Fielding's Education of Readers in "Tom Jones," Part Four
Creating Sagacious Readers
In Tom Jones, Fielding is not only creating a history of which he is the "founder of [the] new province of writing," but is also attempting to construct his ideal of the perfect reader. In the prefatory chapter to Book III, Fielding is seemingly inviting the reader to participate in the construction of the narrative. By skipping over periods of time,
we prevent him from throwing away his time, in reading without pleasure or emolument, [and] we give him, at all such seasons, an opportunity of employing that wonderful sagacity of which he is master, by filling up these vacant spaces of time with his own conjectures; for which purpose we have taken care to qualify him in the preceding pages. (Fielding 101)
Cerny asserts that Fielding is, in fact, not providing "any spaces at all for readers to exercise their conjectural abilities," but instead is caricaturing "an altogether unwanted reader participation" (Cerny 138). this assertion seems logical as Fielding goes on to give a minute description of Mr. Allworthy's and Bridget Allworthy Bliful's bereavement in the missing twelve years.
Fielding's comments over his gaps in time and reader participation are little more than an attempt to flatter his readers and test our discernment of his true meaning. he is not really suggesting that the reader should conjecture what happened in those twelve years, as he states later that "nothing worthy of a place in this history occurred within that period" (Fielding 102). If the events are too trivial for Fielding, why should the reader bother with them? By mentioning and justifying these gaps in time and narration, Fielding is, in effect, deflecting the reader's attention from them rather than drawing attention to them.
Cerny views Fielding's use of the word 'sagacious' as deliberate irony. To Cerny, sagacity is "now seen in the light of the comic epic, i.e. of affectation arising from vanity or hypocrisy" (Cerny 87). this view is reasonable, as Fielding applies the adjective 'sagacious' rather indiscriminately. Leona Toker, however, suggests that Fielding is not, in this instance, being wholly ironic "in his references to the 'sagacious reader'" (Toker 154). Toker maintains that:
Fielding's handling of scene and summary is precisely calculated to give us the impression that, having, been shown how things work in the novel's world, we could easily imagine, if only we wished to do so, how its different characters would move when out of the limelight. (Toker 153)
This argument is also valid. For example, the reader could deduce, if he or she cared to exercise his or her deductive powers, what Bridget Bliful's conduct would have been after the death of her husband without Fielding's brief description of her period of mourning in the missing twelve years. Fielding had already shown Bridget as a woman who was a "strict observer of all rules of decorum" in Bliful's courtship of her (Fielding 59). thus, the reader could have surmised, without being told, that Bridget would have displayed "all the rules of custom and decency" during her mourning (Fielding 102). Nonetheless, the reader can only know the characters by what Fielding tells us about them; we are not even allowed to judge the characters by their actions, since Fielding shows us, through his narrative digressions, that their actions could have been misconstrued if he was not there to tell us the 'truth' concerning their motivations. Fielding's narrative "constantly reminds the reader of both the need and the great difficulty of judging correctly" (Hudson 81). In this manner, Fielding is attempting to maneuver readers into accepting his explanations of the characters' behavior rather than trusting to our own judgment of them based on their actions. this is his first stage of 'creating' a 'sagacious' reader.
Cerny, Lothar. "Reader Participation and Rationalism in Fielding's Tom Jones." Connotations 2.2 (1992): 137-62.
- – - . "Fielding, Reception Theory and Rationalism: A Reply to Brean Hammond and Nicholas Hudson." Connotations 3.1 (1993): 85-89.
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Hudson, Nicholas. "Fielding and the 'Sagacious Reader': A Response to Lothar Cerny." Connotations 3.3 (1993): 79-84.
Toker, Leona. "If Everything else Fails, Read the Instructions: further Echoes of the Reception-Theory Debate." Connotations 4.1-2 (1994-95): 151-64.