Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
Defoe, Moll Flanders
Fielding, Tom Jones
Sterne, Tristram Shandy




Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe is perhaps the only writer of fiction whom critics have honored by calling him a liar. He is rightly distinguished from other novelists because he is not a novelist in the usual sense of the word at all, but an utterer of false documents, a kind of literary forger. It is not true, as some modern critics have said, that he did not know what he was doing, that the novel was so primitive in his day that the dramatic and as it were, abstract, nature of the art of fiction was unknown to him. It is true that his tales are real autobiographies with imaginary narrators, as Samuel Richardson was to write novels of real letters from imaginary correspondents.

Neither writers were primitive or naïve. The modern novel had already come into existence. Defoe had plenty of examples if he wished to take them. The art of prose fiction goes back to the beginning of literature. How many medieval romances are novels? Surely Le Morte d’Arthur is an elaborately constructed dramatic novel, even if the romances on which it is based are not admitted to the category. No. Defoe was very well aware of what he was doing. He wrote his novels like an enormously skilled criminal testifying under oath and throwing his persecutors off the track. He was a master of imaginary evidence not unlike the great detective novelists, Conan Doyle, R. Austin Freeman, and Simenon, and he surpassed them in the verisimilitude of his testimonies. In the opening paragraph of Robinson Crusoe he begins to throw the reader off the track. There is no dramatic structural reason whatsoever why Crusoe’s father should be a naturalized German from Bremen or why his name should be Kreutznaer mispronounced. There is a structural reason — the demands of an elaborate structure of verity. So the central artistic meaning, the bull’s-eye of the esthetic impact of Defoe’s fictions, is quite different from that of “the novel as a work of art.”

Unless we are romantic adolescents or barbarians, we never think of Ivan Karamazov or Emma Bovary as real people, not anyway when we have escaped from the delusion of the hypnotism of immediate reading. Most novels provide their greatest satisfaction when they are finished and we look back over them, or rather, through them. The novel as a whole, not any character, is an artistic structure that reorganizes experience. The narratives of Crusoe, Moll Flanders, and Roxana are intended to affect us as though we had discovered them in an old trunk in the attic that had come down through the family, a bundle of papers that cracked as we opened them, written in a long out-of-date hand and tied with ribbons that disintegrated at our touch. We are supposed to be put in direct encounter with persons, a specific man, two specific women. Everything is stripped to the bare, narrative substance, and it is this that reveals the psychology or morality of the individual. The most significant details are purely objective, exterior. The interiority of the characters is revealed by their elaborately presented outside. When they talk about their own motives, their psychology, their morals, their self-analyses and self-justifications are to be read backwards, as of course is true of most people, certainly of any bundle of letters we might find in the attic. This is true even of autobiographers who are famous for their sincerity. If we believe everything that Amiel and Marie Bashkirtseff say about themselves, we are going to start off in life with misleading and sentimental ideas of human nature. It is the naïveté of his critics that has led to Defoe’s reputation for superficial or nonexistent psychology.

It is very fashionable nowadays — or was at least in the heyday of the faddist exegesis of Kafka, Kierkegaard, and Henry James — all confused together as though they were one author — to write of Robinson Crusoe as though it were written by San Juan de la Cruz, an allegorical spiritual autobiography with dark nights of the soul and ladders of illumination. Defoe as a matter of fact states quite plainly that Crusoe’s vision of an avenging archangel was due to a surfeit of turtle eggs. His terrors and panics of which so much has been made are no more than would be engendered in the most normal of men by simple loneliness, and they die out as he becomes habituated to his total isolation. The psychology of a man in solitary confinement is accurate. Crusoe is afraid of what men might do to him because year after year men do nothing to him whatsoever. He is terrified by an inexplicable footprint, but master of himself when the real cannibals finally show up.

The sense of sin that haunts the early part of his narrative is no more than what would be expected of a man of his time brooding on the reasons for his predicament. As time goes on, it ceases to be a predicament. It is fruitless to search for an allegorical original sin in Crusoe’s opening pages. He says what it was. He didn’t want to go into business. He least of all wanted to be a member of the middle class, that “best of all states” in his father’s words, and he ran away to sea. “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit” — indeed. If this is original sin no boat would ever have been invented and put out to sea.

What is Robinson Crusoe about? The best way to answer is to begin with Moll Flanders, Roxana, and the stories of highwaymen and pirates. Moll and Roxana are businesswomen, a wise and a foolish whore. Like all of Defoe’s heroes except the cavalier and the explorer of Africa, their lives are dominated by money. Moll Flanders is a kind of audit, a drama of double-entry bookkeeping. Crusoe runs away from the business ethic and finds on shipboard, with its companionate isolation, and in those days its constant mortal danger, the withering of self-alienation. It never withers quite enough. The voyages end, and the cash nexus takes over. Crusoe on his island, as he says of himself, is a man without money. He has plenty, but it molds in a drawer in his cave, the most meaningless thing on his island. There is nothing to connect it to. It is cash but not a nexus. If we believe that money is the root of all evil then presumably it is the apple of original sin. Crusoe is Adam with an inedible apple. So he gradually grows back into a state of original grace.

Crusoe has been called a kind of Protestant monk, and it is true that he turns the chance of his isolation into an anchorite’s career. The story is one of spiritual realization — almost half a lifetime spent on contemplation works profound changes, whatever the subject’s religion. We can watch Crusoe become, year by year, a better, wiser man. He writes little about his interior development and when he does his vocabulary is mostly inappropriate. We see it happen behavioristically. Defoe has been accused of insensitivity because Crusoe shows little compassion for Friday or sorrow at his death. But Defoe is portraying a true-born Englishman whose vocabulary cannot cope with the deepest personal emotions if they cannot be translated into the symbolical language of Dissenting piety.

At the end of the story as it first stood we watch Crusoe grow foolish again. He is back in the world of men and their commerce. It is only when human relationships escape from commerce that the spiritual wisdom he spent so many years acquiring as a hermit has a chance to show itself. Of course he has considerable worldly wisdom, and the sequel is largely the story of a Ulysses of many devices who happened to have spent a few years by accident in a Zen monastery.

Samuel Johnson said that Don Quixote, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe were the only three books a mature man wished were longer. In his time he was close to being right. Robinson Crusoe may still be the greatest English novel. Surely it is written with a mastery that has never been surpassed. It is not only as convincing as real life. It is as deep and as superficial as direct experience itself. The learned but incorrigibly immature will never see in it anything but a well-written boys’ story interspersed with out-of-date moralizing, best cut out when it is published as an illustrated juvenile. Others will believe that Defoe placed himself on record just this once as an unneurotic Kierkegaard, others as a critic beforehand of Montesquieu and Rousseau; still others will see Crusoe as the archetype of Economic Man. The book is all these things and more. It is what Defoe intended, a true life narrative.



Defoe, Moll Flanders

Down the years there have been many people whose judgment was worthy of consideration who have believed that Defoe was the master of the most admirable prose in English since the translators of the Bible. It is not fine writing in the sense that Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is fine writing, and it is at the opposite stylistic pole to the Roman rhetoric of Sam Johnson or the lush flowered prose of Sir Thomas Browne or Thomas De Quincey. It is open to question if it is an exemplary style for any but born writers. As Walter Scott pointed out long ago, it “is the last that should be attempted by a writer of inferior genius; for though it be possible to disguise mediocrity by fine writing, it appears in all its naked inanity when it assumes the garb of simplicity.” Defoe was the first and he remained the greatest of the founders of the plain style which has become the standard English of the twentieth century. We think of it as being like speech, and as a matter of fact, to judge from our quite adequate evidence, prose like this created modern cultivated speech. Addison and Steele and Swift wrote plainly and directly. Defoe thought that way. He was a plain, direct man. The only criticism that has ever been leveled against him was that the homely personality he so obviously possessed dealt with all other personalities in terms of its own unmixed motives.

We seem to see Defoe’s characters through the crystal-clear medium of his style with perfect verisimilitude, as real as if we saw them in a mirror which was so flawless that it was invisible. Moll Flanders is considered the most authentic portrait of a prostitute in English literature. It has been called “the truest realism in English literature,” or on a more sensational level “red-blooded realism,” the tale of a hot, earthy wench. As an example of realism it is supposed to be “like life,” to give the impression of truth, the conviction of being based on real facts. It is widely supposed to be one of the more exciting erotic classics.

The first statement is true; the others are singularly mistaken. Moll Flanders is an authentic portrait of a prostitute but it is not a neutrally objective one. Indeed, it is a relentless evaluation, a judgment. This judgment is pronounced ironically entirely in the terms of the specific kind of realism Defoe chose to employ. The story is not only based on facts; it consists of almost nothing else. Defoe employs every device of verisimilitude of a certain kind — the book is full of things, material things.

Marcel Proust and James Joyce considered themselves “realistic” writers. Their major works purport to be truthful portrayals of different aspects of the interior life. Finnegans Wake would be inconceivable without a specific scientific theory of mental facts. Henry James imagined his novels to deal realistically with the real, hidden motives of his characters. So, obviously, does any contemporary novelist whose work has been influenced by psychoanalysis.

Like Robinson Crusoe, Roxana, The Journal of the Plague Year, and Defoe’s other fictions, Moll Flanders is a narrative of considerable materially factual complication, but not complexity, and of remarkably unmixed motives. The modern novel and the analyst’s couch have conditioned us to expect from both art and life very mixed motives indeed. Complex psychology is almost universal in modem literature. It even lurks beneath the surface of the simplistic style of Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. This has not always been true. Aristotle seems to have thought that complex, equivocal, and ambiguous motivation corrupted or destroyed a work of art rather than improved it. Ben Jonson’s theory of humors comes close to advocating the rationing of one motive to each character and the creating of artistic tension by the complicated interaction of limited maneuver — like a chess problem. One of the greatest works of fiction in the Western world is concerned with protagonists who are even simpler than those of Defoe — the villain and villainess of Les Liaisons Dangereuses are simply evil, and the utter simplicity is bone freezing. Don Quixote, The Tale of Genji, The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Satyricon, these are the world’s major works of prose fiction. In their external relations to other people and to things, their characters may be complicated or not; their responses and finally their motives are as simple as can be. Unity of character, simplicity of motive, complication of circumstance: these are the ingredients of what we call classicism in dramatic fiction.

Simpler than life? Of course. Any work of art is simpler than life. Is life like Dostoievsky or Henry James or Zola? Ben Jonson’s theater of humors is an artistic convention; Henry James’s theory of vapors is equally conventional, so is Zola’s Naturalism. Art imitates life — life imitates art, and in doing so can be very misleading. Acting out is an ancient vice. People spring up all over the place like the teeth of Cadmus’s dragon to try on the costumes of the characters in any successful novel. My mother’s friends strove desperately amongst the tea things to fulfill the promises of Madame des Mauves and the lady of Portrait of a Lady. In San Francisco recently bearded barefoot monsters sprang from the sidewalks like alfalfa, sown on the air by one foolish novel. In the heyday of its popularity any number of literate whores may have modeled themselves in fancy, a little out of focus to be sure, on Waldo Frank’s Rahab.

Moll Flanders gives the overwhelming and indelible impression that it is modeled on a whore in fact. Its authenticity is not due to the accumulation of elaborately researched detail. It has none of the sensory richness of background and local color we find in Zola’s Nana, although it says essentially the same thing about the profession of whoring. Defoe’s is a classical realism. He constructs an archetype of carefully selected “abstracted” characteristics. These characteristics are in turn built up in the narrative by material facts. Moll Flanders is a portrait of the kind known as a Character, popular in classical times — the Characters of Theophrastus, and popular again with the neoclassic taste of Defoe’s day — the Caractères of Jean de La Bruyère. These are behavioristic portraits from which all details have been shorn away that do not reinforce the clarity of the purely typical. The method is that of informative, discursive description. Zola’s Nana is such a character, too, but she is individuated by the detail and complication of her background. Things and events in Nana are presented with sensory richness, but the woman herself is shown with only the most meager interior life, just enough to make her story convincing to the modern taste. Moll Flanders has no interior life at all, and the material facts with which her character is constructed do not increase her individuality. They are chosen as facets of her typicality.

There have been whores with hearts of gold, it is true. I have even known some. But without exception they have been situational prostitutes, Negroes in America, working-class girls in starving Europe immediately after the Second World War. Down the ages, I am confident, there have been a considerable number of golden-hearted hangmen, but a novel about such a person would verge on fantasy. Most voluntary prostitutes are lazy, greedy, willful, lovelost, and treacherous. They are incapable of conceiving of the sexual relationship in any other than exploitative terms. Men are either johns or pimps. Moll Flanders has several sterling qualities, not least of which is fortitude. In the course of time she even, for a whore, learns a certain amount of prudence. To the end her virtues remain the Stoic ones untainted by any glimmer of a higher ethic, and like the Stoic master whom she did not know, Seneca, her outstanding virtue is greed.

Defoe wrote two novels about whores. Today we would class Roxana as a call girl, Moll Flanders as a common prostitute. Both heroines are greedy. Roxana’s greed is complicated. Furthermore it shades imperceptibly into covetousness, a far more deadly evil. Moll’s does not; it is simply greed. Moll is sane and, in her way, honest. Roxana is hypocritical, and if she is not self-deluded at least she always tries hard to delude herself. Moll Flanders is sane indeed, and her sanity brings her to a good end. Roxana is very nice and very nasty, and her niceness and her nastiness bring her to a wretched end — at least so she says as she hurriedly finishes her narrative. I don’t imagine that Defoe thought the moral of the two books was that Stoic amorality is more likely to pay off than Christian hypocrisy. He probably thought that was self-evident. I do think he was interested in Moll Flanders in portraying the ethics of a certain kind of survival against certain kinds of odds. I think he considered it a common and typical success story of his day, and I think he told it in such a way that the reader would be forced to his own conclusions.

Moll moves through a narrower world than one of ordinary material objects; her life takes place almost exclusively amongst commodities. For her the essential relationship in life between human beings and objects and between men and women is price. Whether it is a pearl necklace, a watch, or a plantation in Virginia, we never know what these things look like. We only know that they’ll fetch a good price. For Moll good men are men who give her money and who have the “class” that goes with money. Bad men are men who don’t. She has husbands and children. They come and go, and she reckons them like a bookkeeper as good or bad. Two children she gets off her hands at a neat profit. After some men she is left in the red. Out of others she is able to realize something, modest or handsome as the case may be. Deaths, marriages, disasters, love affairs are only brief, schematic notations on the left-hand side of a ledger. What counts entirely for Moll are the figures on the right and the totals at the bottom.

I do not mean by this that Moll Flanders was not a passionate woman. She is, of course, the archetype of the lusty wench in English literature. It is not that she did not enjoy herself in bed. It is that every orgasm was measured out — so much and no more for the price paid. This might seem a difficult biological feat, but in whoring it is of the essence. Not for nothing is the commercialized sex act known in several languages as a trick — truc, Kniff, trucco.

This concept gives a peculiar character to the entire book. When we come to the end with Moll, old, comfortable, and probably fat, and look back over a long life that came so often so near to total disaster, we think, “Well, old girl, you sure pulled a fast one.” Her life story is the tale of a sharp bargain, a crooked deal with the devil, in which the bargainer was obstinate enough, unbreakable enough, had the guts and stamina to hang on until her adversary had paid in full.

People commonly speak of Moll Flanders as teeming with lusty fire. It is certainly an accurate picture told in the first person of a life and of a lust, but these are of such a character as to result in a narrative that is curiously abstract. It is not just, as many critics have said, that everything is stripped away from the narrative but pure action. There are plenty of descriptive adjectives in Moll’s account of her adventures, but they are all descriptions of a certain kind. Here is a passage taken absolutely at random which could be duplicated on any page of the book:

“I had made an acquaintance with a very sober, good sort of a woman, who was a widow too, like me, but in better circumstances. Her husband had been a captain of a merchant ship, and having had the misfortune to be cast away coming home on a voyage from the West Indies, which would have been very profitable if he had come safe, was so reduced by the loss, that though he had saved his life then, it broke his heart, and killed him afterwards; and his widow, being pursued by the creditors, was forced to take shelter in the Mint.”

The italics are mine. If you go through the novel and underline in red every sum of money and every phrase referring to money or to business transactions you will discover that you have performed an automatic act of revelatory literary criticism. You will have uncovered the operation of an extraordinary irony. It is an irony designed to create tension. The tension arises, like the tension of humor, from radical incongruity, the incongruity of sex and price. The tension may discharge in laughter, but it certainly discharges in judgment. Defoe, after all, was writing a novel. There wasn’t really any Moll Flanders. She is a character in his book. He permits her to record her life only on the cash register, and in so doing judges her without mercy.

We should not forget that like most of Defoe’s novels this is a first-person narrative, and not just a novelistic first person. It is not a story told by an omniscient “I.” The facts are limited to what a real person could actually know and then drastically narrowed by the limitation of character which that person is assumed to possess. Robinson Crusoe, The Journal of the Plague Year, Moll Flanders, Roxana, in every case Defoe is careful to mimic the exact accents of a real person telling what actually happened. His use of the device verges on hoax. It is this elaborate authentication of utterance more than anything else that makes the woman come alive. Moll Flanders writes about herself, we are convinced, exactly the way Moll Flanders would have written it. People are obsessive about themselves in fact. The greedy will describe their adventures in the Battle of Waterloo in terms of profit and loss. The lewd will manage to find sex in the same unlikely place. Only novelists describe battles as have Stendhal, Tolstoy, or Stephen Crane.

Is Robinson Crusoe a realistic story? Indeed not; it is something quite different, a false document. It is convincing as a first-person narrative of a man alone against nature. It is convincing because of its extraordinary purity. All one has to do is to compare the story of Alexander Selkirk, the prototype of Robinson Crusoe. He was anything but a man of singleness of purpose and seems to have enjoyed a remarkably tempestuous subjective life. He was summoned before the kirk for indecent behavior and ran away to sea. He was put ashore on Juan Hernandez Island at his own request after a quarrel with his captain and then tried to get back but was refused. He came home to quarrel with his family and to live in a cave which he dug in the backyard. He eloped with a young girl and immediately abandoned her and lived out his days in riot amongst loose women, beset with mild delusions and occasional hallucinations. The true Alexander Selkirk realistically described would make an excellent hero for a contemporary novel. Defoe is interested in another kind of realism, the careful construction of an absolutely convincing archetype. So too with Moll Flanders. The archetype is so powerfully developed that we can sense the living woman underneath. It is this sense of vital presence peculiar to Defoe’s characters which is not subject to analysis but which gives them their unique life.

If we were to accept this story as all there was to the life of a real woman we should have to call her insane, a monomaniac. Underneath the limitations of Defoe’s archetypical whore, the woman who never forgets for a moment that she is sitting on a fortune, we can feel the living body of the hot, complex woman. How? Why? This is the unanswerable question to which all literary criticism comes. Because Defoe was a great writer. I suppose he knew such women thoroughly and sympathetically and so as he wrote kept before his mind always the actual woman, forcing the living flesh into the mold of his irony. If this were not true the book would be a sermon, both self-righteous and obvious.

Critics have interpreted Moll Flanders as a kind of fictionalization of Tawney’s criticism of capitalist morality or as an anticipation of Marx’s prophetic rhetoric in the Communist Manifesto — the cash nexus passage. It is true that all values are reduced to price and all morality to the profitable. Love is replaced by mutually profitable contractual relationships which are worked out in actuarial detail even when they are illegal. Money is not something with which to buy sex and other sensual gratifications; on the contrary, sex is something to be bartered with shrewdness for as much money as it will bring.

Defoe was not stupid. He was perfectly conscious of the parallel he was drawing between the morality of the complete whore and that of the new middle class which was rising around him, yet he remains aware of Moll Flanders as a woman of flesh and blood, and we in turn are aware of her. She comes to life in our minds as clearly as Chaucer’s wife of Bath but unaided by Chaucer’s loving sensuousness of delineation.

Robinson Crusoe misled many people. Moll Flanders is a false document, too, but it never misled anybody. I think this is because Moll is less acceptable as at once human being and archetype. The moral is harshly drawn, while we, even if it is untrue, prefer to cling to the belief that there’s a little bit of good in every bad little girl. Were it not for this common human failing the business of whoring would be much less profitable. A few men prefer to go to the bed of commercial love with their eyes open, but they are very, very few indeed. We want a civilized man alone at grips with obdurate nature to be like Robinson Crusoe — there is more than a bit of Prospero in him — whereas we prefer our whores like the Lady of the Camelias or Violetta of La Traviata, or at least Fanny Hill.

“A middle-sized spare man of about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark brown colored hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth.” So the law described Defoe when it hunted him out for giving a scandalous impersonation of a High Churchman in A Short Way with Dissenters. He sounds foxy, and he was surely a master of plausibility. For many years he was a secret agent in the ranks of the Jacobites. He was very far from a colorful one. He went patiently about his business of keeping in repair his spurious verisimilitude. He was exactly the opposite of an agent provocateur or cloak-and-dagger man. He shared none of the gaudy glamor of other literary secret agents of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The antics of Marlowe, the Jesuits at the Caroline courts, the bawdy English playwright and spy, Mrs. Aphra Behn, St. Germain, the man who pretended to have lived forever, were not for him. He acted perfectly the role of a cautious, temperate, Jacobite editor for years and was only unmasked toward the end of his life by events beyond his control.

For a literary man he seems to have been an extraordinarily successful businessman and promoter. We can judge this only from the difficulties he got into, but they are a measure of his talents. Anyone who could fail at the age of thirty-two, for what was then the enormous sum of 17,000 pounds, and eventually pay off his creditors, and through the course of his life do things like this again and again, is a man of no small commercial talent as well as being what his time would have called a most plausible projector. In addition Defoe is usually referred to as the first professional journalist of the modern type. This is not exactly true. He did not live exclusively by writing, but at least he has always merited the attribution. Actually it seems to me he was much more the man of affairs who uses literature for his own purposes. The comparison that springs first to my mind is not Clarendon, Sir William Temple, or Jonathan Swift, to whom, I suppose such a description could be applied, but the, at first glance, somewhat unlikely banker, economist, sociologist, founder of modern financial journalism and uniquely temperate literary critic, Walter Bagehot.

Businessmen who succeed in literature or literary men who succeed in business commonly possess virtues found less frequently amongst literary men who succeed only in literature. Courage, prudence, fortitude, equanimity, steadiness of temper, and diversity of interests are some of them. Bagehot himself summed up these virtues in magnanimity, and he spoke too of the prose of the literary man of affairs as usually being distinguished by what he called animated moderation and above all else by cogency. Cogency is not just persuasiveness, it is convincingness, the result of a kind of forceful literary prudence. It is a style which comes to a writer used to surviving in a larger arena than that of literature. One of the merits of a cogent style is that it practically demands imitation. Once seen it naturally urges itself upon all who would do likewise with language.

Like Defoe, Bagehot founded no literary movements, but he is one of the main founders of the modern expository style, whether in serious journalism, scientific treatise, exploration, or any other variety of sober nonfiction. Out of Bagehot and his ilk are born great sleeping masterpieces of modern prose, like the article “Polar Regions” by Hugh Robert Mill and Fridtjof Nansen in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, an example of clarity and cogency that has seldom been surpassed, but has been equaled far more often than most literary people imagine who are unfamiliar with the world of workaday expository writing. Bagehot wrote the way any mid-Victorian cultivated gentleman wished he could talk. In the course of time a large number of late Victorian cultivated gentlemen managed to do so. Likewise with Defoe. As we read him today he seems to us to write just like anybody and everybody else. This is what we mean when we say he is the inventor of modern English prose. To his contemporaries his style must have been a most startling revelation of the power hidden in the commonplace. Writers like this are absolutely essential to the life of the language. Without them it sickens and dies, eaten to death by orchids, plucked to pieces by ducks, and gnawed into dust by termites.




Fielding, Tom Jones

Tom Jones has been compared to Odysseus and Huck Finn. Huck he somewhat resembles; Odysseus not at all. He is more like a compound of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — not a mixture, but a chemical compound of antagonistic qualities and virtues which has produced a new being. You do not read far in the novel before you become aware that Fielding is constructing a character to demonstrate a thesis. He is not preaching. Tom is not a dummy or a stereotype on which proofs are hung like clothes. On the contrary: the thesis is precisely his humanity; but Fielding’s is a special vision of man — common enough now, especially in America, but strange to English fiction in his day.

If the novel were simply the portrayal of an ideal human type, it would have soon become unreadable. It is, of course, an immense panorama of mid-eighteenth-century England, as populous as any novel of Tolstoy’s or Dostoievsky’s. Comparison, however, with a work like War and Peace immediately reveals a profound difference. The plot of Tom Jones is not a “real life” story but a fairy tale, a Märchen, disguised with realism. Nor are the subsidiary characters fleshed out like the minor characters of the major Russian novelists. Fielding carefully subordinates all other characters to Tom and Sophie in a graded series of realization. The nearer and more important they are to the principals, the more complex they are, but they are never very complex. Blifil and Squire Allworthy are scarcely more rounded out than the characters of Ben Jonson’s Theatre of Humours. The minor figures are reduced to bare essentials — quickly drawn stereotypes.

The fairy-tale plot is spun out and complicated endlessly, but it never becomes complex. All its situations are simple. They are pervaded with a mocking double irony by the ambiguous comments of the omniscient author. The relations between the characters constantly lapse into farce. This all gives the book an air of quiet madness. Life is seen in an imperceptibly warped mirror or through a telescope with an abnormally sharp definition — the clarity and distortion of myth.

Fielding is not only an omniscient narrator — he constantly tells you that you are reading a novel, that these people are all fictions. This is the alienation that Brecht made a catchword in our day, like that of the burlesque comedian who turns to the audience and says, “This is me, climbing the ladder to her room.” Or the nineteenth-century Shakespearean actor who delivered the soliloquies directly to the audience as sermons on his own action. Most people today, raised on an illusionistic realism of narration, find it difficult to adjust to Fielding or anyone — Thackeray, for instance — who adopted the same author’s authority. But Tom Jones is not naturalism, and it is realism only in the broadest sense. It is an immensely complicated farce.

The plot and the thesis are one: Tom is that universal hero of folk tale and myth, the foundling prince, the king’s son raised by wolves, Moses in the bullrushes, whose princely qualities shine out in all his acts and eventually determine events so that his true heritage is revealed. Fielding is defining a gentleman. The fact that many of the characters are as well born as Tom or better born does not disturb the logic. They are the bad aristocrats. He is a natural gentleman — but not a noble savage, rather a noble fallen amongst savages, a savage noble, actually not a noble but a gentleman — quite a different concept from Rousseau’s.

Hardly an episode does not demonstrate Tom’s gentlemanliness. Fielding defines gentlemanliness as generosity of soul. Sin he may, but always for others’ good. His relations with women are always motivated by the desire to please or help. When he is seduced by an old rip like Mrs. Waters, he responds with gratitude — the reaction of a generous man to generosity. This response overwhelms Mrs. Waters, and she responds at the crucial moment with a generosity that literally saves Tom’s life. Unlike modern novelists, Fielding assumes that people enjoy sex.

Tom is the Good Natured Man, but by this Fielding means more than his contemporaries meant by the eighteenth-century catch phrase — something very like the “human-heartedness” of Confucius. Several times Fielding interpolates little lectures on good nature that sound exactly like translations from the Chinese. I have no idea whether he read the French translations, or the Latin, of the Jesuit renditions of the Chinese classics that were then so popular amongst French intellectuals. If not, the convergence is remarkable. Tom is very much the typical Chinese hero, and the novel could easily be restated in Chinese terms and setting.

Not least of its Chinese characteristics is its decorum. Fielding wrote Tom Jones against the lachrymose soul-probing of Richardson’s heroines, as a protest against bad manners. Fielding has been criticized again and again by a psychologistic age for his characters’ total lack of interiority. Whenever they so much as reflect, the omniscient author makes fun of them and always points out that they are deluding themselves.

This is part of the thesis: actions speak louder than words — and words than thoughts, especially about oneself. When his characters become unruly, violate his special concept of the etiquette of human-heartedness, Fielding intrudes and admits that they are creations of his imagination and he can make them do as he wishes — and then usually comments that they have taken on a certain autonomy that escapes his control.

This horrified Henry James, who considered it artistic treason and said he would be no more shocked to find such admissions in the histories of Gibbon and Macaulay. Of course, Fielding’s point — the double point of his double irony — is that it is precisely such personal historians who should make such admissions. Ultimately, the decorum of Brechtian alienation is a judgment on real, undecorous life.

The blubbery self-revelations of Richardson’s novels, says Fielding, are lies. He would doubtless consider those of Proust or James lifelong evasion on the part of their authors. What he thought of the novel of objective revelation of character, of Defoe and his descendants, I do not know. The evidence is that Tom himself is patterned on Defoe — but the other characters, not. Defoe, however, wrote false documents — novels presented as actual memoirs. Fielding did the opposite. As the novel approaches the conviction of reality, Fielding always pulls the reader back — “this is not real.” What is not real? Our judgments of “real life”? This is the essence of his irony. The omniscient author hoaxes the reader into believing he is omniscient and then pulls the throne from under him. Richardson, James, and Proust, on the other hand, really believed they had revealed the essences of human behavior.

Tom Jones is Fielding’s conception of optimum man — but seen entirely from the outside. You feel, reflecting on the novel after long familiarity, that his imperviousness to probing and lack of interest in self-probing were, to Fielding’s mind, an essential part of the optimum. Behind Rousseau’s new and revolutionary concept of man at his best lies the inward-turning eye of Descartes’s Cogito ergo sum. Behind Fielding’s Tom lie the clear and definite external sense data of John Locke, and he is an equally revolutionary type of person. Out of one came the endlessly self-questioning continental radical intellectual. Out of the other came the active pragmatic man of whom Jefferson is probably the best exemplar, if the truth be told — a man who probably resembled Tom in more ways than one.



Laurence Sterne,
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent.

Historians of civilization when they come to the eighteenth century almost always devote most space to France. The Age of Enlightenment is usually considered the period in which French thought dominated European culture. This is certainly true in a quantitative sense: Voltaire or Diderot must have been read by the greatest number of people, and we spontaneously think of eighteenth-century painting as represented by Boucher, Fragonard, or, at the best, Chardin — this in spite of the fact that the Tiepolos, father and son, are greater painters. As philosophers the French philosophes seem pretty thin today, essentially popularizers. Their foundations go back to the seventeenth century, and not primarily to the Frenchman Descartes but to the Englishmen Locke and Newton.

Similarly with the novel. Nothing would appear in France to compare with the great English novels of the eighteenth century until Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which was not an expression of the Age of Enlightenment, but its obituary.

Modern taste, corrupted by the undemanding narratives of television, the movies, and commercial fiction, may find Fielding, Smollett, and especially Richardson hard to read, but Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy retains a wide measure of popularity. It may not be as popular today as David Copperfield, but it is certainly more popular than most other classic English fiction or than those favorites of our grandparents, Vanity Fair and Ivanhoe.

Dozens of books have been called “the first modern novel.” As expressions of the modern sensibility of alienation, the best claimants are doubtless the novels of Laclos and Stendhal; but in a most important way Tristram Shandy is modern, so modern that a very long time would elapse before anything else like it would appear.

If Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi can be called a play which assumes that the characters are performing not outside the mind but within it, Tristram Shandy is a drama of the mind itself.

It is a bucolic — rather, a provincial-town — comedy. It has often been pointed out that it is the very distillate of life in York — still the regional capital that it had been in the Middle Ages, with its own circle of intellectuals, its own “power structure,” its own coffee houses and magazines, and its own cultural originality and autonomy. As such, the novel is a mirror of the greater London or Paris — the great reflected in the little, and more sharply refined, as in a reducing glass. But it is more than this. It is, as Sterne said it was, in the face of hostile critics who have gone on to this very day accusing him of being a lewd and neurotic country clergyman, indeed a philosophical and moral work, and one of very considerable profundity.

As Sterne saw the workings of the mind, it functioned according to the philosophy of Locke as modified by the atomism of Newton. There was nothing in the mind that was not first in sensation, and each primitive sensation was a kind of atom. The sensations entered the mind through the senses and were combined to reach ever-ascending levels of complexity and abstraction. If this process could only be as orderly as the sorting mechanism of the mind itself, what would result would be a universe of strictly deductive logic, a kind of immense and even more closely structured Euclid’s Elements or Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles.

But the atoms of experience, the primitive sense data, do not occur at the option of the mind; nor, since the mind is ultimately itself formed of its own material, is the process so logically efficient. In fact, it is all extraordinarily random. Sensation is fed to us in the most helter-skelter fashion. At the lower levels of mental activity we are at the mercy of the chances of association. We may well be even at the highest levels, even though we do not realize it. This is an elementary, psychologistic, definition of comedy itself. It is certainly very funny, the way we put together our individual pictures of the universe, and the way we go through the experience we call “experience,” and the way we emerge at the end.

Sterne’s contribution, and it is a very important one to psychology and epistemology, is the realization that the essence of the comedy of epistemology, the profound humor of what we call knowledge of reality, is the ungovernable disorder of Time. If Locke’s sense data came to us marching one-two-three-four through our sense organs into our brains, as Newton’s atoms move in matter or his planets go around the sun, Time would be simple, linear, and comprehensible — but of course, they do not. We cannot measure experience by looking at the clock. Later philosophers were to distinguish something they call Organic Time; but this is a knowledge of process far more orderly than the comic disorder of Sterne’s narrative.

Joseph Conrad’s favorite narrator, Marlow, tells his tales with the natural switching and shifting of time of someone telling a story as it occurs to willed memory. In Proust, time dissolves and slows. Even the narrator, Marcel, is a character in a brain that is constantly trying to return the temporal process to its sources. James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place in a day. Finnegans Wake takes place in a single troubled dream, and all of Joyce’s experience is reflected and refracted in the brief circuits of a few revolving mirrors and prisms. But most of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. occur before he has any opinions, and a third before he has any life. He isn’t born until far on in the book. Chapter after chapter goes by while the author struggles helplessly, in an inconsequential sequence in the narrative, to get two characters downstairs.

It was in discussing Sterne that Coleridge elaborated his famous definition of humor as the juxtaposition of the immense and important and the trivial and tiny in the real, in that reality which is always overshadowed by the infinite. Although he was offended, or at least said he was, by Sterne’s bawdry, he was well aware of its significance.

One famous and often analyzed passage is a case in point. It is a sentimental set piece far more effective than almost anything in the novels of Richardson or the paintings of Greuze, and it ends with mockery. Tristram is on his way by coach to Moulins and encounters the beautiful, blind, and brokenhearted Maria “sitting upon a bank, playing her vespers upon her pipe, with her little goat beside her,” driven mad with sorrow. Overcome with sentiment, Tristram stops the coach and seats himself beside the girl.

Maria look’d wistfully for some time at me, and then at her goat—and then at me—and then at her goat again, and so on, alternately—“Well, Maria, said I softly—What resemblance do you find?”

All through this touching narrative, so full of melancholy, we know that Tristram has been getting sexually excited unbeknown to himself, and the climax of the excitement is the sharp realization of the absurdity of the act of procreation. Small wonder Coleridge picked this passage. He was acutely aware of the ridiculousness of “coming to be and passing away.” Coleridge’s private notebooks contain descriptions in the language of “Kubla Khan” of the colors and perfumes of his morning’s chamber pot. Tristram’s father’s discourse on the white bear is a thoroughly modern poem on the absurdity of our knowledge of the world:


My father took a single turn across the room, then sat down and finished the chapter.
      The verbs auxiliary we are concerned in here, continued my father, are, am; was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suffer; shall; should; will; would; can; could; owe; ought; used; or is wont.—And these varied with tenses, present, past, future, and conjugated with the verb see,—or with these questions added to them;—Is it? Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May it be? Might it be? And these again put negatively, Is it not? Was it not? Ought it not?—Or affirmatively,—It is; It was; It ought to be. Or chronologically,—Has it been always? Lately? How long ago?—Or hypothetically,—If it was? If it was not? What would follow?—If the French should beat the English? If the Sun go out of the Zodiac?
      Now, by the right use and application of these, continued my father, in which a child’s memory should be exercised, there is no one idea can enter his brain how barren soever, but a magazine of conceptions and conclusions may be drawn forth from it.—Didst thou ever see a white bear? cried my father, turning his head round to Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:—No, an’ please your honour, replied the corporal.—But thou could’st discourse about one, Trim, said my father, in case of need?—How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle Toby, if the corporal never saw one?—’Tis the fact I want, replied my father,—and the possibility of it is as follows.
      A white bear! Very well. Have I ever seen one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one? Or can I ever see one?
      Would I had seen a white bear! (for how can I imagine it?)
      If I should see a white bear, what should I say? If I should never see a white bear, what then?
      If I never have, can, must or shall see a white bear alive; have I ever seen the skin of one? Did I ever see one painted?—described? Have I never dreamed of one?
      Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt, brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear? What would they give? How would they behave? How would the white bear have behaved? Is he wild? Tame? Terrible? Rough? Smooth?
      —Is the white bear worth seeing?—
      —Is there no sin in it?—
      Is it better than a black one?

There is no essential difference between the circumstantial picture of the human condition in Sterne and that in the most anguished Existentialist, except that Sterne’s portrayal is far more elaborate and accurate, and he thinks it’s funny. There is an important distinction here, that between comedy and humor. There is nothing funny about the final aesthetic experience we get from Machiavelli’s Mandragola or Ben Jonson’s Volpone, any more than there is in the one we get from No Exit. There is an immense amount of funny business along the way in the two older plays; but all three are comedies, and their look into chaos is bleak.

There is all sorts of pathos along the way in Tristram Shandy — the saddest the death of Le Fever, where Sterne unquestionably surpasses Richardson or even Fielding, that great anti-sentimentalist. But Sterne, looking out like the Prince of the Fallen Angels over the chaos of the world, does what Satan could never do: he laughs, as Buddha laughed long before him at the vision of the compound infinitudes of universes in the Lankavatara Sutra. Certainly most people would think the conjunction of Sterne and Buddha as incongruous as anything in the novels of one or the sermons of the other; but the conclusion of the English country clergyman and provincial philosophe was the same as that of the founder of a world religion: an all-suffering compassion.

That is precisely what Sterne says is the message of Tristram Shandy. It is the constantly reiterated theme of his now-unread sermons, which were unique in a time when the pulpit in England was not distinguished for the identification of the clergy with the sufferings and the absurdities of the lives of the humble.


Selections from Kenneth Rexroth’s Classics Revisited (copyright 1968 Kenneth Rexroth) and More Classics Revisited (copyright 1989 Kenneth Rexroth Trust). Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Both of these volumes are in print and available from New Directions. Do yourself a favor and get them.

Note: The Moll Flanders essay originally appeared as the Afterword to a Mentor Books edition of Moll Flanders (1962). It was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970) and then included in More Classics Revisited (New Directions, 1989).

Other “Classics Revisited” essays