The Rhetoric of Suffering: Reading the Book of Job in the Eighteenth Century

By Jonathan Hoeber Lamb | Go to book overview

12
The Strangled Sublime: Fielding's Representation of the Barely Possible

If his protestations are anything to go by, Fielding sets even more store by pictures of exemplary self-restraint in his fiction than Richardson. He begins Joseph Andrews with the 'trite but true Observation, that Examples work more forcibly on the Mind than Precepts'.1 In the dedication of Tom Jones, he defines example as 'a kind of picture, in which virtue becomes as it were an object of sight'.2 And in Amelia he proposes the heroine as an 'excellent example to all mothers'.3 He is led by at least two considerations to this reliance upon example as a more probable method of instruction than the recitation of sententious observations. The first is the widely available empirical truth that precepts will not persuade people to moderate their behaviour, because they have first often failed to convince the pedagogues, magistrates, and maximmongers who are fondest of quoting them. Fielding has a rare talent for revealing the wise and just in dereliction of the very rules and directions they have just delivered, such as Squire Allworthy talking resentfully of those who harbour resentment, and Mrs Bennet despising only the folk who find others despicable.4 The second is his wide reading in the law, which taught him the deterrent value of exemplary punishment to the community at large. In his Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase in Robbers ( 1751), he mentions with approval Machiavelli's and Hale's arguments in favour of making an example of malefactors, how it forges 'the Chain of Justice', which ought not to be weakened by acts of mercy. He then outlines his own idea of an ideal execution, where 'The Terror of the Example is the only Thing proposed, and one Man is sacrificed to the Preservation of Thousands'.5

Good and bad examples, then, offer visible and credible inducements to right thinking and virtuous action by entwining chains of fictional

____________________
1
The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, ed. Martin C. Battestin ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 17.
2
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, ed. R. P. C. Mutter ( Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), 37.
3
Amelia, ed. Martin Battestin ( Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 167.
4
Tom Jones, 85; Amelia, 311.
5
Enquiry, ed. Malvin Zirker ( Connecticut: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1988), 166.

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