The narrator reflects on tragedy and comedy. Comic writers end their books when their characters are made as happy as can be; whereas tragic writers conclude only when their characters reach the pit of human misery. However, since Tom Jones is of the former variety, the narrator endeavors to bring his characters onto the safe shores of happiness soon. In this respect, the ancients had an advantage over the moderns with the widespread believability of their stories and legends.
Blifil, Mrs. Miller, and Squire Allworthy debate the moral character of Tom when Squire Western arrives and shares Mrs. Western’s plan for Sophia to marry Lord Fellamar. This leads to a vigorous discussion as Blifil pines for Sophia, but Squire Allworthy advises Blifil to examine his own heart as he appears to be driven mainly by lust. However, returning to Sophia from whom the narrator can “no longer bear to be absent,”—
“The lowing Heifer, and the bleating Ewe in Herds and Flocks, may ramble safe and unguarded through the Pastures. These are, indeed, hereafter doomed to be the Prey of Man; yet many Years are they suffered to enjoy their Liberty undisturbed. But if a plump Doe be discovered to have escaped from the Forest, and to repose herself in some Field or Grove, the whole Parish is presently alarmed, every Man is ready to set his Dogs after her; and if she is preserved from the rest by the good Squire, it is only that he may secure her for his own eating” (577-578).
Sophia is compared to a hunted doe as three men seem to be chasing her. Mrs. Western sympathizes with Sophia after she shares that Lord Fellamar attempted to violate her. In shock, Mrs. Western shares her own personal “conquests and cruelty” toward her many suitors in her youth.
Meanwhile, in prison Tom receives news from Partridge that Mr. Fitzpatrick has not died from Mrs. Miller, Nightingale, and Partridge. Despite the fact that Tom is generally a good-natured person who has been wronged, neither Squire Allworthy nor Sophia are on speaking terms with him. At the end of Book XVII, news arrives from Mrs. Waters (from the Upton inn) that Mr. Fitzpatrick has survived and is admitting fault for the duel (which is especially timely as two witnesses to the duel were falsely claiming that Tom started the fight). However, the narrator claims this will be overshadowed by a piece of news which Fortune has yet in store for Tom.
For this reading I used the Norton Critical Edition of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling edited by Sheridan Baker.