Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Go, Get Your Husband Put into Commission": Fielding's Tom Thumb Plays and the Labor of Little Men

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Go, Get Your Husband Put into Commission": Fielding's Tom Thumb Plays and the Labor of Little Men

Article excerpt

"In Tasks so bold, can Little Men engage"-Pope, "The Rape of the Lock"1

"my Grand-mamma hath often said, / Tom Thumb, beware of Marriage" -Fielding, Tom Thumb2

In 1730, Henry Fielding wrote a series of love poems addressed to "Celia," otherwise known as Charlotte Cradock, whom he eventually married in 1734.3 In one of these poems, entitled "To the Same. On Her Wishing to Have a Lilliputian to Play With," the author muses: "May I, to please my lovely dame, / Be five foot shorter than I am; / And, to be greater in her eyes, / Be sunk to Lilliputian size."4 Reduced to Lilliputian size-just under six inches, according to Swift's Gulliver's Travels-Fielding imagines himself dancing on his beloved's hand and carted along in her gown, hat, and pocket, in order to "be, / My Celia, what is prized by thee."5 The poem's conclusion finds the miniature Fielding positioned on the sleeping Celia's pillow "[w]hile I survey her bosom rise," a voyeuristic scenario permissible only because, as he admits in a parenthetical phrase, "afraid she could not be / Of such a little thing as me"-his body and genitals, and their proximity to Celia's body and genitals, no longer posing a sexual threat to her, even in bed.6 And yet therein lies the "catch" of Fielding's Lilliputian fantasy: the extraordinary circumstances that grant him unprecedented access to Celia's body and bed leave him physically unable to do anything about it. Becoming what Celia desires, "a Lilliputian to Play with," reduces his entire body to penis-size and thereby makes his own genitalia both physically and symbolically irrelevant. Hence, Fielding states, "Here would begin my former pain / And wish to be myself again."7

Read alongside Fielding's better-known works of "little man" literature-the popular two-act comedy, Tom Thumb (1730), and the three-act Tragedy of Tragedies (1731)-the author's 1730 Lilliputian love poem to his future wife underscores a prominent comical theme in the plays that has yet to be critically explored: the question of how the thumb-sized protagonist and his beloved fiancée, the statuesque Princess Huncamunca, will consummate their impending marriage.8 Whereas in the poem Fielding precludes sexual intercourse between a Lilliputian man and the woman he desires, in the Tom Thumb plays he goes so far as to suggest that Tom Thumb's size actually makes him a superlative sexual partner for the "real-life" modern English woman. Tom Thumb makes the argument himself when, in the last lines of the epilogue to Tom Thumb, he propositions the women in the audience who might regard him as sexually incompatible because of his "inferior Size." If they put him to the test, he proposes, they might find him to be a superior lover:

But, for the Ladies, they, I know despise

The little Things of my inferior Size

Their mighty Souls are all of them too large

To take so small a Heroe to their Charge.

Take Pity, Ladies, on a young Beginner;

Faith! I may prove, in time, a thumping Sinner.9

The double meaning of the word "thumping" in "thumping Sinner" underscores the sexual joke by linking Tom Thumb's "thumping" stature-"thumping" meaning "of striking size"-with his ability to "thump," meaning to pound as does a "fist, a club, or any blunt instrument" (OED).

"Thumb," like "thump," has a double meaning of its own, being a symbol of female masturbation, and also, like the word "Thomas," a common earlymodern colloquialism for the penis. Through these and other double entendres, the plays reiterate in act after act the joke that marital consummation is only possible for Tom Thumb and his normal-sized bride-to-be if she uses his entire body as a phallic sexual prop-that is to say, a human dildo. This method of conjugal intercourse, Fielding makes clear, would provide great pleasure for Huncamunca but great danger for Tom Thumb, who risks not only physical discomfort but also the possibility of being literally swallowed up in the act. …

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