Posted on November 24th, 2012
I felt bad for my professor; he had a tough audience. No one, no matter how nerdy, should have to face sixty undergrads who haven’t done the reading before 10 a.m. Granted, he wasn’t doing himself any favors with his checked bowties, obscure literary allusions, and hours of monotone lectures. It would’ve taken a student with an unnatural interest in eighteenth century literary conventions and a superhuman ability to stay awake to be an active participant in this class, a student who would forgo several shorter essays in favor of a culminating 30 page research paper on the economic subtext in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa , a student like me – the only graduate student in ENG348: Rise of the English Novel. I got an A.
Despite my affinity for professorial types (heavy on the academia), I have to admit that this man made some spectacularly bad pedagogical choices. One clearly did not need to read any of the books to pass this class; I’m pretty sure I was the only student who ever asked a question, let alone raised my hand; and his particular brand of humor mostly left students wondering if they should report him to someone as he appeared to chuckle randomly throughout his lectures. I may have been the only one who realized that the sorry sophomores who’d dragged themselves out of their beer stained sheets that morning couldn’t tell that he’d made a joke at all, much less thought it was funny. And then we read Tom Jones.
My professor was not a stupid man; he knew that the subtle humor of eighteenth century literature went right over the heads of a generation raised on Beavis and Butthead. “Movies!” I could practically hear him think, “Showing them the movie will engage their interest and help them understand how witty and entertaining the book is!” What he actually said was, “We’re going to watch some clips from the film version.” Blank stares. “Because it was really famous and popular.” More blank stares. “It’s a comedy.” The girl next to me narrowed her eyes in disbelief. So he brought in the DVD.
The first few scenes went okay. I could see a few moments where 60’s British film style didn’t necessarily help economics majors born in the early 90’s access a 250 year old text, but hey, at least they were paying attention. A young Albert Finney gallivanted around the English countryside and our professor chuckled like a mad Urkel-Igor hybrid as he called our attention to plot points. Then I had my first stab of foreboding. “This next scene is the most famous scene in the movie,” he told us, his smile tight with excitement. No. No no no. “In fact, it’s probably the most famous meal on film!” I tried to head him off at the pass, frantically tapping out an SOS with my pencil. He was about to show us the part where Tom Jones rescues Mrs. Waters from a band of highwaymen and they head to the nearest inn to eat dinner before, ahem, ‘retiring to the bedchamber’. I hid my face in my hands.
The interest in the room rose palpably when Mrs. Waters has the whole top of her dress torn off in the struggle and leaves it hanging like the tease that she is. This was way more boob than anyone had expected to see before lunch. Whatever excitement had been rising in the room quickly turned bad, however, when the two characters started eating. Young men sank back in their chairs and expressions, first of disgust then of horror, flickered from face to face. This was no ordinary meal. This was no holds barred, down and dirty flirt-eating.
Tom and Mrs. Waters slurp soup through pursed lips. He cracks a lobster claw and pulls the meat slowly out of the shell. She nibbles the end of a drumstick. They slip their pinky fingers into the crotch of a wishbone and pull. Each throws back an oyster, leaving it on their tongues far longer than is seemly. And the pears; the poor, poor pears. There is no soundtrack other than the miked noises of their repast, and straight-on camera angles involve the viewer in a seriously uncomfortable amount of eye contact. Tom and Mrs. Waters head for the stairs after a very long 3 minutes, leaving the rest of us with the feeling that we may never be able to eat again.
Nervous laughter swirled around the classroom. As the professor paused the movie to wax eloquent on the merits of the scene and its place in the film cannon, I could see the class’s previous skepticism calcify into irreparable distrust. This man was clearly insane and yes, this lesson would unquestionably be talked about in dining halls across campus tonight, but probably not in the way he’d been hoping. I saw the silver lining, however. The one thing he definitely did teach those undergrads is a lesson that, if spread, will certainly advance the culture and society of all mankind: if there’s one thing less sexy than flirt-eating, it’s watching other people flirt-eat. Because I haven’t looked at a pear the same way since.