Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book II

The narrator of Tom Jones is one of the more intriguing figures in the novel. He speaks with an air of presumptuous authority: “It hath been observed by wise Men or Women, I forget which, that all Persons are doomed to be in love once in their Lives. No particular Season is, as I remember, assigned for this…” (45). He includes many mistranslated Latin phrases rife with double-meaning. He seems to view himself as a noble servant, reiterating a deeply important history, while in. actuality he presents silly people doing silly things, examining the high-brow from the low-brow. In breaking all the rules, the narrator regards himself as a benevolent intellectual who is sometimes hurried and cannot be bothered to address certain points, however at other points he delivers lengthy orations on grand philosophical topics. At one point, he discourses on virtues and vices, at another, he diatribes on barbershops, both ancient and modern.

At any rate, returning to the novel’s main narrative, Bridget and the Captain soon have a child though Squire Allworthy continues to show favoritism for Tommy, the foundling. Meanwhile, Deborah Wilkins, the housekeeper, suspects that Tom’s father is Jenny Jones’s schoolmaster with whom she lived for four years, Mr. Partridge. Mr. Partridge has been married for nine years though he has given no “pledges of love” to his wife (she is apparently a shrew, a follower of Socrates’s wife, Xanthippe) and so she is paranoid of any sign that he might be unfaithful to her. She hires only unattractive maidservants like Jenny but she soon grows jealous and threatens Jenny with a knife before banishing her from the house. While Jenny protests her innocence, Mr. Partridge decides to remain silent and stand by his wife, he then sleeps with his wife and privately acknowledges that Jenny’s intellectual prowess was outgrowing his anyway so her banishment is a good thing. Not long thereafter Mrs. Partridge learns of the bastard child and she blames her husband once again. She brutally attacks him and then blames him for the fight, forever castigating Mr. Partridge as a lecherous abuser in the eyes of the town and the parish. Mr. Partridge is then publicly tried for incontinency. Ironically, Mr. Allworthy is the one who banishes Partridge with no annuity. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Partridge contracts smallpox and dies while Mr. Partridge flees town having now lost his wife, school, and annuity. He falls into squalid poverty while maintaining his own innocence in all these matters –how quickly fortune’s light fades!

The downfall of Mr. Partridge was woven via an intimate string of self-interested motives. The housekeeper, Deborah Wilkins, sought the Captain’s affection (because he despises Squire Allworthy’s affections for Tom rather than his own son) and so Mrs. Wilkins tries to upturn the most lurid rumors about Mr. Partridge and she spreads them to Captain Blifil and Squire Allworthy. Rumors have the power to destroy people. The narrator somewhat unwittingly exposes the compassionless English and their religious mores, especially Squire Allworthy, however even the narrator does not wish to be viewed as a sympathizer of Mr. Partridge, consider the following aside to the reader:

“Tho’ I called him, poor Partridge, in the last Paragraph, I would have the Reader rather impute that Epithet to the Compassion of Temper, than conceive it to be any Declaration of his Innocence. Whether he was innocent or not, will perhaps appear hereafter; but if the Historic-Muse hath entrusted me with any Secrets, I will by no means be guilty of discovering them till she shall give me leave” (68).

Despite all the Captain’s wishes, Tom only grows more favorable in the eyes of Alllworthy. It leads to lover’s quarrels between the Captain and Bridget, up to the point that they despise one another. Squire Allworthy is aware but he does not say anything to them about the dispute – a characteristic of a wise man according to the narrator “There is, perhaps, no surer Mark of Folly, than an Attempt to correct the natural infirmities of those we love” –praising the timid English fear of confrontation. The Captain ponders endlessly on the question of how much longer Squire Allworthy might live because he wants to inherit the estate. He pours through books on the matter, but then he suddenly dies of apoplexy one evening while out walking (here, the narrator once again mistranslates Horace’s Odes in a quote about delusions of grandeur while forgetting death).

When news of the Captain’s death reaches the household, Bridget feigns grief while a pair of doctors remain at the house to exploit the situation for as much money as possible (the narrator laments at the uselessness of ‘physicians’). A generous but false epitaph is written for the Captain’s headstone. As with most situations in the novel, keeping up false appearance is preferable to discovering the truth. As we learn more about Squire Allworthy, he is ironically hardly the noble aristocrat we have come to understand from our vainglorious narrator –Allworthy falsely condemns a man, shows blatant favoritism and nepotism, and he is taken advantage of by people like the Captain and his brother –all are hypocrites and liars here.

For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.

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