Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book VIII

The narrator begins Book VIII with a discourse on “that species of Writing which might be called Marvellous” (256). First, he acknowledges verisimilitude by claiming that good writing should be contained within the bounds of possibility and believability. He then wonders how Homer managed to wander into various miraculous stories, or how Ulysses (Odysseus) told a pack of lies to the Phaeacians. He wishes Homer abided by the rule set forth by Horace (many centuries after his death) that supernatural agents should be introduced as seldom as possible. Our narrator wonders if Homer’s true intent was actually to “burlesque the superstitious Faith of his own Age and Country” (257). However, he quickly departs from this fascinating line of thought because modern Christians have no use of heathen antiquity –the deeply human beauty of Homer invoking the Muse is now rendered an absurdity by the modern Christian ethos. Instead, we are relegated to ghostly supernatural apparitions and the like, according to the narrator, and seeing as how Man is now the highest subject matter, the narrator further delineates good writing from the works of historians. He identifies his work as one which “deals in private Character” (259). He advises writers to delve into probability and to select characters who are either trite, common, nor vulgar –of course, with Tom Jones he has elevated the story of a seemingly wayward bastard child who stumbles into one moral dilemma after another.

Throughout the novel, the narrator has regularly made use of the word “fortune” when implying that either Tom’s fortune or his fate has been sealed. However, one similar underlying theme in the novel is the rule of material wealth, or “fortune.” Where there are riches, doors are naturally opened to people. For being such a funny picaresque novel, there is a cynical undertone in Tom Jones which implies that only people with wealth and unearned privilege are granted social graces (perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of Fielding’s own mishandling of money throughout his life). In other words, divine fortune is only as good as material fortune accumulated.

We return to Tom who is impoverished as he speaks to the landlady off the inn. She perceives him to be a gentleman until realizing he has no money. Then she promptly departs the room not wanting to be entrapped by the lower peoples. When a Surgeon arrives to tend to Tom’s still-injured head, he believes he is treating a gentleman until the landlady explains that Tom has no money and so the Surgeon departs abruptly without completing his elaborate plan to heal Tom in exchange for a hefty sum of money.

Next, a Barber by the name of Little Benjamin who was a “Fellow of Great Oddity and Humour” arrives to save Tom. Naturally, this barber is compared to the famous barber in Don Quixote –a knight donning the “helmet of Mambrino.” Tom finds love yet again with the chambermaid named Nancy or “Nanny” while the landlady tells tall tales of Tom’s past and whether or not he is truly the son of Squire Allworthy. Later, Tom tells the Barber Little Benjamin his own personal story right up to Sophia “forgetting only a Circumstance or two” but the general villainous arts to destroy him are made clear.

Little Benjamin reveals himself to be none other than the very Partridge whom Jenny Jones was said to have an affair –ergo Tom’s presumed father! However, he soon claims that he is not Tom’s father and the whole affair was a mere mix-up. They decide to travel together, while the landlady is cruel and overcharges them for their stay. Partridge decides he can return to Squire Allworthy’s good graces if he can only bring Tom back safe and sound –again, we see a character interested in his own well-being. He is also soon revealed to be a Jacobite supporter.

They arrive at an inn located in Gloucester but the landlady Mrs. Whitefield turns out to be just as cruel as the last. They once again venture out into the cold (despite Partridge’s objections) and they come upon a home through the trees owned by an old woman, whom Partridge fears is a witch, and she claims the unfriendly man of the house will be home soon (he is referred to as “The Man of the Hill”). However, Tom scares away robbers and earns the respect of The Man of the Hill. He then delivers a lengthy oration about his own history –born in Somersetshire as the son of a Gentleman farmer, he attended Oxford and has grown into a misanthrope who lives mostly in solitude following a dispute over inheritance with his brother Watson. He is also a staunch anti-Jacobite fearing the end of the Protestant religion if the Popish Prince retakes the throne (contra the views of Partridge). However, like many of us reading along, by this point Partridge has fallen asleep. Thus concludes this lengthy chapter.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s