Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling

An Introduction


Henry Fielding's Tom Jones is both one of the great comic masterpieces of English literature and a major force in the development of the novel form. By 1749, the year Tom Jones appeared, the novel was only beginning to be recognized as a potentially literary form. Samuel Richardson's novel Clarissa had appeared only the year before, and for the most part in intellectual circles prose fiction was not considered a worthy pursuit. Despite the publication by Jonathan Swift, a member of the literary elite surrounding Alexander Pope, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, of Gulliver's Travels in 1726, the sanctioned genres of the first half of the eighteenth century were verse and drama. The novels of Daniel Defoe, seen by many as purely adventure tales, were not regarded as worthy of serious consideration. They were, however, instrumental in the development of a suitable reading public, without which Fielding probably would not have attempted any form of sustained prose fiction.

But while Defoe still followed the seventeenth century tradition of claiming his fiction was fact, and Richardson professed that his tales were moral tracts, emphasizing the instructional rather than the fictional aspect, Fielding was the first major novelist to unabashedly write fiction. At the same time, he undertook an initial critical theory of the new fictional form he was creating: together with the preface to Joseph Andrews (1742), the introductory chapters preceding the individual books in Tom Jones constitute the first extended body of work in English which attempts to define and explain the novel as a literary genre. In the preface Joseph Andrews, Fielding described his own fictional form as "a comic romance" or a "comic epic poem in prose," and in Tom Jones as a "heroical, historical prosaic poem" (IV, 1); a form of "prosai-comi-epic writing" (V, 1). In defining the novel as an epic genre, Fielding emphasized its function in presenting a broad picture of an era, but one, unlike verse epic, in which primarily the weaknesses of humanity are put on display. Although he termed his new style of writing "history," his definition of the budding genre still influences our understanding of novelistic fiction. According to Fielding, the appropriate subject of the novel is human nature (often in its more ridiculous guises) rather than ghosts and fairies; he sees no excuse for the "modern" writer to introduce supernatural agents (VIII, 1). His insistence on conforming to the rules of probability rather than mere possibility is integral to the development of the novel as we know it. Fielding knew what he wanted to do in prose fiction and understood the novelty of his undertaking in a way many of his predecessors had not. He is not modest about pointing this out either:

[...] I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever; for as I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein. (II, 1)

Although these claims to originality are largely justified, Tom Jones contains many conventional narrative elements as well which Fielding had already made use of in Joseph Andrews (1742), including an ostensibly picaresque form, inserted narrative and the discovery of true identity. But while the character Joseph, with his origins in parody, suffers from an element of the ridiculous, Tom emerges as a deeper character who even goes through a certain amount of superficial moral development. Tom Jones exemplifies serious aspects of Fielding's concept of benevolence and good nature, his generous personality reflecting Fielding's moral philosophy. At the same time, it is from his impulsive and affectionate nature that many of his troubles spring. He is contrasted to the inhibited, self-seeking hypocrite Blifil, his opposite and, as it turns out, his half-brother. Fielding frequently uses this method of contrasting pairs to manage his huge cast of characters: Tom is opposed to Blifil, Sophia to Molly and later Lady Bellaston, and Allworthy to Squire Western. The same technique is used with the minor characters: the tutors of Tom and Blifil are Thwackum, representing blind respect for authority, and Square, representing abstract ethics.

Despite Fielding's insistence on realism, for the most part the figures in Tom Jones are recognizably indebted to stock theatrical types. Like his predecessor Aphra Behn, Fielding was a dramatist before he was a novelist, but while this dramatic training primarily lead Behn to introduce the rhythms of spoken language to prose fiction, the influence of drama on Fielding's novels was in formal structural elements. For example, he employs concrete "visual" symbols such as Sophia's muff to anchor the reader and focus his or her attention in a way similar to the use of stage properties. The most obvious influence of drama on Tom Jones is in the intricacies of the plot, which are the typical confusions of comedy.

The neatly constructed plot reflects a basic eighteenth century faith in the order of the world, which Fielding, despite skeptical overtones, displayed in this huge but far from sprawling novel. Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw the plot of Tom Jones as one of the three most perfectly planned plots in literature. Even seemingly random details have a place, and at the end of the tale the reader notices that elements which might have appeared superfluous are necessary to round off the story. The role of the lawyer Dowling is a case in point. In his original appearance he seems only to contribute to the busy atmosphere of the scene, but at the end he is revealed to have been instrumental to the development of events. The scene at the inn in Upton, exactly halfway through the novel, is a plot node of great complexity: here all of the major actors and plot threads come together, and actions and misunderstandings occur which will be crucial for the climax and denouement. Despite the involved construction and numerous plot twists, the author is at great pains to provide adequate motivation for these machinations, creating an appearance of causality usually lacking in the monumental prose romances popular in his day.

Not only is the plot of Tom Jones famous for its intricacy, it is also highly symmetrical in design. The novel has eighteen books, six for the beginning, six for the middle, and six for the end, conforming to the three parts recommended by Aristotle. The first six books give the cause of the action: Tom's open, sensual nature; the conflict with Blifil; the misunderstanding with Squire Allworthy; Tom's love for Sophia and their separation. The next six contain both the consequences of the first six and the incidents and details which will bring about a resolution. The last six books plunge Tom into disastrous circumstances through his actions and get him out of them again. When he is in prison about to be hanged, he hears that Sophia has refused to speak to or see him again as a result of his affair with Lady Bellaston. As if this were not enough, he even has to face the possibility that he might have committed incest. But it is this last misfortune which also brings about his change of fortune: it is through Jenny Jones, Tom's purported mother who is now known as Mrs. Waters, that the truth of Tom's birth emerges. This brings about a reconciliation with Squire Allworthy and Sophia, and the downfall of Blifil.

The formal tidiness displayed by Tom Jones is more the exception than the rule in the history of the novel: Clarissa or Oliver Twist do not display this kind of neatness. And at times, Tom Jones might seem almost too well-made, since the elaborate construction is not calculated to give the reader a sense of real, unpredictable, day-to-day life. On the other hand, part of Fielding's originality is precisely in the honesty and exuberance with which he creates his fictional world: by drawing attention to the nature of the artifice, the authorial intrusions into the narrative prevent the novel from ever taking on the appearance of a true chronicle of events. This admittance of artifice is not common in the novel either. For the most part, the legacy of Tom Jones was not in any influence on structure; it was to make the English novel until the late nineteenth century primarily a comic genre.

The most original and memorable element of Tom Jones, however, is the narrative voice informing the action and discoursing on the philosophy of writing to the reader in the introductory chapters. Fielding controls the reader's response thorough the urbane, tolerant presence of the figure of the omniscient author, a polished and rational gentleman with a pronounced sense of the ridiculous who emerges as the true moral focus in the novel. While this technique sacrifices to a certain extent the sense of identification and verisimilitude provided by the first-person or epistolary forms used by Defoe and Richardson, the reading experience is enriched by the analysis of the all-knowing 'author.' On the other hand, the wry narrative voice accounts for various comic effects Fielding achieves in this remarkable novel; it is often the detached description which transforms a melodramatic situation into a comic one.

This authorial presence, an integral element of Fielding's aesthetic undertaking, is a very recognizably masculine presence; an all-knowing male author figure who rules over his fictional world for the good of his readers:

[...] these laws my readers, whom I consider as my subjects, are bound to believe and to obey; with which that they may readily and cheerfully comply, I do hearby assure them that I shall principally regard their ease and advantage in all such institutions; for I do not, like a jure divino tyrant, imagine that they are my slaves or my commodity. I am, indeed, set over them for their own good only, and was created for their use and not they for mine. Nor do I doubt, while I make their interest the great rule of my writings, they will unanimously concur in supporting my dignity and in rendering me all the honour I shall deserve or desire. (II, 1)

Fielding's implied author demonstrates a very paternal attitude towards both his readers and his characters, displaying a humorous tolerance to all, but ruling over them implacably.

While Fielding's aesthetics are frankly masculine, the moral assumptions exhibited in the novel are also frankly sexist by today's standards. The characterization of Tom Jones displays a tolerance for virile young manhood: he is a sensual youth, easily succumbing to temptation of a sexual nature. This tolerance doesn't work the other way around, however; the heroine Sophia is virginal and pure, while the women who indulge in sensual pleasures are either tramps like Molly or hypocrites like Lady Bellaston (the lowest of the low in Fielding's moral universe). An exception to this can be found in the portrayal of Jenny Jones (Mrs. Waters), who was originally betrayed into living an "immoral" life and once having lost her virtue had no choice but to continue in her sinful ways. Fielding's frank acceptance of (male) sensuality was regarded by many contemporaries with disapproval. The more puritan Richardson criticized outright what he saw as a "very bad tendency" in Fielding's work, and with Sir Charles Grandison (1753) he attempted to create a hero as virtuous as any heroine.

It has become commonplace in literary history to recognize masculine and feminine traditions in the novel going back to Tom Jones and Clarissa. This can be misleading in more than just the fact that both of the seminal works in these supposedly gender specific novelistic modes were written by men: Sophia, for example, has more spirit than Richardson's feminine ideal, Clarissa. In addition, the omniscient, "masculine" authorial voice developed by Fielding was used to great effect by that female master of the Victorian novel, George Eliot. For most of the next century, however, it did remain true that the wise, god-like author-figure Fielding created was not a role that could easily be played by women writers. Social restrictions requiring them to deal with emotions or domestic affairs made the form of the novel developed by Richardson much more suitable for women than the social panorama of a novel like Tom Jones. As Fielding also asserted that authors should have some experience of what they write about (XIV, 1), it would seem to follow that women would not be able to write in the epic fictional mode he established.

The god-like omniscience of the authorial narrator in Tom Jones needs to be taken with a grain of salt, however. The authorial narrator is portrayed as all-knowing and all-seeing, but a reader who relies exclusively on the expressed judgment calls of the narrator will be deceived: one of Fielding's techniques is to introduce important details that are given very little attention by the narrative voice, lulling the reader into ignoring them. The omnipotent role is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as is much of Tom Jones. Take for example one of the introductory chapters in which Fielding lays down the rules of the new genre:

Peradventure there may be no parts in this prodigious work which will give the reader less pleasure in perusing than those which have given the author the greatest pains in composing. Among these, probably, may be reckoned those initial essays which we have prefixed to the historical matter contained in every book, and which we have determined to be essentially necessary to this kind of writing, of which we have set ourselves at the head.

For this our determination we do not hold ourselves strictly bound to assign any reason, it being abundantly sufficient that we have laid it down as a rule necessary to be observed in all prosai-comi-epic writing. Who ever demanded the reasons of that nice unity of time or place which is now established as so essential to dramatic poetry? (V, 1)

Here the game Fielding is playing with his readers becomes obvious, especially when he compares his prefaces to the rule of dramatic unity; the comments following this passage make it abundantly clear that he scorns the convention. Of course, the inclusion of prefaces is one rule set down in Tom Jones which has found next to no imitation, and it appears likely that Fielding would not have been disappointed by that fact. What Fielding did establish with Tom Jones, however, was the role of the novel as the modern epic form. And many of the other "rules" he put forth -- plausibility over possibility, for example -- still exert a strong influence on novelistic fiction today.


Other pages of mine:

Clarion West 98 | Cutting Edges: Or, A Web of Women | Joe's Heartbeat
in Budapest
| The Aphra Behn Page | ECHO

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Ruth Nestvold, 2001.