Book # 975
Tom Jones is not only Henry Fielding’s masterpiece; it is also considered to be a key stepping stone in the development of the modern novel as a literary form. For this reason alone, it very much belongs on the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list. If you’re interested in the development of the novel, you’ll be fascinated by Fielding’s experiments and ideas which continue to be reflected in novelistic style even today. If you’re not, there’s still the creative and comic story of Tom Jones and Sophia Western.
Each of the eighteen ‘books’ that are part of this novel includes a preface, and Fielding most often uses these prefaces to explain his style decisions and what’s important to him in writing what he calls a realistic ‘history.’ These prefaces are sometimes funny, sometimes silly, very often argumentative, and always interesting. Fielding is spot on when he writes:
“In like manner, the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author’s skill in well dressing it up.”
One style choice Fielding makes is to depict and discuss both ‘high’ and ‘low’ life and characters in the novel. There are scenes among peasants in inns and on the highway, and there are scenes among the gentry in their homes and social gatherings. Fielding contrasts the two sometimes, but more often he sheds light on similarities:
“The great are deceived if they imagine they have appropriated ambition and vanity to themselves. These noble qualities flourish as notably in a country church and churchyard as in the drawing-room or in the closet.”
He also pokes fun, at fashionable notions or ideas that are ridiculous to him, as when Mrs. Western, in attempting to convince her niece to marry a man she hates, says:
“I have known many couples, who have entirely disliked each other, lead very comfortable genteel lives. Believe me, child, I know these things better than you. You will allow me, I think, to have seen the world, in which I have not an acquaintance who would not rather be thought to dislike her husband than to like him. The contrary is such out-of-fashion romantic nonsense, that the very imagination of it is shocking.”
In my opinion, Fielding’s most important contribution to the development of the novel is his relatively well-rounded characterization. Earlier writing tends to have characters who are either perfectly good or villainously evil. There is no complexity to them and, therefore, no reality. As a reader, I tend to hold excellent characterization as critical to my enjoyment of a novel – it’s well above plot for me, though of course I know that plenty of people feel the opposite. What Fielding chooses to do in his novel is to adhere to reality, to human nature, and only have characters who ring true as people:
“For we do not pretend to introduce any infallible characters into this history, where we hope nothing will be found which hath never yet been seen in human nature.”
Overall, considering his attempt is one of the first forays of this kind, I think he is relatively successful, particularly in the main character, Tom Jones, who is virtuous and kind-hearted, but also naïve and impulsive. In Sophia Western, the other principal character, Fielding is less successful. I think this has more to do with his prejudices towards women than anything else. Fielding’s thoughts on women, which I discuss more below, were liberal for his time but are certainly ridiculous now.
Fielding also tackles the issue of plotting in new ways. Earlier writings feature characters having adventures episodically and, for the most part, the ordering of these events doesn’t matter at all, the secondary characters in the scenes are interchangeable and often don’t reappear from one event to the next, and there is no real unity to the story. Here, however, Fielding develops a large cast of secondary characters, most of whom reappear throughout the novel. They know information or take part in scenes that are needed to further the plot. The whole novel is a progression from happiness to tragedy, and then back to happiness, rather than a series of discrete scenes.
While all these things are clear steps forward for the novel as a form, there are still lots of problems. The one that bothers me the most (and that still bugs me in plenty of contemporary novels) is the reliance on miscommunication and far-too-convenient near misses and twists of fate to further the plot and, especially, to tie things back together in the end.
Beyond all this work on the development of the novel, I also enjoyed Fielding’s ongoing commentary on religion and virtue, why they matter, and where they go wrong. For example:
“…both religion and virtue have received more real discredit from hypocrites than the wittiest profligates or infidels could ever cast upon them; nay, further, as these two, in their purity, are rightly called the hands of civil society, and are indeed the greatest of blessings, so when poisoned and corrupted with fraud, pretense, and affection, they have become the worst of civil curses, and have enabled men to perpetrate the most cruel mischiefs to their own species.”
Fielding sets up a dichotomy between religion and philosophy, which is physically embodied in two characters (Thwackum and Square) both of whom have their good points but also their faults. Ultimately, Fielding argues that choosing one over the other is problematic. The two together are needed:
“True it is, that philosophy makes us wiser, but Christianity makes us better men. Philosophy elevates and steels the mind, Christianity softens and sweetens it. The former makes us the objects of human admiration, the latter of Divine love. That ensures us a temporal, but this an eternal happiness.”
While Fielding has such interesting ideas about virtue and goodness, and their importance in making a person worthy of admiration, he ultimately succumbs to the sense that high birth is just as important, and very much an indicator of whether or not someone is virtuous. This made the ending of the novel a little disappointing, but I can’t fault Fielding too much for being a man of his time.