A STUDY OF HENRY FIELDING’S NOVEL – TOM JONES (1749)

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 INTRODUCTION

In this article, we are going to study another English novel, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding who is another great novelist of the 18th Century who contributed immensely to the development of the novel. The novel is presented in a tightly structured plot in which every “every detail has a purpose” thus the sense of structure becomes Fielding’s contribution to the development of the English novel and he influenced other novelists. Some critics refer to Tom Jones as one of the best plotted novels in English despite a lengthy story it presents with interpolating incidents. Fielding relates the novel to the classical epic in an attempt to give dignity and status to the new genre of the novel. Fielding believed that the purpose of art is to entertain and educate. Henry Fielding is one of the pioneer English novelists who contributed to the development of the English novel. In this unit, we will study one of his novels.

Background of the Author

Henry Fielding was an aristocrat, born in 1707 and educated at Eton and later in Poland with Classical education in Latin and Greek. He started his writing career as a playwright, his plays were mainly comedies and political satire; the government was ridiculed in some of his plays. In reaction, the government decided to protect itself from further embarrassment and enacted The Walpole’s Theatrical License Act of 1737 which placed theatre under the Lord Chamberlain and effectively prevented Fielding from writing for the stage and producing his plays again. He then turned to journalism and novel writing.

His experience as a playwright influenced his novels tremendously because most of his novels present individual scenes which rise to a climax or surprising reversals before resolution as we find in the plays. Also, he developed his dialogue effectively, presenting comic characters and works through the medium of parody. Fielding’s interest in the novel was aroused by Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and he wrote a brilliant parody of Pamela with the title, Shamela in 1740. He started writing serious novels after that and became so engrossed with the novel as a genre of literature that he propounded a theory of form and structure of the novel which influenced the main tradition of the English novel and some novelists through the eighteenth and the nineteenth century. His other novels are Joseph Andrews (1742) Jonathan Wilde (1743), Tom Jones (1749) and Amelia (1751)

Plot

In Tom Jones, the story revolves around the adventures of Tom Jones who is the hero of the novel. The author is able to manage the array of characters in a story that is filled with intrigue, suspense and a lot of surprises. As the story begins, it appears as if Tom Jones is an outsider in the Allworthy family because Allworthy discovers him as a baby and is made to believe that his parents are a local woman, Jenny and her tutor, Mr. Partridge. He sends the ‘parents’ away and decides to bring up the boy as Tom Jones despite criticisms from the parish.

His sister, Bridget Allworthy, gets married later and gives birth to another boy Blifil but her husband dies shortly afterwards. So Blifil and Tom are raised together in the family but Tom is despised while Blifil is adored by almost all the members of the household except Allworthy who treats both consistently with kindness. Tom is seen as wild and Blifil, pious. Tom confides in Blifil who relates his secrets to their uncle and also their tutor, Thwackum, and Tom gets in trouble all the time.

Meanwhile, Tom’s generosity highlights his noble and generous nature and he starts winning the admiration of the people of the parish who have also taken note of Blifil’s sneaky nature. The daughter of poor Black George, Molly, becomes pregnant and Tom accepts responsibility for it to save Molly from going to prison. Meanwhile, another lady Sophia and Tom fall in love with each other and Tom begins to resent his relationship with Molly but remains with her out of honour.

However, he discovers later that Molly has been having affairs with other men. He concludes that he is not the father of her child, leaves her and decides to love Sophia but later he encounters Molly by chance and makes love to her. Tom’s noble nature manifests itself again when Allworthy falls gravely ill. Tom becomes so upset that he hardly leaves his bedside until he recovers but his sister, Bridget dies suddenly. Mrs. Western, Sophia’s aunt decides with the Squire Western to marry Sophia to Blifil and prevails on Sophia to accept Blifil as a suitor. Blifil manages to convince Allworthy that Sophia is love with him though Sophia rejects the proposal.

Squire Western becomes violent towards her while Blifil tells Allworthy that Tom is a rascal who cavorted drunkenly about the house, and Allworthy banishes Tom from the county. Tom leaves reluctantly because he does not want to leave Sophia. In Bristol, he meets Patridge who becomes his loyal servant and also saves Mrs. Waters from a robbery attack. He begins an affair with her in an inn. Meanwhile, Sophia runs away to escape from a forceful marriage to Blifil and stops at the inn only to discover Tom and his lover. She avoids him but leaves leaves her muff in Tom’s bed so that he knows she has been there. Tom finds the muff and sets out to search for her. Fitzpatrick arrives at the inn searching for his wife, and Western arrives searching for Sophia.

Sophia goes to London where she stays with her lady relative Lady Bellaston. Later, Tom and Partridge arrive in London and stay in the house of Mrs. Miller and her daughters, one of whom is named Nancy. Tom and Nancy fall in love. Nancy becomes pregnant and Tom convinces Nightingale to marry her. Lady Bellaston and Tom begin an affair, but Tom continues to pursue Sophia secretly. He succeeds and they reconcile, and Tom breaks off the relationship with Lady Bellaston but the Lady is bent on destroying the love between Tom and Sophia which made her to encourage another young man, Lord Fellamar, to rape Sophia.

The major actors in the story are brought together at the climactic moment of the story as Squire Western, Mrs. Western, Blifil, and Allworthy arrive in London, and Squire Western locks Sophia in her bedroom. Mr. Fitzpatrick challenges Tom to a duel thinking the he is his wife’s lover. In the duel, Fitzpatrick is wounded and Tom is thrown into the jail where later he is informed by Partridge that Mrs. Waters is the same person as Jenny Jones, the presumed mother of Tom Jones.

In the resolution of the story, Mrs. Waters inform Allworthy that Fitzpatrick is still alive and has admitted that he initiated the duel. She reveals also that she was persuaded to conspire against Tom by Blifil. The greatest surprise is the revelation that Bridget Allworthy is Tom Jones’ mother. Allworthy also learns Tom’s concerns for his well-being when he was sick. Tom is released from the jail and is reunited with his uncle, Allworthy who decides never to speak to Blifil again. However, Tom takes pity on Blifil and provides him with an annuity. Squire Western consents to the marriage between Tom and Sophia since he has become Allworthy’s heir. Sophia and Tom are married and live happily on Western’s estate with their two children and are benevolent towards their neighbours.

Themes

The major theme explored in the novel is that of hypocrisy. The author satirised the hypocritical attitude of the age. The 18th Century’ claim of convention, elegant manners and social stability is questioned. Bridget Allworthy hides the birth of her illegitimate child from his brother. Squire Western does not want Tom to marry Sophia but changes his mind when he realises that Tom is Allworthy’s heir. Blifil’s pretensions are exposed in the end. The author contends that the age has its problems and failings. Another theme is the theme of virtue. People of that age pretend to be living virtuous lives. The author satirises them and opines that people should live their normal lives making their mistakes and learning from them. He therefore prefers Tom Jones who exhibits human weakness in his affairs with numerous women but in a more practical sense, he is a better person.

Characterisation

Critics are divided on the appropriateness of Fielding’s method of characterisation in which he gives a lengthy sketch of each character before presenting his activities, and the “…characters do not develop beyond the limits of the sketches” (Palmer 1986, 69). Fielding rarely goes into the minds of his characters to analyse their thoughts and shows the motives of their actions like the omniscient narrator. When compared with Richardson a critic say that Fielding has the habit of staying on the outside of his characters while Richardson has the ability to penetrate into their minds. Fielding obviously accepts this particular critical principle, for in the preface to book three of Joseph Andrews he writes, “I declare here once for all, I describe not men, but manners, not an individual but species”. This shows that he is interested in portraying character types. This is obvious in this novel which is epic and comic, dealing with the manners, not the passions of men. He therefore establishes the main traits of the character and then exposes him to society in order to see how he misinterprets society or how society misunderstands him. He creates these characters in order to make specific points.

Tom Jones: Tom Jones is seen in the beginning of the story as a bastard raised by the philanthropic Allworthy but as the novel ends, we discover that he is actually Allworthy’s nephew. He is impudent and in terms of chastity and fidelity, he could be said to be morally bankrupt. However, he is very generous, has a noble heart and takes care of the poor. He is very handsome and this with his gallantry wins him the love and affection of women throughout the countryside. He carries himself with dignity even when he was regarded as a bastard.

Sophia Western: Sophia Western is the heroine and like the hero is very generous and kindhearted. He is beautiful and treats people with respect irrespective of their social class. She is courageous and steadfast. She is patient with Tom and in the end is able to reconcile her love for Tom and her filial duty to her father. Sophia’s natural modesty is contrasted with her Aunt Western’s false and pretentious manners.

Mr. Allworthy: Mr. Allworthy is a benevolent gentleman and he is indeed worthy of emulation. He is generous, selfless and so good natured that he fails to see the evil in others but this helps to propel the plot. The novelist uses him as the moral yardstick of the novel.

Master Blifil: Blifil is the antagonist and a foil to Tom Jones. He is the acclaimed legitimate heir of Mr. Allworthy, his uncle. He represents the 18th Century man who appears to be pious, virtuous and principled but underneath is ruled by greed and avarice but his hypocrisy is exposed in

the end.

Jenny Jones: Initially, Jenny Jones who later appears as Mrs. Waters is presumed to be Tom’s mother and is banished by Allworthy. She seduces Tom and in the end aided the resolution of the novel through important revelations about Tom’s true mother, Blifil’s true character, and the information about the duel that facilitates Tom’s release from prison. She later marries Parson Supple.

Bridget Allworthy: Bridget Allworthy is the real mother of Blifil and Tom. She is unattractive so resents beautiful women. After the birth of Blifil, she is undecided on the level of her affection to each child but before she dies, she becomes devoted to Tom mainly because of his good looks and gallantry and perhaps, she has seen through Blifil’s hypocrisy. Other characters in the novel include Lady Bellaston Harriet Fitzpatrick, Mr. Fitzpatrick,Mr. Dowling, Square, Mrs. Miller and many others.

Technique

Fielding tries to adhere to 18th Century conventions of decorum and good sense in literature. His presents his story in the comic mode and using a satirical style he explores issues of social concern like the society’s hypocrisy, follies, foibles and vices of his age. Another technique he adopts in the novel is the commentary on his characters and the presentation of introductory prefaces to explain certain issues. This technique is criticised by some scholars who feel that such description destroys the illusion of reality in the novel. He also uses the narrator.

CONCLUSION

Henry Fielding was a great 18th Century novelist who contributed immensely to the development of the English novel. His technique allows for a panorama of his society and also for him to make comments on his characters. This authorial comment reminds the reader that he/she is reading a novel but is seen as a flaw by some critics because it destroys the element of verisimilitude in the novel.

In this article we have studied another 18th Century novel Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. In the novel, he exposes the widespread snobbery that was prevalent in a society which is rigidly stratified, where deference is paid to people with titles and the poor snubbed. Unfortunately, even those who are much lower down the social ladder try to be patronising to those they see as their social inferiors. With the character Tom Jones, he introduced a new kind of fictional hero in the form of a good hearted, well intentioned, generous young man with ordinary human weakness who yields to temptation and commits errors in judgment like any human.

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