Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book IV

Even though our wandering narrator had earlier stated that he is not the best person to distinguish truth from falsity, he nevertheless opens Book IV by claiming: “As Truth distinguishes our Writings from those idle Romances which are filled with Monsters, the Productions, not of Nature, but of distempered Brains…” (99). However, he also claims this “History” will not be a boring dreary venture for the reader, and he intends to introduce the “Heroine of this Heroic, Historical, Prosaic Poem” (100). He says, “Our Intention, in short, is to introduce our Heroine with the utmost Solemnity in our Power, with an Elevation of Stile, and all other Circumstances proper to raise the Veneration of our Reader” (101).

The narrator delivers an impassioned hail to the Muse in order to invite his eminently lovely maiden, Sophia Western, onto the stage –he hushes the “ruder breath” and beckons the heathen ruler of Boreas to tame its winds, so that every sound and color may spring forth, and not even Handel’s music can compare. Classical allusions abound. Educated by her Aunt, Sophia is perfectly proportioned like Venus and her mind is equally comparable. She is eighteen years old, and naturally she falls in love with Tom, though he is somewhat oblivious. In fact, Tom once gave her a pet bird named “Tommy” but when Master Blifil. deliberately releases it one day, Tom climbs a tree to retrieve it for Sophia but the he promptly falls off a branch into a pool of water below, and Bifil escapes punishment.

This leads to a lengthy discussion between Square, Thwackum, Allworthy, and Mr. Western’s lawerly friend about the nature of confining things like birds which leads to a rousing debate about virtue versus faith, and natural law. Square and Thwackum defend Master Blifil while the lawyer claims he did nothing worthy of condemnation and he ultimately concludes that their discussion makes no sense because it is in the category of nullus bonus (“no good”).

At any rate, Sophia’s heart is now lost to Tom as she realizes he is a good man who is simply somewhat accidentally his own worst enemy, whereas someone like Master Blifil is a cold and calculating figure who is easily overcome by self-flattery. One day, Tom asks Sophia for a favor –to help Black George’s family, to which Sophia readily complies after soothing over Mr. Western with ale and his favorite songs on the harpsichord (albeit bawdy tunes). Some people, like Squire Allworthy praise Tom’s virtue, while others like Square and Thwackum critique it.

Next, we learn that Black George’s real name is George Seagrim (Fielding once apparently brought a lawsuit against a man named Randolph Seagrim which he won in 1742) and at the moment Tom is actually infatuated with Molly Seagrim, Black George’s second eldest child. Unlike Sophia, she is not particularly beautiful nor intelligent –“her Beauty was not of the most amiable kind” (114). One day, she. cannot stop herself and recklessly throws herself at Tom and they make love. Shortly thereafter, she becomes pregnant and attends church adorned with a “sack” from Sophia which briefly hides her protruding belly. However, our narrator makes note of the ways in which scheming ambitions and vanities flourish in country churches –they are often places of “Prudes and Coquettes” as well as “Dressing and Ogling, Falshood, Envy, Malice, Scandal…” (116). Naturally, rumors soon spread of Molly’s pregnancy. In fact, a violent brawl unfolds between the church women and Molly. Our beneficent narrator reiterates a hilarious scene in which Molly battles her way through hoards of women while trying to escape the church, brandishing a skull and thigh bone as weaponry from the graveyard –and the whole brawl is told in high-minded “Homeric” epic style.

“Recount, O Muse, the Names of those who fell on this fatal day” (117).

Hair is pulled, blood is spilled, and a woman named Goody Brown (whom the narrator goes to great lengths to describe as having a small bosom) leads the attack on Molly until Tom Jones arrives to end this mob battle. He surveys the field of battle in the churchyard: “Having scoured the whole Coast of the Enemy, as well as any of Homer’s heroes ever did, or as Don Quixote, or any Knight-Errant in the World could have done, he returned to Molly…” (119).

Curiously, Sophia offers Molly a job in the Western household, and after a family fight, Molly’s mother decides she will accept the position instead, however Fortune soon puts a stop to her promotion. At one point here, our illustrious narrator identifies one of his chapters as the shortest in the book (though this is a false statement, there are other shorter chapters). He routinely quotes Juvenal (sometimes quoting Livy) as Molly’s pregnancy becomes known throughout the Western household and Tom tries to excuse himself but the damage has been done, much to the grave sorrow of Sophia. His blushing exposes his shame.

Tom professes that he is, in fact, the father of Molly’s child to Squire Allworthy which earns him a lengthy moral lecture from Squire Allworthy (though the narrator decides not to reiterate it since we have already heard a similar lecture delivered to Jenny Jones earlier in the novel). Square and Thwackum seek to poison Squire Allworthy’s mind with unpleasant thoughts of Tom. Meanwhile, Sophia tries to avoid Tom but she falls from her horse in a hunting accident and Tom rescues her while breaking his arm –an act praised alongside the greatest of all men rescuing their maidens. Despite Tom’s scandal, Sophia continues to secretly fall in love with him (she converses about it with her maidservant, Honour).

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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