Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book VII

By the time I reached Book VII of Tom Jones, I was struck by an epiphany. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, contains certain elements of literary allegory, perhaps in some ways it is similar in form to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Throughout the whole novel, Tom Jones’s love for Sophia might be well compared to the “love of wisdom” (the word Sophia comes down to us from ancient Greek meaning “wisdom”). And the Socratic definition of philosophy is distinguished as “the love of wisdom.” Should we interpret Tom Jones as a metaphor for the struggles and misunderstandings of the philosophic life? Assuming we accept this interpretation, what does this tell us about Henry Fielding’s understanding of philosophers? The novel Tom Jones takes place in a decidedly modern context (as various contemporaneous scholars and even the Jacobite Rebellion are mentioned), and therefore it is an exploration not of ancient, but rather modern philosophy. In this milieu, Tom stands out for being innocent and optimistic, an uprooted “foundling” who is marked from birth as being a bastard. He is an outsider and an oddball with sexual prowess and thumos, however unlike others in the novel, he is not a liar about his vivacity. Somehow, Tom seems to be more fully alive than anyone else around him. However, unlike the philosophers of old, Tom is full of a bit more joie de vivre.  

At any rate, the narrator begins Book VII with another philosophical meditation, this time on the world being akin to a stage (he cites Aristotle and Shakespeare) and he also uses this as another opportunity to defend true works of fiction against their critics because “the Man of Candour and of true Understanding is never hasty to condemn” (213) even if certain vices are portrayed.

We find poor Tom alone in the world. He receives his possessions from Squire Allworthy along with any accompanying note from Master Blifil indicating that the Squire wishes never to speak to Tom again and that he was presumptuous in thinking he could ever have Sophia as his wife because her birth and fortune are far superior to Tom’s own. The letter implores Tom to leave the country, and so Tom sadly heads for Bristol to set sail.

Next, we turn to Sophia who is taught by Mrs. Western that a true marriage is not based on love, as the poets would have you believe, but instead it is a kind of “depository” wealth that must be selected prudently. Sophia listens but declares she will not marry Blifil because she despises him. This sends both Squire and Mrs. Western into a rage. Mrs. Western leaves the house and Squire Western bemoans his late wife, Sophia’s mother. She was faithful and he was a (mostly) well-mannered husband, but he hated her because he was often drunk and sporting, while she was little more than a mere servant. Thus, Mr. Western actually hated his late wife, Sophia’s mother (our narrator reminds us that this does not necessarily mean he hated Sophia, too). While Sophia and her father bicker, she reminds him off Mrs. Western’s fortune which will likely be bequeathed to him, and he relents and stop her from leaving the household. The Squire and his sister push for an immediate marriage between Blifil and Sophia (and Blifil is only too eager to comply to satisfy his growing Epicurean appetite which is the “common property of all animals,” along with his desire to upstage Tom).

However, before the wedding can occur, Sophia plots an escape to with her attendant Mrs. Honour to visit “a Lady of Quality in London,” a relative of Sophia’s. Mrs. Honour privately debates running away with Sophia but after a run-in with Mrs. Western’s maid, Mrs. Honour strengthens her resolve to flee the household.

Next, we return to Tom “on the road to Bristol; being determined to seek his Fortune at sea; or rather, indeed, to fly away from his Fortune on Shore” (234). As it turns out, Tom has been led astray by his guide. Rather than heading for Bristol, they are on the road to Gloucester. Tom stops and meets a “plain well-looking Man (who was indeed a Quaker)” named Broadbrim who offers to help, but he soon reveals that his own daughter has rejected a prosperous arranged marriage. This soon leads to a fight and Tom is forced to sleep for the evening in the chair. During the night, a company of soldiers arrives and after speaking with the Lieutenant, Tom decides to join the military in order to battle the Jacobite rebellion. The Lieutenant notes that he has not advanced in the military because his wife refuses to sleep with his colonel.

To pause for a moment, and continue with a metaphor I have stumbled upon, this is a moment in the novel wherein Tom is the furthest he has yet been from Sophia, or Wisdom. Therefore, the further Tom gets from his love of Wisdom, the closer he gets to joining the military and fighting the Jacobites. Could Henry Fielding be offering a glimpse into his politics? What were his true feelings about the Old Pretender?

At any rate, Tom discusses religion and classical war with some of the men and naturally the conversation devolves into petty squabbles. This ends in a fight which nearly kills Tom. In the night, Tom attempts to kill the offending ensign but believing he has departed, steals back to his bedroom. Little does he know the Centinel spots Tom and believes him to be a ghost. Once again, money rules the day as the ensign (whose name is Northerton) bribes the landlady. Finally, Tom decides to get some rest.

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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