High and Low Culture: Punch meets Aristotle in Tom Jones
As I noted in my previous post, Tom Jones was a "novel" piece of writing for that time in the 18th century. It is no wonder that this author, probably accustomed to the classics, needed to find a way to entrench his book within the reader's mind. He does so by referencing as many well-known works as possible, though
The author makes numerous references to what would be considered higher cultured artists: "O Shakespeare, had I thy pen! O, Hogarth, had I thy pencil!" (482) While in this section he claims he cannot write or draw the scene the way these two great masters would, simply by invoking their names he uses their technique to add complexity to the moment. Such a great moment would need a great artist to depict it! And since the author is the creator of said moment, in a way he lends credibility to his own words.
It is also important to note that there is a serious conversation on the topic of Punch and his Wife Joan. I thought it sounded rather familiar, and then I realized I myself had once seen the Punch and Judy show at
one of my Civil War reenactments. Throughout the show the little puppet pillaged and murdered, to the glee of the giggling children. As an adult I witnessed the violent themes, ones that would have been popular with that lower class that even the puppet master talking to Mr. Jones noted: "when I first too to the business, there was a great deal of low stuff that did very well to make folks laugh; but was never calculated to improve the morals of young people..." (556) Yet Mrs. Jones' response seems to echo the author's feeling of this lower class culture: "I would have been glad to have seen my old acquaintance master Punch, for all that...by leaving out him and his merry wife Joan, you have spoiled your puppet-show." (556) Mr. Jones notes that by not including this "low" art, the entire scene itself is ruined. He implies we need both for true entertainment.
Why does Mr. Jones defend such violent and crude humor, and yet not too much farther in the text, breath Aristotle or Odyssey? In the same way that The Beggar's Opera appealed to so many people, this writing reaches all readers, as most would have seen a Punch and Joan show. By including these works he pushes the boundaries of the new "novel" genre, and lays the groundwork for a bourgeois culture
In the end, it is ironic that Fielding draws from both the classics and the "modern" in order to create this new genre. Is it that it would be not as accepted to a wider audience unless it contained these references? It is odd, as now this once "new" literary genre has taken over the print culture, and Tom Jones itself is considered one of the classics from which to draw inspiration.