Reflections on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, Book XVIII

“We are now, Reader, arrived at the last Stage of our long Journey. As we have therefore travelled together through so many Pages, let us behave  to one another like Fellow-Travelers in a Stage-Coach, who have passed several Days in the Company of each other; and who, notwithstanding any Bickerings or little Animosities which may have occurred on the Road generally make all up at last, and mount, for the last Time, into their Vehicle with Chearfulness and Good-Humor; since after this one Stage, it may possibly happen to us, as it commonly happens to them, never to meet more” (595).  

Partridge suddenly arrives at Tom’s prison cell bearing news that his mother is actually Mrs. Waters (from the Upton inn). Then, Black George arrives at the prison and informs Tom that Squire Western and his sister Mrs. Western have had an intense argument. Later, Squire Allworthy learns of Tom’s generosity with the money he initially gave him when Tom was expelled from the Allworthy estate. As news breaks that Tom did not initiate the duel with Mr. Fitzpatrick, a letter from Square who is dying. In it, he confesses to Squire Allworthy that Tom is innocent of his past transgressions and that the true villain was Mr. Thwackum (with an enclosed letter exposing Thwackum’s haughty demands of Squire Allworthy).

Next, it is revealed that Tom’s father was Mr. Sumner, the son of a clergyman whom Squire Allworthy had raised, and –in the greatest twist of all—Mrs. Waters reveals that the true mother of Tom Jones was none other than Bridget Allworthy, the good Squire’s own sister! Blifil is found to be a villainous traitor whole Tom lobbies for forgiveness. Sophia and Tom are then reunited, and while she remains skeptical of Tom’s libertine ways, Tom manages to reassure her by guarding the armour of his own heart, if not always his own physical desires. All parties seem pleased, especially Squire Western who looks forward to having a grandson in nine months.

In a brief epilogue (“Chapter the Last”) Tom and Sophia are married and they have two children, living in perfect happiness each day on Squire Allworthy’s estate. They remain beneficent to all those around them. In what is perhaps the greatest farce of all in the novel, Tom’s fortunes in life only change when his birthright is revealed of aristocratic blood. No matter how many kind and good-natured deeds Tom performed in life, al that really mattered was that he was born of Squire Allworthy’s sister. Tom Jones offers a classic indictment of the prevailing mores of the British ruling class, who despite their platitudes of benevolence, prove to that the only thing dividing a hero from a villain is his bloodline. Goodness is a rare possession in England. As the book progresses, we are taken from 1) Somerset, 2) and the open road, 3) to finally concluding in London (all the while the young Pretender’s Jacobite rebellion serves as the backdrop). And interestingly enough, there is no real growth for any of the characters in the book (I suppose one could make the case that the confessions of Square and Mrs. Waters show some modest change of character). However, the only fact that changes the entire plot concerns the secret identity of Tom’s mother –Bridget Allworthy—which suddenly elevates Tom’s material situation and welcomes him back into his upper-class bubble. In this way, it is a markedly different kind of familial reveal than, say, Oedipus learning the hideous truth of his own mother. Tom finds his love of Sophia (“wisdom”) by sheer fortuity.     

Ever the rascal, Henry Fielding closes his blistering satire of trendy “novels of manners” (i.e. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa), a genre which so pervaded his age, by offering a fairy tale all too perfect to be believed. Tom Jones as a character becomes little more than a “thesis” as Kenneth Rexroth notes. Jones is a common enough fellow, the kind that was often absent from the novels of Fielding’s day, but Jones represents the universal hero not unlike other classical foundlings, such as Romulus and Remus raised by a she-wolf, or Moses found among the reeds. He is the natural gentleman, despite being a bastard, whose goodly nature is nevertheless his greatest flaw in the modern world, a world which seeks to crush him at every turn. He lacks tact and mischievousness while maintaining an overabundance of innocence and libido. In the end, his life is saved only by mere luck, happenstance, and fortune. This is the great irony of Tom Jones as, contra the realism of Daniel Defoe’s found diary entries in Robinson Crusoe, the unnamed narrator of Tom Jones ceaselessly reminds us that this whole tale is untrue via endless digressions and reflections intended to unseat and dethrone the modern reader from his place of presumed omniscience. In this way, Fielding owes a great debt to his intellectual forebear, Miguel Cervantes.

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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