not expected, in this passage, to reverse the surface meaning, for Miss Bridget is neither indiscreet nor imprudent; rather, we are to look at the other possible meanings to which the sneer on the words concerned may direct us. 'Tonal' irony thus points to other levels of meaning. Here for instance, we see that Miss Bridget is much too prudent and discreet much more so than her looks and attractiveness warrant. Her prudence and discretion suggest the excessive puritanism which gives her the excuse to intimidate other members of her sex. There is also the implication that since few men are likely to be attracted to her, there is no need for this discretion, which is really nothing but a cover for her ugliness. It is obvious that since this type of irony depends on the levels of meaning inherent in a word or in its various connotations, it could be used for the exposure of the distortions and misconceptions to which certain words and ideas have been subjected over the years.l 'Prudence', 'discreet', 'well-bred' are among such words: 'He [Blifil] therefore deposited the said half-price himself; for he was a very prudent lad, and so careful of his money, that he had laid up almost every penny which he had received from Mr Allworthy' (Book II, Chapter 9). Fielding directs our attention, not to the opposites of 'careful' and 'prudent', but to their pejorative connotations.2 Blifil's prudence is thus seen to be the conduct of a man 1
This seems to be the kind of ironywhich EleanorHutchensrefersto as 'denotativeirony' (see
Ironyin 'Tom Jones', p. 89). 2
EleanorHutchenshas done a 'casestudy'of 'prudence'.She seemsto imply that Fieldingalways holdsboth connotationsof the word in suspensionthus suggestingthat althoughprudenceitselfis a good thing, its meaninghas been pervertedby peoplelike Blifil.It seemsto me, however,that there is no tensionwhen Fielding is dealing with people like Blifil, Miss Bridget,and Mrs Wilkins.He merelypointsto the sinisterconnotationswithoutimplyingthat prudenceis good. He only does the latter wheneverMr Allworthyis talking,or when he himselfdescribesTom's behaviour.Then he makes a distinctionbetween heavenly prudence (admirable)and worldly prudence (despicable).
who is anxious to ensure that his conduct seems right; the care he takes of his money,
is not just financial prudence, but the care of a miser. Similarly, we may look at Fielding's treatment of 'decent': And glad should we be, could we inform the reader that both these bodies had been attended with equal success; for those who undertook the care of the lady succeeded so well, that, after the fit had continued a decent time, she again revived, to their great satisfaction. (Book ii, Chapter 9)
In this passage Fielding is concerned with the pejorative connotations that the word 'decent' has acquired. It refers, not to politeness or goodness, but to that which seems acceptable in the eyes of the society of which Mrs Blifil is a part. Mrs Blifil has a fit because this is customary on such occasions and she allows it to continue for a time society would consider 'decent'. The
Whitefield, to do her justice, had a much more liberal way of thinking. She was perfectly well-bred, and could be very civil to a gentleman, though he walked on foot' (Book vm, Chapter 8). Once more, it is the perversions of the term 'well-bred' among certain sections of society, to which Fielding calls attention. He suggests that good-breeding here has nothing to do with politeness or good behaviour, but refers to an artificial and corrupt standard of conduct. 'Tonal' irony is quite often applied to Blifil: Mr Blifil visited his friend Jones but seldom, and never alone. This worthy young man, however, professed much regard for him, and as great concern at his misfortune; but cautiously avoided any intimacy, lest, as he frequently hinted, it might contaminate the sobriety of his own character: for which purpose he had constantly in his mouth that proverb in which Solomon speaks against evil communication. Not that he was so bitter as Thwackum; for he always expressed some hopes of Tom's reformation: 'which,' he said, 'the unparalleled goodness shown by his uncle on this occasion, must certainly effect in one not absolutely abandoned:' but concluded, 'if Mr Jones ever offends hereafter, I shall not be able to say one syllable in his favour.' (Book v, Chapter 2) On the surface Blifil is presented as a sober, charitable, young man. But if we paid attention to the author's cadences, we could not fail to notice the sneer on such expressions as 'sobriety', 'worthy young man', 'contaminate', and 'evil communication'. The shift of tone compels us, not to reverse the meanings of these words, but to modify them, and Blifil is consequently seen as a hypocrite whose sole intention is to impress his uncle and tutors. The next category of irony can be called (for want of a better term) 'linguistic irony'.1 Like 'tonal' irony, it depends for its effect on some key expressions, but whereas with the latter form there is a shift of tone directing attention to layers of meaning other than the surface meaning, with 'linguistic' irony there is no shift of tone, the effect being produced by the literal meaning of the important expressions. Indeed, the author's voice usually remains remarkably steady and consistent throughout, for with this kind of irony it is almost essential that the surface meaning should seem sane, reasonable, and acceptable. The flow of the rhetoric should itself lead to this response until the attention of the reader is suddenly attracted by 1 I am conscious of the fact that this is not the most suitable name, for in a sense all irony is linguistic, since it is due to manipulation of words. But I call this 'linguistic' as opposed to 'tonal irony' because it depends on the obvious surface meaning of a single key word, and not on shifts of tone to reveal layers of meaning.
a carefully placed expression, which completely alters the superficial picture and forces him to make a more complex response. This kind of irony lends itself readily to the indication of flaws in people whose conduct may otherwise seem rational. For instance, Mr Allworthy, realizing Mrs Blifil's greater affection for Tom, decides to redress the balance by showing more affection for Blifil: When thereforehe plainlysaw MasterBlifilwas absolutelydetested(for that he was) by his own mother,he began, on that accountonly, to look with an eye of compassionupon him; and whatthe effectsof compassionare,in goodand benevolentminds,I neednot here explainto most of my readers. Henceforward,he saw every appearanceof virtuein the youth throughthe magnifying end, and viewedall his faultswith the glassinverted,so that they becamescarceperceptible . . . but the next step the weaknessof humannaturealone must excuse:for he no sooner perceivedthat preferencewhich Mrs Blifil gave to Tom, than that poor youth (however innocent)began to sinkin his affectionsas he rosein hers. (BookIII, Chapter7) On the surface Fielding seems to regard Mr Allworthy's conduct as the reaction of a genuinely benevolent and compassionate man towards the neglected and forgotten. Soon, however, the reader's attention is arrested by expressions such as 'appearance', 'magnifying', 'inverted', and 'scarce perceptible', and he realizes how misguided Mr Allworthy's conduct is. His lack of penetration into the motives of human action is seen as he mistakes every 'appearance of virtue' for the real thing. His faulty judgement is exposed as he magnifies that very 'appearance of virtue' so that it looks much more impressive than it would have done even if it had been genuine. And he turns a blind eye to those vices which even the hypocritical Blifil cannot prevent from appearing on the surface. Fielding thus emphasizes Mr Allworthy's responsibility, at least in part, for subsequent events at Paradise Hall, but he manipulates his rhetoric in such a way that he is able to do so without alienating total sympathy from him. Although 'linguistic' irony is most ideally suited for revealing flaws in 'nearperfect' characters, its use is, of course, not confined to them. In the following passage in which Mrs Western warns Sophia about the folly of 'pursuing a headlong passion' we see it used as a means of exposing her values: 'No, no, Sophy,'said she, 'as I am convincedyou have a violentpassion,which you can neversatisfywith honour,I will do all I can to put your honourout of the care of your family: for when you are married,those matterswill belong only to the considerationof yourhusband.I hope, child,you will alwayshave prudenceenoughto act as becomesyou; but if you shouldnot, marriagehath savedmanya womanfromruin.' (BookvI, Chapter5) On the surface this seems a perfectly reasonable statement; Mrs Western seems justifiably concerned about the preservation of both Sophia's chastity and the reputation of her family. Consequently, she contemplates a speedy marriage for her niece as the only means of preventing her from acting rashly and ruining herself. But the force of 'marriage' and 'ruin' in the last line alerts the reader and indicates that Mrs Western is thinking of marriage as a cover for any sexual indiscretions Sophia may commit. What thereforelooked eminently sane is revealed as the dangerously immoral position that it is. Let us look at one more example: 'Whether, as the lady had, at first, persuaded her physicians to believe her ill, they had now, in return, persuaded her to believe herself so, I will not determine; but she continued a whole month with all the decorations of sickness' (Book II, Chapter 9). On the surface it seems that Fielding is being scrupulously fair and is
giving Mrs Blifil the benefit of the doubt, but the word 'decorations' punctures this impression, and her illness is revealed as an elaborate pretence. 'Rhetorical irony' is much more usually associated with Swift, but Fielding also demonstrates astonishing competence in its use. Up to the Augustan age rhetoric was regarded as the art of persuasion through the use of examples and learned analogies. Rhetorical irony thus consists in the attempt to expose certain concepts or opinions by the use of examples, analogies, and arguments ostensibly designed to support such concepts. But the arguments adduced are so absurd, that the author ends by discrediting the position he pretended to defend.1 We may take as an example Fielding's comment on Sophia's unsuccessful resolve to avoid Tom: The diseases of the mind do in almost every particular imitate those of the body. For which reason, we hope, that learned faculty, for whom we have so profound a respect, will pardon us the violent hands we have been necessitated to lay on several words and phrases, which of right belong to them, and without which our description would have been often unintelligible. Now there is no one circumstance in which the distempers of the mind bear a more exact analogy to those which are called bodily, than that aptness which both have to a relapse. This is plain in the violent diseases of ambition and avarice. I have known ambition, when cured at court by frequent disappointments (which are the only physic for it), to break out again in a contest for foreman of the grand jury at an assizes; and have heard of a man who had so far conquered avarice, as to give away many a sixpence, that comforted himself, at last, on his death-bed, by making a crafty and advantageous bargain concerning his ensuing funeral, with an undertaker who had married his only child. In the affair of love, which out of strict conformity with the Stoic philosophy, we shall here treat as a disease, this proneness to relapse is no less conspicuous. Thus it happened to poor Sophia; upon whom, the very next time she saw young Jones, all the former symptoms returned, and fiom that time cold and hot fits alternately seized her heart. (Book Iv, Chapter I2)
In this passage Fielding is obviously laughing at the idea that certain diseases of the mind, such as love, can be cured. He ostensibly accepts this position at the start, however, but finds it necessary to account for the fact that these diseases break out again. The reason he gives is that they bear a close resemblance to diseases of the body and are therefore subject to a relapse. This is itself the first absurdity, but Fielding goes on to give further examples of these relapses, each of them absurd, for ambition was not really cured by disappointment, and the miser who gives away many a sixpence is no less a miser for doing so. What therefore seemed to be a relapse was nothing but the continuation of a disease that had not really been cured. Far from supporting the original proposition, therefore, the analogies merely expose its absurdity. Consequently, when the reader comes to Sophia he realizes that her love was never cured and is as alive as ever. In the following passage Fielding is obviously conscious that he is conducting an argument: And hence, I think, we may very fairly draw an argument, to prove how extremely natural virtue is to the fair sex: for though there is not, perhaps, one in ten thousand who is capable of making a good actress; and even among these we rarely see two who are equally able to personate the same character; yet this of virtue they can all admirably well put on; and as well those individuals who have it not, as those who possess it, can all act it to the utmost degree of perfection. (Book x, Chapter 2) 1 Swift's ModestProposalprobably furnishes the best example of this kind of irony.
Irony in 'Tom Jones'
The author's pretended intention is to prove that virtue is natural to women. The argument he adduces is that in spite of being bad actors, they can all act the part of virtue admirably. But this argument merely demonstrates that far from being naturally virtuous, women only act the part 'to the utmost degree of perfection'. Rhetorical irony can often take the form of a pretended defence of individuals. In this case several excuses are given for the individual's conduct, but these are so absurd that at the end, the individual is condemned rather than excused. Here, for instance, is Fielding's comment on Square's incontinence: But to confessthe truth, this inconsistencyis ratherimaginarythan real. Philosophersare composedof flesh and blood as well as other human creatures;and, howeversublimated and refinedthe theoryof thesemay be, a little practicalfrailtyis as incidentto them as to othermortals.It is, indeed,in theoryonly, and not in practice,as we have beforehinted, that consiststhe difference:for though such great beings think much better and more wisely, they always act exactly like other men. They know very well how to subdueall appetitesand passions,and to despiseboth pain and pleasure;and this knowledgeaffords muchdelightfulcontemplation,and is easilyacquired;but the practicewouldbe vexatious and troublesome;and, therefore,the samewisdomwhichteachesthemto knowthis,teaches them to avoidcarryingit into execution.(Bookv, Chapter5) At the beginning, it seems as if Fielding's intention is to make excuses for philosophers such as Square, who commit moral lapses. His first argument, that they are composed of flesh and blood like other mortals, is most calculated to win the reader over to the philosophers' side, but the next is a masterly understatement'a littlepracticalfrailtyis as incident to them as to other mortals'. True to the nature of understatements,this one merely heightens the philosophers'sensuality. The next remark - that the difference between philosophers and other men lies in theory and not in practice - sounds innocent, but its implications are damaging for they point to the hypocrisy of not practising one's own precepts. Fielding then goes on to sneer at the philosophers' 'greatness' and 'wisdom' and suggests that they consciously refrain from doing what they know is right. The last statement is the most damaging of all: 'the same wisdom which teaches them to know this, teaches them to avoid carrying it into execution'. These comments amount to a savage indictment of philosophers, not an excuse. Fielding can also achieve brilliant ironic effects by the insertion of explanatory clauses, concessive clauses and parentheses in the second half of sentences so that the impression created in the first half is reversed: 'Eight months after the celebration of the nuptials between Captain Blifil and Miss Bridget Allworthy, a young lady of great beauty, merit, and fortune, was Miss Bridget, by reason of a fright, delivered of a fine boy' (Book in, Chapter 2). The expression, 'by reason of a fright', calls attention to Miss Bridget's premature delivery, and while purporting to offer an explanation for it, actually succeeds in revealing the lady's premarital indiscretion. As an explanation it is much too absurd. The satire derives even greater force from the contrast between the elegance of the language (note the conventional 'delivered of a fine boy') and the sordidness of the affair. In the following passage we see the effect Fielding achieves by the addition of a consecutive clause, neatly balancing the main clause: 'Indeed she was so far from regretting want of beauty, that she never mentioned that perfection (if it can be called one) without contempt' (Book I, Chapter 2). The information Fielding gives us in the second half is unexpected, and the irony gains in force from this sense of shock.
Fielding also achieves ironic effects by allowing characters to expose themselves. He sets the scene, as it were, puts the characters on the stage, and allows them to talk and act, thus revealing their absurdities. Consequently these characters are sufficiently distanced from both author and reader, and the ironic effect is created by the disparity between what they think of themselves and the impression the reader forms of them. Any of Mrs Wilkins's tantrums will do as an example: 'I suppose he hath left me mourning; but, i'fackins! if that be all, the devil shall wear it for him, for me. I'd have his worship know I am no beggar. I have saved five hundred pounds in his service, and after all to be used in this manner. It is a fine encouragement to servants to be honest; and to be sure, if I have taken a little something now and then, others have taken ten times as much; and now we are all put in a lump together. If so be that it be so, the legacy may go to the devil with him that gave it. No, I won't give it up neither, because that will please some folks. No, I'll buy the gayest gown I can get and dance over the old curmudgeon's grave in it.' (Book v, Chapter 8) It has not been generally recognized that Tom Jones is a complex novel with a very serious moral intention. In it Fielding exposes the vices of society and enshrines his positive values in Tom and Mr Allworthy, both of them impulsively goodnatured men. But at the same time he is aware of their weaknesses. Tom's very impulsive and spontaneous good nature can degenerate into lust and he is very susceptible to the wiles of women; Mr Allworthy's lack of penetration into the real natures of certain people like Blifil leads to grave errors ofjudgement. It is therefore necessary for Fielding to hold the balance of his double vision and to satirize society while at the same time revealing the weaknesses of his 'positives'. It is to this end that he perfected the device of 'double irony', the most subtle and the most important of all his ironic forms. William Empson's recognition (in his Kenyon Review article) of the operation of double irony in Tom Jones was therefore a very important milestone in the history of Fielding criticism. Before this most critics held the view that the novel lacked moral earnestness because Fielding apparently condoned his hero's immorality. Those who attempted to defend Fielding pointed out that eighteenth-century sexual ethics permitted young men to be 'kept' by older, wealthier women. It was Empson who first demonstrated that we need not make such excuses for Fielding, for if we studied his technique properly we would discover that far from condoning Tom's conduct, he suggests that Tom is doing wrong.' It is by means of double irony that he is able to suggest this. With simple irony, the author, while pretending to support one character, contrives somehow to inform the reader that he does not. With double irony the author appears to be talking about two people and gives each the impression that he supports him, while simultaneously informing the reader that he supports neither. Similarly, he may give two conflicting aspects of an individual's character and suggest somehow that each is unsatisfactory and fails to convey the individual's totality. Since 'double irony' depends on the author's ability to walk the tightrope 1 C. J. Rawson, 'Professor Empson's TomJones', J. & Q., N.S. 6 (1959), 400-4, accepts Empson's general approach, but says that Fielding's morality is openly stated, not conveyed by the devious method of irony. In reply one must say that while Fielding's morality (his views on virtue, benevolence, etc.) is clearly stated, his attitude to Tom is not so openly stated. It is conveyed by means of 'double irony' because Fielding must present the ambivalence of Tom's character and therefore the ambivalence of his own attitude.
between rival opinions and people, while simultaneously conveying what the correct attitude ought to be, it is a difficult instrument to wield. Before carrying out a detailed examination of the operation of double irony it may be useful to investigate its use as a structural device. TomJones is built on a system of contrasting patterns. First there are Thwackum and Square, and Tom has to chart a middle path between their diametrically opposite ethical positions. More evidence of this deliberate patterning is seen in the existence of both an Allworthy and a Western household, and within the Western household itself the brash, uncouth, and ignorant country Squire is set against his sophisticated but arrogant and affected sister. Sophia, like Tom, has to walk a wary path between them. The operation of double irony as a structural device is also seen in Fielding's manipulation of certain scenes. For in these he continually changes the focus so that at one moment we see the irresponsible behaviour of one character, but at the next our attention is directed to another's. During the battle in the churchyard, for instance, Fielding takes great pains to depict the mob's brutality, but then shifts the focus to highlight Molly's ferocity; and when Jones arrives on the scene the focus is directed yet again to his own lunatic raving. Similarly, in the series of events following Tom's discovery that his uncle is no longer on the danger list, we see the same manipulation of scenes in order to expose the weaknesses, not just of Tom, but of all the participants. First, the reader sees the irrational and degrading conduct which is the consequence of Tom's drunkenness, but the focus is then turned on Blifil's feigned and unnatural soberness and prudent reserve, and subsequently our attention is drawn to Thwackum's hypocrisy in seconding Blifil's remonstrance although he had drunk even more than Tom. In the ensuing encounter with Molly in the grove attention is once more diverted from Tom's debasement of the sex instinct to the reactions of Thwackum and Blifil: Blifil's swearing is then seen as religious hypocrisy and Thwackum's desire to find Molly 'sitting' seems not entirely due to religious zeal; there is a very strong suggestion that he wishes to feast his eye on Molly's naked form. Finally, on the field of battle Tom's impertinence is ranged against Thwackum's aggressivenessand Blifil's hypocrisy. The proof of Fielding's multiplicity of vision is seen in the way he comments on certain scenes and individuals. He is always alive to the inaccuracy of one-sided judgements and stressesthe need to take all aspects of behaviour into account. For instance, having described the hostile reactions of various groups of people to Black George's theft, he comments: A singlebad act no moreconstitutesa villainin life, than a singlebad parton the stage. . Upon the whole,then, the man of candourand trueunderstandingis neverhastyto condemn.He can censurean imperfection,or evena vice, withoutrageagainstthe guiltyparty. (Bookvn, Chapteri) Fielding holds the balance between the urge to censure and an awareness of the need for compassion, and he urges the reader to have due regard for the complexities of human nature before the formulation of opinion. In his comments on the disastrous affair at Upton, Fielding makes fun of two rival opinions simultaneously:
E. TAIWO PALMER
For instance, as the fact at present before us now stands, without any comment of mine upon it, though it may at first sight offend some readers, yet upon more mature consideration, it must please all; for wise and good men may consider what happened to Jones at Upton as a just punishment for his wickedness, with regard to women, of which it was, indeed, the immediate consequence; and silly and bad persons may comfort themselves in their vices, by flattering their own hearts that the characters of men are rather owing to accident than to virtue. (Book xnI,Chapter 8) The author's irony here is directed both against the silly and bad and the wise and good. Neither opinion would be correct. It is now necessary to demonstrate the operation of double irony as an element of texture, and this will be done by a detailed analysis of some crucial scenes. In Tom Jones double irony becomes indispensable as a means of questioning the behaviour of characters whom readers have come to regard as the embodiment of Fielding's positive values, namely Mr Allworthy and Tom. William Empson has rightly pointed out that whenever Fielding refers to Mr Allworthy he invariably makes use of irony because he must not only demonstrate his sterling qualities, but also reveal his inadequacies. This can be seen in Mr Allworthy's lecture to Jenny on continence: 'It is the other part of your offence, therefore, upon which I intend to admonish you, I mean the violation of your chastity; - a crime, however lightly it may be treated by debauched persons, very heinous in itself, and very dreadful in its consequences' (Book I, Chapter 7). On a superficial reading Mr Allworthy's view seems eminently sound, for Jenny has committed an error, and violation of chastity can have dreadful consequences. But the words 'crime' and 'heinous' alert the reader's attention and suggest that he must make a more complex response. Loss of chastity, even within the context of the eighteenth century, might be a disaster, but not necessarily a crime, and 'heinous' is much too strong a description ofJenny's conduct. Fielding is very sure of himself here; he sees that while there is a need for Mr Allworthy to take a stand against licentiousness, he clearly overstates his case. The irony cannot be simple irony, for we do not completely dismiss Mr Allworthy's position as being entirely untenable; it is double irony, for we retain a certain measure of disapproval for Jenny's conduct and a corresponding approval for Mr Allworthy's stand, while seeing at the same time that his sentiments are unduly harsh. Mr Allworthy continues: 'And here its consequences may well be argued to be dreadful; for what can be more so, than to incur the Divine displeasure, by the breach of the Divine commands; and that in an instance against which the highest vengeance is specifically denounced? ... For by it you are rendered infamous, and driven, like lepers of old, out of society; at least from the society of all but wicked and reprobate persons; for no others will associate with you.' There is again no question of simple irony here, for Mr Allworthy's statement does contain an element of truth; the consequence of Jenny's conduct will be ostracism by 'decent' society. At the same time Fielding condemns both Mr Allworthy and his society for its harsh treatment of a sexual offender like Jenny. Moreover, Mr Allworthy exaggerates and, indeed, distorts God's own attitude towards the sexual delinquent, for it is not true that the highest vengeance has been denounced against loss of chastity, nor is it right to shun a violated girl like a 'leper of old'. It must be noted that he is not merely stating the prejudices of his society; he fully endorses them. This is surely the implication of his remark: 'none but reprobate persons will associate with you.' He goes on:
'Love, however barbarously we may corrupt and pervert its meaning, as it is a laudable, is a rational passion, and can never be violent but when reciprocal; for though the Scripture bids us love our enemies, it means not with that fervent love which we naturally bear towards our friends; much less that we should sacrifice to them our lives, and what ought to be dearer to us, our innocence. Now in what light, but that of an enemy, can a reasonable woman regard the man who solicits her to entail on herself all the misery I have above described, and who would purchase to himself a short, trivial, contemptible pleasure, so greatly at her expense.' Obviously, this speech is pregnant with falsifications and illogicalities. Contrary to what Mr Allworthy says, love can be the most irrational of passions (indeed there is an inherent contradiction in the phrase 'rational passion') and in this particular case it was reciprocal. Mr Allworthy's suggestion that a girl could not love a man with whom she has sexual relations shows him to be out of touch with the realities of the human situation. Furthermore, he has not proved that a man who makes love to an unmarried girl is her enemy, and there is no evidence in the scriptures supporting his view that our love for enemies should not be as great as our love for friends. Mr Allworthy indulges in a spate of rhetoric which seems to reinforce the superficial truth of his views. The speech is full of rhetorical questions involving neat generalizations. Yet the rhetoric itself contains the irony, for every argument he uses to prove the false premise with which he starts looks more and more untenable on closer examination, in spite of its superficial impressiveness. By making use of 'double irony' then, Fielding emphasizes the seriousness of Jenny's misconduct while simultaneously exposing society's hypocrisy, puritanism, and brutality; he justifies Mr Allworthy in assuming the role of champion of public morality and decency, while revealing his severity, his theoretic idealism, and failure to understand the reality of the power of the passions. Since Tom Jones deals with concepts such as 'prudence', 'honour', and 'decency' whose real meanings have, in Fielding's view, been perverted by society, it is important for his purpose not only that he should expose these perversions of meaning, but that he should indicate the interpretations he himself accepts. In order to do this he often employs double irony. Let us look at his comments on the nature of prudence: In recording some instances of these, we shall, if rightly understood, afford a very useful lesson to those well-disposed youths who shall hereafter be our readers; for they may here find that goodness of heart and openness of temper, though these may give them great comfort within, and administer to an honest pride in their own minds, will by no means, alas! do their business in the world. Prudence and circumspection are necessary even to the best of men. They are indeed, as it were, a guard to Virtue, without which she can never be safe. It is not enough that your designs, nay that your actions, are intrinsically good; you must take care they shall appear so. If your inside be never so beautiful, you must preserve a fair outside also. This must be constantly looked to, or malice and envy will take care to blacken it so, that the sagacity and goodness of an Allworthy will not be able to see through it, and to discern the beauties within. Let this, my young readers, be your constant maxim. That no man can be good enough to enable him to neglect the rules of prudence; nor will Virtue herself look beautiful, unless she be bedecked with the outward ornaments of decency and decorum. (Book II, Chapter 7) The whole passage is a masterpiece of ironic construction, almost every sentence being doubly ironic, since two attitudes are held in suspension and both shown to be limited. It is true that goodness of heart and openness of temper are not by
themselves enough; in this sense Tom's lack of prudence is a severe limitation and Fielding registershis disapproval. But the phrase 'do their business in the world' should alert us to the need for a more complex response than mere condemnation of Tom, for this 'world' is surely the sophisticated world with its dishonest standards of conduct. 'Circumspection' suggests a mere regard for the 'world's' opinions, and it is clear that this is one of the perverted notions of prudence that Fielding wishes to expose. It does not mean concern for doing the right thing, but concern for ensuring that one's conduct seemsright in the eyes of the 'world'. It is, in fact, a worldly and political quality. 'Guard to virtue' and the 'safety' of virtue suggest some ladies' concern to have their virtue artificially protected as a cover for indiscretions. Virtue thus becomes synonymous with reputation and has nothing to do with inherent goodness or chastity. The statement, 'It is not enough that your designs, nay that your actions are intrinsically good; you must take care they shall appear so' implies that even evil actions and designs (like Blifil's) may be accepted as 'good' provided enough care is taken to ensure that they 'appear so'. The accuracy of this interpretation is borne out by the next comment: 'If your inside be never so beautiful you must preserve a fair outside also.' Fielding then mentions the rules of prudence which no man can afford to neglect. But 'rules' merely suggests convention or the regulations of a hypocritical society. 'Bedecked', 'outward ornaments', and 'decency' all suggest the artificial beautification of something which is not intrinsically beautiful. It seems that all that is required is for every young man to ensure that his actions conform to the artificial standards of a hypocritical and affected society- whether these actions be good or bad. So far the irony has been mainly 'linguistic', the effect being created by the literal connotations of such expressions as 'bedecked', 'ornaments', and 'fair outside'.1 But it is also rhetorical, for every argument is hollow and untenable. If designs and actions are intrinsically good, will they not appear so to an unbiased observer? And if, through the malice and envy of enemies, they do not, can prudence (in the proper sense of the term) and circumspection do anything to make them appear good ? Is it necessary to 'bedeck' virtue (in the real sense of the term) with 'the outward ornaments of decency and decorum' in order to make it beautiful? It is clear that Fielding is indulging in an elaborate joke at the expense of all those who hold perverted notions of prudence. In this passage, therefore, Fielding criticizes two groups of people simultaneously; on the one hand the giddy youth is reprimanded for his lack of prudence, but on the other those who hold false and worldly notions of the term are exposed. An understanding of this passage is essential for an understanding of the entire novel, for it seems to carry the message that Tom's difficulties will be solved if and when he learns prudence. Many critics have actually taken this to be the message because they have failed to recognize the operation of double irony and the comic play that Fielding makes on the various interpretations of 'prudence'. Tom needs prudence, but it is the prudence which ensures that he does the right thing; and this prudence is 'heavenly wisdom' the quality that Sophia represents.2
1 Double irony, which is really irony directed at two ideas or people simultaneously, can of course take the form of any of the other types of single irony or a combination of some or all of them. 2 Sophia's name means 'Heavenly wisdom'.
The most significant effect of Fielding's irony is the demonstration of the ambivalence of his attitude towards his hero, Tom. Let us examine some of his comments on Tom's sexual indiscretions: ... and when she saw he had entirelydesertedthe house, she found means of throwing herselfin hisway, andbehavedin sucha manner,that theyouthmusthavehad verymuchor very little of the hero, if her endeavourshad proved unsuccessful.In a word, she soon triumphedover all the virtuousresolutionsof Jones; for thoughshe behavedat last with all decentreluctance,yet I ratherchooseto attributethe triumphto her, since,in fact, it was her designwhich succeeded. In the conductof this matter,I say, Molly so well playedher part, thatJones attributed the conquestentirelyto himself,and consideredthe youngwomanas one who had yielded to the violentattacksof his passion.(Bookiv, Chapter6) A superficial reading leaves the impression that Fielding is laying the blame for the encounter entirely at Molly's door. But there is also a suggestion that Tom regards the whole affair as a contest and Molly's advances as a challenge to his virility; this surely is the implication of the statement that Tom would have had very little of the hero had he resisted. In the latter sections of the passage the balance is still held between Molly's immodesty and Tom's egoism and pride in his virility and sexual attractiveness. Even more revealing is Fielding's comment on the meeting with Molly in the grove: Someof my readersmay be inclinedto thinkthiseventunnatural.However,the fact is true; and, perhaps,may be sufficientlyaccountedfor by suggesting,thatJones probablythought one womanbetterthan none, and Molly as probablyimaginedtwo men to be betterthan motive assignedto the presentbehaviourof Jones, the one. Besidesthe before-mentioned readerwill be likewisepleasedto recollectin his favour,that he was not at this time perfect masterof that wonderfulpower of reason,which so well enablesgrave and wise men to subduetheirunrulypassionsand to declineany of theseprohibitedamusements.(Bookv, Chapter Io)
At the start it seems as if Fielding intends to offer excuses for Tom's conduct; but it is surely no excuse to suggest thatJones thought one woman better than none. Moreover, the effect of the juxtaposition of Tom and Molly (who thought two men better than one) is to discredit the former. In other words, the balance of blame is very skilfully held between Tom and Molly. Similarly, in the latter half of the passage, Fielding seems on the surface to reserve his scorn for those 'grave and wise men' and their belief in 'that wonderful power of reason'; but shortly before this comment Fielding had taken pains to inform the reader that drunkenness revealed what was latent in the mind of the individual,l and we saw how wine brought out Tom's basic generosity and love for his uncle. In the grove scene, therefore, the wine merely brings out Tom's latent lust; it cannot be said that he would have behaved otherwise had he been sober. Indeed, in the previous passage we had seen him behaving in exactly the same way although he was perfect master of his senses. Fielding's excuse is ironic. The whole tone of the passage is ironic not merely at Molly's and the philosophers' expense, but also at Tom's, and the irony is reinforced by those 'hedging' words 'probably' and 'perhaps'. The same technique is employed in the account of the incident at the Inn at Upton: 1 See the title of Book v, Chapter 9.
E. TAIWO PALMER
Now it required no very blameable degree of suspicion, to imagine that Mr Jones and his ragged companion had certain purposes in their intention, which though tolerated in some Christian countries, connived at in others, and practised in all, are however as expressly forbidden as murder, or any other horrid vice, by that religion which is universally believed in those countries. (Book ix, Chapter 3) Once more, irony becomes a double-barrelled weapon. In this passage, there is certainly contempt for the hypocrisy of those countries which tolerate, connive at, or practise fornication, even though it is denounced by the religion they believe in; Fielding also suggests that it is unnecessarily severe and puritanical to group this misdemeanour with murder or 'any other horrid vice'; but at the same time he does state that it is forbidden by the Christian religion and to this extent the irony works to Tom's disadvantage. Fielding has managed to expose worldly hypocrisy while at the same time registering disapproval for Tom's incontinence. As the scene progresses Fielding's description of the love-making in terms of duelling and eating reinforces not only Mrs Waters's aggressiveness in the affair, but also Tom's lust and his determination to play his part: He then began to see the designs of the enemy, and indeed to feel their success. A parley now was set on foot between the parties; during which the artful fair so slily and imperceptibly carried on her attack, that she had almost subdued the heart of our hero, before she again repaired to acts of hostility. To confess the truth, I am afraid Mr Jones maintained a kind of Dutch defence, and treacherously delivered up the garrison, without duly weighing his allegiance to the fair Sophia. In short, no sooner had the amorous parley ended, and the lady had unmasked the royal battery, by carelessly letting her handkerchief drop from her neck, than the heart of Mr Jones was entirely taken, and the fair conqueror enjoyed the usual fruits of her victory. (Book Ix, Chapter 5) The victory goes to Mrs Waters who made the first advances in any case, but Fielding does not underemphasize Tom's responsibility. 'I am afraid Mr Jones maintained a kind of Dutch defence' is an ironic understatement, and both the military image and the reference to Sophia underscore Tom's infidelity and incontinence. Tom's affair with Lady Bellaston is the most degrading of all, and Fielding indicates by means of his irony that he does not condone his hero's action: Jones had never less inclination to an amour than at present; but gallantry to the ladies was among his principles of honour; and he held it as much incumbent on him to accept a challenge to love, as if it had been a challenge to a fight. Nay, his very love for Sophia made it necessary for him to keep well with the lady, as he made no doubt but she was capable of bringing him into the presence of the other. (Book xmII,Chapter 7) The first sentence indicates Lady Bellaston's culpability and Jones's innocence in the affair, but with 'gallantry' and 'codes of honour' a jarring note is heard. 'Codes of honour' should normally be linked with moral and religious principles, and 'gallantry' in its eighteenth-century connotation does not seem to be one of these. Tom's idea of honour is surely mistaken. His regarding a challenge to love as a challenge to fight suggests the idea of conquest and reveals once more his pride in his virility. Fielding's apportionment of blame is fair and balanced. Later he comments: Though Jones saw all these discouragements on the one side, he felt his obligations full as strongly on the other; nor did he less plainly discern the ardent passion whence those obligations proceeded, the extreme violence of which if he failed to equal, he well knew the lady would think him ungrateful; and, what is worse, he would have thought himself so. He knew the tacit consideration upon which all her favours were conferred; and as his necessity
Irony in 'Tom Jones'
obliged him to accept them, so his honour,he concluded,forced him to pay the price. This, therefore,he resolvedto do, whatevermiseryit costhim, and to devotehimselfto her, from that great principleof justice, by which the laws of some countriesoblige a debtor, who is not otherwisecapableof discharginghis debt, to become the slave of his creditor. (BookxiII,Chapter9) The last sentence, with its sneer on 'that great principle ofjustice', is devastating in its irony directed against the kind of legal system which forces a debtor to become a slave, and by implication against Lady Bellaston. But the statement 'and, what is worse, he would have thought himself so' suggests that the irony is working the other way, for Jones seems to accept that he owes the lady certain obligations for the favours she has extended to him. It is not merely that he is afraid of being thought ungrateful, he is himself convinced that he must discharge the immoral services for which he is being paid. Jones, in other words, takes his own part in this sordid financial transaction quite seriously; and this is the most disturbing aspect of his conduct. The irony here, however, is double, for Lady Bellaston is not absolved from reproach. In these scenes, then, Fielding uses the technique of double irony to manipulate the reader's responses to his hero. He is aware of Tom's virtues and of the vices of the women he encounters, but he is not blind to his faults nor does he condone them. Instead, with great assurance, he holds the scales evenly poised, blaming society when it needs to be blamed, but also exposing Tom's immorality at the same time. The technique of 'double irony' demands not only great skill from the writer, but also great alertness from the reader. We must be prepared to apply our normal moral standards and be alive to the implications of all sorts of terms in order to see that the irony is working the other way. Fielding's style is too often regarded as being prosaic and straightforwardwhen, in fact, it is complicated and demanding. He exploits to the full the various levels of meaning inherent in words, the various tones of which the human voice is capable, and the reader's own awareness of moral standards. And it is largely by means of this complex ironic art that his morality is revealed. Allworthy's vulnerability to the world of appearances, the inadequacy of Tom's good heart, Blifil's malevolence, the 'world's' vanity and hypocrisy, and the insincerity of Thwackum and Square are all projected through Fielding's skilful use of irony. It is not . T merely incidental to his work; it is crucial. TAIWO PALMER FREETO~W~N,,E. SIERRALEONE FREETOWN,
Published on Nov 16, 2009
"While the morality of Fielding's works has already been carefully studied... insufficient attention has been paid to the texture, a signifi...