Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book VI

“Examine your Heart, my good Reader, and resolve whether you do believe these Matters with me. If you do, you may now proceed to their Exemplification in the following Pages; if you do not, you have, I assure you, already read more than you have understood; and it would be wiser to pursue your Business, or your Pleasures (such as they are) than to throw away any more of your time in reading what you can neither taste nor comprehend” (177).

Our narrator decides to begin Book VI by examining certain contemporary philosophers who claim no such “Passion” as love exists, especially when the previous and forthcoming books in this “History” are intended to deal with the subject of love. Reminded of the late “Dr. Swift” (Jonathan Swift’s satirical “An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity”) these thinkers have discovered a grave secret, namely that there is no god or virtues or love, and our narrator likens these thinkers unto “Finders of Gold” (or cleaners of toilets). He offers four contrasting to the modern arguments in favor of the non-being of love. First, since there are many minds, perhaps philosophic thinkers are less inclined to the passions of the heart (in some ways, this notion is explored in the Platonic dialogues).  Second, love supersedes mere gluttony or lustful hunger. Third, love seeks its own satisfaction as much as any human appetite. And lastly, lust is appealed to by love for gratification of the individual. How might these arguments contrast with eros as examined in Plato’s Symposium?

In thoroughly reading each of our narrator’s wandering digressions, I found myself contrasting Tom Jones, a satirical “modern” “epic” “history,” with other ancient works, such as those of the Homeric of Virgilian variety. Unlike the epics of antiquity which rarely betray any existence of a narrator, in Tom Jones, we are ceaselessly reminded of a narrator’s presence. In fact, the narrator is aware that his reader is entirely self-conscious and thus feels a need to constantly justify himself and his decisions regarding which portions of the story to either include or eliminate. In addition, the narrator mirrors the modern trends toward markets, capitalism, and individualism by enticing the reader, as if playing the role of a salesman for each chapter. Along with holding a lofty opinion of himself as a constant philosophic pontificator, he also continually humbles himself before his readers. He comes across as a fascinatingly silly fellow.

At any rate, Mrs. Western (the sister of Squire Western) soon observes Sophia’s melancholy and she deduces that Sophia has fallen in love. “She had lived about the Court, and had seen the World…” (178) but despite all her proper education in manners and culture, Mrs. Western wrongly deduces that Sophia has fallen in love with master Blifil. Mrs. Western and the Squire engage in a silly argument which pits his simple “Country Ignorance” against her proper “Town Learning.” In the end Squire Western relents (but only when he remembers that he is set to inherit her vast fortune). Later, at dinner with Squire Allworthy, Mrs. Western proposes the match of Sophia and Blifil (especially after Sophia has been overacting with Blifil to throw her aunt off the trail of her true love for Tom). Squire Allworthy, who is much praised by our narrator, suggests that both Blifil and Sophia should decide for themselves (much to Mrs. Western’s chagrin). The narrator then leads us on a brief digression concerning Moderation and True Wisdom.

When Squire Allworthy speaks with Blifil, he is dismayed when Bifil merely praises Sophia’s fortune. Blifil is more of a philosopher then a lover, but after he delivers a discourse on “Love and Marriage,” he and Squire Allworthy issue a letter declaring their approval of the prospective union. However, when she confronts Sophia, Mrs. Western learns that Sophia actually loves Tom. Naturally, Mrs. Western considers this infatuation a disgrace on the family. Why? Simply because Tom is a bastard rather than a well-born gentleman. Later, Sophia tearfully speaks with Mrs. Honour who gives some sage advice –“I wish some People would trouble themselves only with what belongs to them”(190). Sophia endeavors to speak with Tom as he walks by, but she misses him by only a few moments in a ribbon mix-up.

Nevertheless, Sophia and Blifil have an orchestrated courtship meeting –but it is incredibly awkward. Blifil diatribes and Sophia tolerates it only for as long as she can (Blifil does not seem to care since he mainly desires her wealth). Squire Western leaves the meeting feeling delighted, but after speaking with Sophia about how she does not love Blifil, he grows irate with his daughter. He bumps into Tom Jones and allows him to speak some sense into Sophia (not knowing that Tom and Sophia are in love with each other). Both Tom and Sophia hold hands and profess their love for one another, while acknowledging that Sophia’s father will be irate. Suddenly, the narrator interrupts and admits that this scene has lasted long enough and another unfolds in the hallway. Mrs. Western learns that Tom is speaking with Sophia and she believes Sophia has betrayed their private understanding, thus she reveals Sophia’s secret to Squire Western who is astounded that Sophia would choose a poor man (since equality of wealth is most important in a marriage, at least according to Squire Western). Squire Western flies into a wild rage at Tom and confronts Squire Allworthy.

This proves to be the last chance for Tom –Squire Western, Master Blifil, and Thwackum poison Squire Allworthy’s mind against Tom. They tell the story of Tom drunkenly fighting and fornicating while Squire Allworthy was ill, and even though Tom confesses to the whole thing, Squire Allworthy says he can no longer continue to forgive Tom for his many transgressions. Here, we see Tom at his most misunderstood. He is expelled from Allworthy’s estate with his earthly possessions and no less than 500 pounds.

Now, Tom appears to us like a tragic-Homeric hero as he sits beside an Arcadian brook and begins tearing his hair out in agony. His fortunes have been entirely reversed. He runs into his old friend Black George who helps deliver a letter to Sophia. Sadly, Tom decides the most honorable thing to do is release Sophia, however in a return letter, Sophia pledges to remain true to Tom. She is then confined to her room by her father until Mrs. Western chastises Squire Western for discarding all of her diligent tutelage on the nature of prudence for Sophia.

Lastly, a note on the historical importance of Book VI –this was the section of the novel in which Henry Fielding inserted contemporaneous political references to the Jacobite Rebellion, a trend which only grew with the rise of the modern novel.

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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