Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Adventures of Peter Wilkins: Desire, Difference, and the Fallacy of Comic Convention

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

The Adventures of Peter Wilkins: Desire, Difference, and the Fallacy of Comic Convention

Article excerpt

Comedy is the most enduring genre of adventure, not least because, unlike the epic, its itineraries are meant to be familiar, even if they aren't, really. Most adults will know something of the progression from quest to conquest to conjugation; and few of us, however mindful of the real beauties of the trip, will object to their fanciful exaggeration at the hands of a good writer. Perhaps the most appropriate tide ever given to a comedy is "It Could Happen to You," the infinitely promising declarative that names a film released in 1994. The tide is irresistible. One likes to think that "It"--that most pregnant of pronouns--might happen to oneself in some extravagant way that gives the lie to one's own history, in which "it" has generally been a lower-case affair, a shrunken version of the proud compositorial hybrid that initiates the film's tide. The consummation of "I" and "it" is more desirable because, as the Rochefoucauldian Swift might suggest, "I" wearies of watching "it"--worse, "It"--happen to others. So one enjoys imagining that one might win the New York State lottery and marry Bridget Fonda (or Nicholas Gage), as happens to Nicholas Cage (and Bridget Fonda) in the film, even if one suspects that the odds are longer than the film's tide implies.

In several respects It Could Happen to You is a template for the genre, featuring the humble characters stipulated by Aristotle, the overcoming of obstacles to desire evident since Aristophanes, and, again, the happy ending that commentators at least since Dante have found characteristic of comedies divine and secular. The potentially crass linkage of financial and sexual fulfilment poses a problem, but not a big or an unusual one. We learn that the couple doesn't really need the money, or not all of it, so having it is nice but not definitional. Money happens to people who don't care too much about money; Lydia Languish made the point long before Bridget Fonda did. So this too is conventional. Frank Ellis finds an animus against money in "English [dramatic] comedy from James I to George III"; the bias is evident in play after play that moves nonetheless toward the "happy rustle of bridal gowns and banknotes," to borrow Northrop Frye's felicitous description of comedy's terminal soundtrack. (1) We decline to examine the contradiction too closely because it is both lovely and decorous. Closure spares us the sight of our youngsters morphing into portly capitalists, transmogrified by the booty that once seemed nothing more than incidental to the grand enterprise of love and that ought, in the best of worlds, to seem so always.

Ellis's work demonstrates that the tenets of dramatic comedy wen in place by the 1750s. The comic affiliation of the novel was not yet so clear, however. Granted, the novel (famously) seemed in some quarters intent on establishing itself as a comic genre, or so we suspect from the early fictions of Richardson and Henry Fielding and, less clearly, from Defoe's fiction. But the comic grooves of the novel were not deep, and they had not been etched without resistance. Henry Fielding felt obliged to assert the comic foundations of "the new species of writing" twice in the 1740s, in prefaces to his own Joseph Andrews (1741) and to the second edition of his sister's David Simple (1744). In 1750, Johnson did not mean to state the obvious when he said that "this kind of writing"--meaning novels by Henry Fielding and Smollett--"may be termed not improperly the comedy of romance, and is to be conducted nearly by the rules of comic poetry." (2) Lord Kames declined to consider comedy, much less comic fiction, in his Elem ents of Criticism, published in 1761.

The novel itself is sometimes the testing ground for the debate about generic precedent. As I will argue, Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins (1751) employs a comic superstructure as it were parodically, in order to comment on the tenets offered up by less volatile forms like the comic drama. …

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