Tom Jones is a subversive, acerbic work of fiction. It is outrageously funny, in the Aristotelian sense, because it presents lowly characters performing silly acts. The novel offers a satirical inversion of classical notions of heroism, as we follow the picaresque misadventures of Tom Jones, a foundling who lives a somewhat accidental and hedonistic life, while falling in and out of favor with his adopted father, Squire Allworthy. The novel’s Latin epigraph reads: “More hominum multorum vidit” (or “he saw the customs of many men”) which draws our attention to a section of Horace’s Ars Poetica wherein he examines the Homeric epics, particularly The Odyssey. We are thus asked to ironically compare the frivolities of Tom Jones to the heroism and ingenuity of Odysseus. In the novel, Fielding directly prods the stuffy, hypocritical English aristocracy by presenting a whimsical, bemused, armchair philosopher as the book’s narrator, a rambling sort of fellow who tirelessly breaks the fourth wall and never forgets to remind us of his lingering presence. While this self-aggrandizing narrator presents numerous jokes and digressions, perhaps the biggest joke of all is that in the end all that truly matters is Tom’s genealogical birthright after all. Despite all the fluff about a divine purpose and grand narrative to a person’s life, advancement still only comes to those who happen inherit financial means. As it turns out, the only hope for a wayward bastard youth like Tom is to simply have been born into an aristocratic lineage. This is the only thing that separates Tom from impoverishment and death, contra privilege and luxury. In this respect, Fielding’s novel is actually quite cynical. Perhaps the point is that nothing in the English aristocracy is ever truly earned, all is merely inherited.
At any rate, in his lengthy, verbose epistolary dedication, Henry Fielding takes great labors to praise the esteem and generosity of his benefactor, George Lord Lyttleton, Esq. (whose name is deliberately misspelled). In doing so, Fielding hopes to prevent the censure of his book –the writer is always aware of his own impending persecution. Consider the following passage:
“From the Name of my Patron, indeed, I hope my Reader will be convinced, at his very Entrance on this work, that he will find in the whole Course of it nothing prejudicial to the Cause of Religion and Virtue; nothing inconsistent with the strictest Rules of Decency, nor which can offend even the chastest Eye in the Perusal. On the contrary, I declare, that to recommend Goodness and Innocence hath been my sincere Endeavor in this History. This honest Purpose you have been pleased to think I have attained: And to say the Truth, it is likeliest to be attained in Books of this Kind, for an Example is a Kind of Picture, in which Virtue becomes as it were an Object of Sight, and strikes us with an idea of that Loveliness, which Plato asserts there is in her naked Charms” (7).
What is the purpose of Tom Jones? We are given a clue as to Fielding’s ironic intention in his dedication –to counter Plato and provide a true image of virtue and wisdom, in the form of a blistering mockery of the austere novels of manners. After all, he says it is much easier to make good men wise, than bad men good. He claims that he endeavors to “laugh Mankind out of their favorite Follies and Vices” (7). He asks that the candid reader will 1) not expect to find perfection in this work, and 2) excuse some parts of it if they fall short of merit. As a whole, the novel is directed to both Fielding’s benefactor (and two other unnamed “friends”) as well as the reader.
As Book I unfolds, we learn from our anonymous narrator that Tom Jones is a “History” –perhaps alluding to the Greek word historia meaning an “inquiry.” We begin with a digression likening this book to a feast, or a “Bill of Fare to the feast” with the cuisine being none other than Human Nature, as in the case of Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, each section will begin with a bill of fare before gradually building up to the main course with high French and Italian seasonings, thus promising to the reader that we will read on forever. Perhaps the endings of each chapter contain deeper insights into Human Nature than the beginning.
We are introduced to a country gentleman, Squire Allworthy, who resides on one of the largest estates in the west country of Somersetshire, he is the “Favourite of both Nature and Fortune” (27). Squire Alworthy was once married to a woman who bore him three children but, as was often the case in centuries past, all three died in infancy and she followed them in death shortly thereafter (about five years prior to when this “History” begins). Squire Allworthy has retired to his country estate with his beloved sister Bridget Allworthy and housekeeper Deborah Wilkins.
Having been drawn away for work in London, he returns home one day late in the evening to find an infant wrapped in linen among the sheets. He orders his housekeeper Deborah Wilkins to care for the child (despite her protestations that the mother was likely a “slut” and that the child should be placed at the church’s door instead). The narrator then delves into one of his famous digressions about the gracious Gothic style of architecture found throughout Squire Allworthy’s home. At any rate, Squire Allworthy bestows the child upon his sister Bridget, but like Deborah, she lobs insults at the child’s unknown mother –“an impudent Slut, a wanton Hussy, an audacious Harlot, a wicked Jade, a vile Strumpet, with every other Appellation with which the Tongue of Virtue never fails to lash those who bring a Disgrace on the Sex” (32).
Deborah Wilkins visits the local Parish where the fire of suspicion is pointed at Jenny Jones, an object of envy among the church-going women. Squire Allworthy takes Jenny into his study for a discussion while Bridget and the housekeeper listen from the keyhole a la the classical tale of Thisbe in Ovid (here, the narrator misquotes Thisbe instead of Pyramus and he mistranslates a Latin legal phrase). Our narrator hints at Bridget’s guilty conscience, while Jenny offers her confession to Squire Allworthy. Bridget then praises Jenny’s character and pities her –it seems Jenny was the victim of a wicked man (this will all be important at the novel’s conclusion).
The power of Squire Allworthy lies in his reputation as a benevolent man, the narrator goes to great lengths to portray him as a blameless and noble country aristocrat despite him making numerous mistakes throughout the novel –“For it is a secret well known to great Men, that by conferring an Obligation, they do not always procure a Friend, but are certain of creating many Enemies” (41). Mr. Allworthy then removes Jenny to a place where her reputation might recover.
Next, we meet Dr. Blifil, a forty-year-old doctor whose father once pushed him into the medical profession, but the narrator notes that Dr. Blifil gives the appearance of being religious (even if he is not in his heart). He is a married man but soon fancies Squire Allworthy’s sister, Bridget. Dr. Blifil develops a scheme –he has a thirty-five-year-old brother, a military man named Captain Blifil, who also falls in love with Bridget at Dr. Blifil’s invitation (the doctor serves as match-maker for his brother). However, we quickly learn that Squire Allworthy often accidentally surrounds himself with self-seeking opportunists like these two brothers. In this case, the Doctor and the Captain are very much enamored with Squire’s home and riches, thus they intend to produce a child with the Squire’s only heir, his sister Bridget, in order to inherit Squire Allworthy’s estate. The Captain’s courtship of Bridget proceeds quietly but soon they are married, and this little scheme leads to a falling out between the two brothers. Dr. Blifil takes leave of Squire Allworthy’s estate and returns to London where he soon dies, heartbroken.
For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.