Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book X

With the likes of Don Quixote or Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy, we see literature evolving and developing an awareness of itself. These books are very much cognizant of the fact that they are being read, judged, and criticized –and their narrators respond accordingly. They are playful rather than serious, picaresque rather than epic, and increasingly self-conscious of their own narratives. In Tom Jones, the anonymous narrator pauses and speaks to the reader directly, wondering if we are as learned in human Nature as the likes of Shakespeare. If, however, we are like Shakespeare’s Editors and have misrepresented things, the narrator cautions us against becoming critics who are akin to “little reptiles.” This book is merely a representation of reality (or “mimesis as Aristotle would say) and therefore it contains both good and bad things (here he misquotes Horace) for there can be nothing of greater moral use than examples of imperfections and blemishes.  

At this point, I was reminded of the goal set forth in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales –to find a tale that is both delightful and informative in the classical sense. According to Horace, good literature is both entertaining and illuminating. Perhaps Fielding attempts to achieve the same ends by offering so many narratological digressions, admonitions, ruminations, and ponderings. The narrator serves to inform while the story keeps the reader amused. However, the effect is jarring, albeit hilarious. The form effectively separates, rather than blends, the philosophic and the literary, almost as if they are two separate parts of the same whole. If we are to accept this interpretation of Fielding’s project, then it seems he is challenging classical notions of the mimetic art (not unlike Cervantes or Sterne) and he foreshadows the coming postmodern novel in the 20th and 21st centuries.    

Returning to the tale at hand, in the wee hours of the morning the maidservant (Susan) at the Upton inn ushers a newly arrived gentleman into the room of Mrs. Waters by accident only to find Tom and Mrs. Waters in bed together. It causes a brief scandal and tussle for poor oblivious Tom, and the gentleman is named Mr. Fitzpatrick. Shortly thereafter, a dignified young lady arrives at the inn (later revealed to Sophia!) She is quickly dismayed when she learns about Tom’s infidelities and especially his presumed loose-lipped conversation about her, so she leaves him a note in his empty bedroom before departing. Then, Squire Western arrives in search of Sophia. Other characters are revealed in this chapter, as well, including Abigail Honour and Mr. Fitzpatrick’s wife. This book ends with the narrator taking us backward to track Sophia’s escape from home and her use of Tom’s same guide which led her to the inn in Upton.

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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