It had been absolute donkey’s years since I’d read the 761pages of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, published in 1750 by Henry Fielding and frequently praised ever since for, among other things, the intricate structure of the plot. I had thoroughly enjoyed it back when I’d read it in my 18th century novel class, and recently felt like a serious break from the 20th century, so I dragged it out and plunked myself down.
Tom Jones is an effervescent brew of bawdiness, religion, physical humor, and psychological insight served up in a great mixture of styles. Here, for example, is Squire Western at the moment he discovers that Tom has designs on his daughter:
‘At unt half a Man, and I’ll lick thee as well as wast ever licked in thy Life.’ He then bespattered the Youth with Abundance of that Language, which passes between Country Gentlemen who embrace opposite Sides of the Question; with frequent Applications to him to salute that Part which is generally introduced into all Controversies, that arise among the lower Orders of the English Gentry, at Horse-races, Cock-matches, and other public Places. Allusions to this Part are likewise often made for the Sake of the Jest.
Grand fun with language and narrative technique, more plot twists than any soap opera, dozens of comic types running hither and yon; what more could you want? Well, how about characters who live and breathe? It’s not that sort of a book. There is no room, between the lengthy bouts of narration and the frenetic demands of the plot, for the characters to do aught but keep up with the action. That does not mean that the characters aren’t a lot of fun, only that they remain comic types, representative of various traits in people, but not individuals in the way that, say, Dickens’ characters are.
I learned a little bit about the potential conflicts between characters and plot while writing The Great American Desert. The plot; that’s usually what people mean when they ask what a book’s about, and it’s often what a writer starts with. Then the characters start to take form, and sometimes they don’t quite do what you want them to. Mine eventually went on strike until I threw out my carefully-scripted plot and let them work it out themselves.
Laurence Sterne solves this problem by ignoring plot almost completely. He creates characters and incidents. Because he’s not headed anywhere in particular, he has time to let those characters and incidents unfold at leisure. This goes a long way towards explaining why I’ve read Tristram Shandy perhaps a dozen times and Tom Jones only twice.
Here’s another problem with plots: The more involved they are, the less convincing they become. Tom Jones is an enormous pile of architecture but some of the bricks at the bottom are not exactly plumb, and if you look at them too closely the whole thing comes tumbling down.