Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book V

“Peradventure there may be no Parts in this prodigious Work which will give the Reader less Pleasure in the perusing, than those which have given the Author the greatest pains in composing” (137).

Our long-suffering narrator identifies himself as the “Head” of a new kind of writing which he calls “prosaic-comi-epic Writing” (137). At the same time, he lambasts the “dictatorial power” of critics, even though the typical critic is little more than a clerk who serves in a municipal office who nevertheless believes himself to be a qualified magistrate. The critic, in other words, represents an unjustified judiciary. Our narrator offers a brief history of the rise of critics and how they tend to hamper true “Genius,” but he also acknowledges that his amusing diatribes are “laboriously dull” and that in the future, the reader may simply wish to skip ahead.

At any rate, in confinement while recovering from his arm injury, Tom Jones is regularly visited by Squire Allworthy as well as his many foes who chastise him: Thwackum, Square, and Blifil. However, Tom is also visited by Sophia, whom he begins to suspect as being in love with him. Tom mulls over this potential infatuation, however he is aware of his own status as a bastard –“He well knew that Fortune is generally the principle, if not the sole Consideration, which operates on the best of Parents in these Matters” (144). This is, in my view, the great tragedy of Tom Jones –that no matter what actions a poor wayward man like Tom Jones takes in his life, he is forever an outsider as long as people believe he is born of a licentious mistake, rather than an orderly, wealthy aristocratic family. In other words, Henry Fielding points out that the slate is never blank because, not unlike the case of Oedipus, a person’s birthright matters. Tom Jones can never fully rise above his genealogy.

Sadly, after a sleepless night, Tom Jones, believes himself to be doing the right thing when he decides to remain constant with Molly, the woman who bore his child. He drives all romantic thoughts of Sophia from his mind. Nevertheless, Sophia’s heart remains attached to Tom as she cleaves to a muff Tom once kissed (per her maid Mrs. Honour).

One day, Tom endeavors to visit Molly and climbs up to her bedchamber to find her door curiously locked. After a few moments, she appears and Tom reveals that perhaps he should release her, thereby allowing her to find happiness with another man who could rightly marry her. She then bursts into tears and accuses tom of ‘forsaking’ her but suddenly a nearby rug falls down revealing that Mr. Square (the “Philosopher”) has been sleeping with Molly, a woman he first lusted after in church, but now freely pursues upon learning that her “Fortress of Virtue had already been subdued” (150). However, when he makes this discovery, Tom merely smiles and acknowledges the “Indulgence of a natural Appetite” and he pledges to keep it quiet and forgive her infidelity against him (she has apparently engaged in a variety of debauched behavior).

Tom is now free to pursue Sophia. They walk in the garden together and Tom professes his love for Sophia but unfortunately trouble is once again lurking for him just around the corner. Squire Allworthy falls ill and, believing himself to be on death’s door, he calls al his friends around his bed to announce that his estate will be put in the hands of Master Blifil, while Tom will receive a pension and a flat. Tom falls at Allworthy’s feet in thanks and hopes for good health, but both Square and Thwackum grow resentful of their “meager” inheritance. In addition, Mrs. Wilkins believes she should be given a privileged inheritance ahead of the other household servants. Meanwhile, news arrives that Bridget –Blifil’s mother, Allworthy’s sister—has tragically died of the gout.

After treating himself to a nice meal at the Squire’s expense, the physician finally declares his patient entirely cured. Shortly thereafter Tom nearly descends into a drunken brawl with Thwackum, so he stumbles out of the house for an evening stroll and wanders into a lush grove where he delves into fantasies of Sophia. However, out of the bushes springs forth none other than Tom’s one-time Dido to his Aeneas, Molly. She leads Tom away into a thicker section of the grove –but Blifil spots their activities from afar and reports the situation to Thwackum. Thus, the two chase down Tom in the grove and a giant battle ensues which leaves Blifil in an unconscious state on the ground. Much of the household rushes down to witness the commotion, including Sophia, who promptly faints on the scene. Tom then heroically awakens her by carrying her limp body down a nearby stream. Impressed with Tom’s actions, Squire Western invites Tom back to his home, though he notably cannot offer Tom any inheritance nor the hand of Sophia in marriage owing to his status as a bastard. Thwackum flies into a rage at Tom and pledges to pursue the “slut” further into the grove, but Squire Western merely laughs at the situation by calling Tom a “liquorish Dog.”

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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