The performative dimension of Fielding's fiction has often frustrated the attempts of critics to read the machinery of his plot through the lens of rationalist Enlightenment philosophy. Rather than a deity or benevolent magistrate, Fielding's narrator has seemed more like a trickster or charlatan manipulating a narrative full of spectacular coincidences and implausibilities. Historians of science, however, have shown that performances with spectacular machines played a key role in establishing the epistemological authority of empirical science in the eighteenth century. Like Fielding, moreover, eighteenth-century natural philosophers were accused of being charlatans staging magic shows. To distinguish themselves from their rivals, therefore, philosophers had to perform “boundary-work” in which they contrasted the enlightened knowledge produced by their performances with the vulgar superstition they claimed was perpetuated by magic shows. Fielding performs the same boundary-work in Tom Jones, carefully contrasting the enlightened “poetic Faith” solicited by the rationalized clockwork of his plot with the superstition incited by the baroque machinery of spectacular narratives that he represents as barbarous, foreign, and antiquated. But he also follows other Augustan authors in acknowledging that the entertainments popular in the culture of spectacle had distinctly modern, domestic origins and that the residual “superstition” they cultivated was really the commodity fetishism integral to a new capitalist system of production. Fielding's goal in Tom Jones was thus not to eliminate manipulative spectacle from modern narrative but to harness it by directing it toward the higher purpose of producing philosophical knowledge.
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Joseph Drury; Realism's Ghosts: Science and Spectacle in Tom Jones. Novel 1 May 2013; 46 (1): 50–72. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2019110
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