Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Narrative Circle: The Interpolated Tales in 'Joseph Andrews.'

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

The Narrative Circle: The Interpolated Tales in 'Joseph Andrews.'

Article excerpt

There are sometimes events in or features of novels that, although somewhat anomalous or irrelevant to the normally constituted action, seem to draw disproportionate amounts of critical attention. The interpolated tales in Joseph Andrews-especially "The History of Leonora, or the Unfortunate Jilt," as well as the brief "History of Two Friends"--are cases in point. (1) They account for a significant portion of the current reception of Joseph Andrews--including several articles in the pages of Studies in the Novel--and in tandem they have been highlighted as the interpretive crux of the text. While there has been a range of criticism on Joseph Andrews-for instance, on its literary sources and analogues, on the role of the narrator and implied ethical themes, and more recently on the construction of the reader(2)--a nodal point of the reception over the past forty years has been to explain the relevance of the tales, thematically, plot-wise, or otherwise. In a sense, their very irrelevance seems to spur yet further explanations of their place in the novel, and thereby to provide a fertile site for critical performance.(3)

Overall, commentary on the tales pivots on the poles of dismissal and justification. The established consensus, from the initial reception through the 1960s and beyond, holds to the former, singling out the tales as irrecuperable flaws that mar the course of the otherwise continuous travel-narrative. Sir Walter Scott expresses the tenor of the early reception, commenting that the reader normally "glides down the narrative like a boat on the surface of some broad navigable river," but "one exception to this praise ... [is that] Fielding has thrust into the midst of his narrative ... the history of Leonora, unnecessarily and inartificially."(4) This view continues in modern-day criticism, articulated by Irving Ehrenpreis, that they are "dull and repetitious" and an obvious flaw,(5) and I would speculate in ordinary reading and teaching, since they disrupt the plot of Joseph's adventures, therefore, "break[ing] the spell of the imaginary world represented in the novel," extending Ian Watt's complaint about Fielding's interruptions.(6) In the face of this consensus, a cluster of recent readings recuperates the tales as aesthetically assured and integrated components in the overall narrative, proposing an array of explanations: they are thematically unified with the rest of the novel and underscore its ethical lesson;(7) they work as comic and skillful literary parody, after Cervantes;(8) they provide analogues to or contrasts with the main characters and their situations;(9) they effect a dramatic pause or contrast to contribute to the narrative pacing;(10) and they highlight the theme of reading and interpretation that occurs throughout the novel. (11)

In a manner of speaking, this recent course of criticism thus performs a revisionary apologetics, making what were previously thought to be discordant features cohere with the salient dimensions of the novel (theme, character, plot, etc.), in turn affirming that the novel is unified and artfully accomplished. As J. Paul Hunter notes, this criterion of unity is a distinctly modern one, predominant with the rise of the New Criticism, not an eighteenth-century one. Hunter comments that while the tales might be an "embarassment" to the expectation of organic unity, such digressive or interruptive features were not unusual in eighteenth-century narratives.(12) It is worth remarking that the inaugural line of justifications of the tales coincides with the establishment of the New Criticism in the 1950s and 1960s. In this light, the tendency to smooth over the formal or thematic dissonance of the tales functions, in Paul de Man's formulation, as "paraphrase," a common process of reading that hides discontinuities and disruptions, subordinating them to "the teleology of controlled meaning,"(13) Beyond the interpretive problematic that de Man pinpoints, I would add that this move toward "paraphrase" has larger implication and speaks to the institutional economy of literary studies. …

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