Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book XII

“The learned Reader must have observed, that in the Course of this mighty Work, I have often translated Passages out of the best antient Authors, without quoting the Original or without taking the least notice of the Book from whence they were borrowed” (400).

Our scholarly narrator begins Book XII by discoursing on the nature of borrowing quotations, citations, and even ideas from other writers. Thievery is a lowly act, however meditating upon the works of classical antiquity is a worthwhile endeavor. In the ongoing debate between ancients and moderns, the narrator of Tom Jones (and perhaps Henry Fielding, as well) comes to light as a defender of the ancients. I was especially reminded of Jonathan Swift’s defense of the ancients (i.e. Plato or Aristotle) contra the moderns (i.e. Descartes or Bacon) in his “Battle of the Books” and “A Tale of a Tub.”

Returning to our history, an irate Squire Western has been tracking his daughter Sophia but he becomes distracted by the prospect of hunting. Meanwhile, Tom and Partridge prepare to leave the inn at Upton, with Tom planning to join the military while Partridge remains terrified of the idea. Suddenly, they come upon a crossing where a beggar-man reveals Sophia’s prized pocketbook from Mrs. Western with one hundred pounds inside (the same one hundred pounds she is missing). Tom promises to compensate the beggar more fully in the future.

Next, they hear a drum banging off in the distance which Partridge fears might be the Rebels (Jacobites) and they decide to attend a puppet show, a performance of a part of “the Provoked Husband” which is “indeed a very grave and solemn Entertainment, without any low Wit, or Humour, or Jests” (413). It is a serious performance which claims to improve the morals of young people, and in this respect I was reminded of the puppet show in Part II of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. A scuffle ensues as the Landlady’s maid is found backstage with the puppeteer, and the landlady pines for the old days when puppet shows were filled exclusively with Biblical tales. Tom is once again mistaken for a wealthy gentleman, in fact the true heir of Squire Allworthy –doors open to him only when he is believed to be wealthy. Regardless of all other loudly proclaimed pieties in English society, possession of wealth is ultimately all that matters.

The puppeteer named Merry Andrew is attacked by the puppet master, only to be rescued by Tom who then heads for London. In this case, Tom represents a new kind of hero, distinct from the high-minded heroes of classical epics, in that Tom makes mistakes. He stumbles his way through this picaresque fantasy, while attempting to do the right thing, which is more than can be said for anyone else in the book. Generally speaking, the closer one is to the English upper classes, the less likely they are to be a good person.

En route to London, Tom encounters a man named Dowling and they stumble upon an Egyptian gypsy wedding which is mistaken for a witches’ den –all the while fears of the Jacobites persist. Then, Tom and Partridge are robbed by a highwayman at gunpoint by an anonymous man (who says he is desperate with five children at home) but a sympathetic Tom hands him a few guineas despite Partridge’s fears. Tom. Partridge claims the punishment for thievery is death, but Tom reminds him that he once stole, as well. In contrast to Partridge, Tom is compassionate, genteel, and altruistic. He hopes to catch up to Sophia soon as they continue along on the road.

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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