Back in 2009 I completed my BA in comparative literature with an in-depth paper on Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones”. Needless to say, I have had to mention Fielding’s name just about every time I introduce said Jones, as one other individual has had a seemingly greater impact on modern culture consumption than the character of the 18 book long novel first published in 1749. Granted, they both like(d) the ladies a lot, but that’s just about it for comparisons.
The full title of Fielding’s book is “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling“. It is characterised as a novel, and has been classified by professor Ian Watt, author of The Rise of the Novel, alongside Richardson’s Pamela and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, as one of the first incidences of the term ‘novel’ (in the West) to have been written. It is worth mentioning that many believe Cervantes’ Don Quixote to be the first, and there are incidences in Tom Jones that remind one of Don Quixote, such as an incident at an inn where many of the characters end up at the same time, and humorous misunderstandings are also reoccurring fixtures. The novel is written in the midst of the Enlightenment era, a time where the bourgeoisie is in fast rising, and questions of moral, values and the foundation of society are being brought up for reevaluation. The idea of the right of the individual becomes a very important aspect of philosophical, literary and societal critique, as well as a firm consensus amongst contemporaries that reason triumphs over belief.
In the 18 books Fielding’s novel progresses through, Tom Jones encounters many people, places and events that he initially manages to misunderstand or get wrong at almost every instance. Found at the doorstep of Squire Allworthy as a newborn, Tom is raised on his estate alongside Allworthy’s nephew Blifil and the lovely Sophia on the estate next to them. He is eventually tossed out when Allworthy, as a result of some misunderstandings and the scheming of Blifil, no longer trusts in his good nature, and Tom goes on a long journey to redeem himself which (among many other places) takes him to London.
One of the key concepts Fielding uses in the novel is ‘Human Nature’ and as models of this problematic Tom and Blifil function as opposites. Tom is the randy, all-over-the-place rascal with a big heart, who can’t sit still for two seconds and Blifil is the cool, callous upperclass figure who believes in the importance of stature and sneers at those below him. Fielding uses this as a way of educating the reader in human nature, to show the complexities of people in different situations, and how human nature can be harnessed in order to be refined and civilised. One of the most important factors about Fielding’s human nature is thus the ability to learn from ones experiences, to cultivate ones education and not to repeat old fashions and etiquettes (one in particular is the decadent culture Tom encounters when he reaches London). Fielding thus contests one notion of an innate or natural moral knowledge and introduces the feasibility of an individual gaining knowledge through progressive force. It seems however, that his belief in the possibilities of education and cultivation as a way of civilising his characters is bound by another innate factor – that you are basically good to start with. And so he makes a distinction between someone like Tom Jones and Blifil, making it inevitable that Jones will prevail where Blifil must fail – as a good citizen. In the novel Fielding doesn’t pass judicial judgement on the characters that were not good to start with, only presents them in a tragic light that exposes their misunderstood values. As such Fielding proposes a manual for the bourgeoisie on which values to keep and which to disregard (where many aristocratic notions are tossed).
The woman as character
One of the components of Fielding’s novel that intrigued me was the role of Sophia. The characters Fielding introduces are not as much characters as types, and so a ‘person’ like Sophia becomes an embodiment, rather than a psychologically rounded individual, of what one role of female is. One of my conclusions in my reading of Tom Jones was, that whereas Tom is allowed the whole process of being discarded by Society, and being readmitted through the journey of finding himself, Sophia is portrayed as an already idealised good. She is the object of Tom’s affection, a love that seems impossible all through the novel, and caught between the duties as a daughter to her father and her inclination towards Tom, who in the end (without spoiling too much) is deemed worthy of society. Her role is one that is already decided as an extension of the events that take place throughout the novel. She wants, as I quoted Professor Spacks in my paper, “whatever men want them to want.” And when she does so, she cannot really be a portrayal of the Individual, but rather an appendage to the Individuals journey towards civilisation.
When Sophia pursues Tom against her father’s wishes, she goes only as far as she can within societal code – it is not until she can get consent from her father that she takes active measures towards Tom. Another female character includes the seductress Lady Bellaston, who can be said to counter Sophia on the emotional level as a fin de siecle type of urban London, who is deemed in the same manner as Blifil to be a poor copy of Human Nature. Lady Bellaston schemes and plots and desires a relationship with Tom outside wedlock because she is portrayed as a woman who has misunderstood the good values to be upheld in society, and does only what she deems will be of value for herself in the moment. The subject of marriage, either as a utilitarian joining of two economical forces or an act of love, is polarised between Sophia and her aunt Mrs Western, where Sophia of course cannot follow her aunts views of gaining wealth and stature by marriage without taking into account ones feelings. Again as a manual to the rising bourgeoisie Fielding instructs the reader to view the notion of marriage for economical benefit as degrading.
I believe that the rights of women is not an issue with Fielding’s Tom Jones, what is at stake is the Individual in contemporary society. And as such the visibility of female wants and desires was often clouded by the understanding of individuality as being a homogenous notion. The female characters in Tom Jones who go after what they want are portrayed in a rather negative light. The best Fielding can do towards the idealised woman is to leave her motherless in order to create a space where Sophia has no institutional role model that tells her to become either a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ woman but decides, as she is innately good natured, to pick the former.
I can recommend the book, but if you are more of a movie buff, apparently there is also a 1963 comedy of Tom Jones starring Albert Finney and Susannah York as Tom and Sophie.