Joseph Andrews (Fielding)
Fielding’s first novel is entertaining on every page, one witty and elaborate sentence after another. His style alone makes him worth reading, but he is, of course, at the very fountainhead of the English novel. Warmer than the fiercely satirical Swift, with an action-filled rollicking picaresque plot like Smollett, just emerging from the faux-factual pretense of Defoe, and, with a scent of the Rabelaisian, heaping ridicule on the sentimental moralizer Richardson, his are surely the most readable fictions of his age.
Though the plot turns on such romance elements as the difficulties of love including late revelations of parentage (cleverly redoubled in the conclusion), the story nonetheless remains within more or less plausible. Announcing at the outset in his “Author’s Preface” a “kind of writing, which I do not remember to have seen hitherto attempted in our language, a “comic romance,” or “a comic epic poem in prose,” he maintains he always confines himself “strictly to nature.”
Fielding, like Trollope, had an immense affection for humankind which in no way diminished his perception of people’s failings. At every turn of Andrews’ troubled journey, he receives succor from the weak and the poor and harassment from the wealthy and powerful. Society itself, including politics, law, and money are controlled by the unworthy and the greedy. Perhaps Fielding’s sympathy for the underdog is merely an instance of his celebrated quality of “good nature.” With reason Coleridge called him “the moralist of the Good Heart.”
Kanadehon Chūshingura (Izumo , Shōraku, and Senryū ; trans. Keene)
This puppet play, later redone in Kabuki, stage play, film, television show, and novels, is perhaps the most popular of all Japanese historical stories. The author of this translation, done shortly after WWII, was acutely aware of the apparent application of the play’s values to recent history, but the continuous production of television and film versions as well as on stage, including ballet and opera productions, suggests it has lost none of its appeal. Even in contemporary times, this glorification of exalted notions of honor promoted in the story including seppuku continues as a potent model in Japanese culture.
This is the famous story of the forty-seven loyal samurai who have become masterless ronin and who commit suicide after avenging their lord. The play of ferociously uncompromising ideal of loyalty with extreme sentiment and insoluble moral and social conflicts creates a series of parallel scenes in which the virtue of the heroes is tragic, grand, and inevitable.
Interested reader might wish to have a look at the art works illustrating the story available at http://www.kuniyoshiproject.com/Main%20-%20Chushingura.htm.
The Bell Jar (Plath)
The first portion of The Bell Jar before the narrator’s hospitalization is a breezily readable fiction of that recognizable first novel genre in which the gifted young person, somewhat ill at ease, begins to make her way in the world. As Plath gently satirizes the world of the mid-twentieth century she engages the reader the more for including herself prominently among the objects of her wit. Her depiction of the hazards and contradictions surrounding a woman of her era seeking love and a career are in general deftly done.
The latter portion, detailing a breakdown that must have been for the author devastating and harrowing almost beyond description is oddly weak. The most dreadful experiences are detailed deadpan in spare factual data. Her odd, suggestive little observations shape many of the episodes in the hospital in a way little different from her accounts of incidents in the Amazon Hotel or the Mademoiselle office. Even the repeated image of the bell jar seems to be hardly sufficient for the emotional weight it must bear. Even when experience is beyond language (and to a fine reckoning it all is), the poet points in the direction of reality, misty though that shore may be. Plath maintained enough of her equipoise to write about mental illness with the admirable cleverness of a gifted student, but it seems to me that she shrank from its horror except in the truly chilling accounts of self-destructive acts. Here it seems the facts are all that is needed.