My rating: 3 of 5 stars
For a 900-page novel, Tom Jones’s famously well-made plot can be summarized briefly. The titular hero is a foundling raised in the ideal country estate of the benevolent Mr. Allworthy. There Tom’s natural goodness and high spirits are checked by several challenges: the rival but empty ideologies of his two flawed tutors, the brutal cleric Thwackum and the dry philosopher Square; the enmity of his scheming cousin Blifil; and eventually his own immoderacy or imprudence, when he impregnates Molly Seagrim, daughter of his dissolute servant-friend, Black George. In the midst of these adventures, he falls gradually in love with the daughter of the neighboring estate, the auroral Sophia Western, whose drunken, vulgar, alcoholic, hunting-obsessed Tory father and arrogant, cosmopolitan, semi-learned, cynical Whig aunt will unfortunately never let her marry a bastard foundling and instead wish to wed her to the odious Blifil.
Tom’s own sexcapades, with help from Blifil’s false witness, get him expelled from Allworthy’s paradisal estate, so he takes to the road to join the army. The year is 1745, the time of the Jacobite uprising, and our good English Christian hero sincerely wishes to defend the realm from challenges to “the limited state,” the constitutional monarchy that our Whiggish author also digresses to defend. On the road, Tom picks up a Sancho-like sidekick, Mr. Partridge, a former teacher rumored to have been Tom’s father, whose Latin ejaculations and Tory prejudices Fielding plays for laughs against straight-man Tom. Meanwhile, Sophia likewise absconds, both to find Tom and to escape Blifil. The accidents of the road—including another illicit tryst for our hero—keep them apart, though Tom meets a number of compelling characters, from abusive soldiers to crafty innkeepers, the most memorable of whom is the misanthropic recluse, the Man of the Hill. By the novel’s last third, our personae have arrived in London where the plot slowly works itself out, though not before Tom finds himself a fine lady’s kept man. In the end, Tom is revealed to have been high-born after all, thus a fit match, once he purges licentiousness from his spirited repertoire, for his purehearted Sophie.
Tom Jones can be described as an incipiently realist novel. Though Gilles Deleuze founded his conviction of the “Superiority of Anglo-American Literature” on the oceanically anarchic imaginative benefits of a maritime empire, Fielding gives us an earthy road-and-inn book, which reminds me instead of Benedict Anderson’s famous theory that the realist novel imagined the modern nation into existence by reminding readers in one place that they shared a country with their counterparts elsewhere in the polity. On the other hand, as the pointedly appropriate character names indicate, the novel is also committed to non-realist genres: comedy of manners, with its focus on types rather than individuals, as well as allegory. The latter is apt, because the lawyer Fielding is prosecuting a philosophical argument: against superstitious Tories like Partridge, cruelly stern Methodists like Thwackum, deadeningly abstract philosophers like Square, naively trusting philanthropists like Allworthy, and unfeeling misanthropes like the Man of the Hill, our author defends instead a latitudinarian outlook that values natural goodness tempered by unavoidable experience. While the narrative purges Tom of his immoderacy, we are not invited to an absolute moral condemnation of his earlier profligacy. Fielding vows in his art to imitate nature and values comic leniency over tragic strictness. Of his characters’ morally mixed behavior, he notes,
[T]hese incidents contribute only to confirm the great, useful, and uncommon doctrine, which it is the purpose of this whole work to inculcate, and which we must not fill up our pages by frequently repeating, as an ordinary parson fills his sermon by repeating his text at the end of every paragraph
My summary of the plot should indicate that Tom Jones also belongs to the broad tradition of the romance going back to late antiquity. The cross-class love story interdicted in the middle by accident and adventure and solved in the end by the timely revelation of the hero’s true birthright is almost the plot of Daphnis and Chloe, to which Fielding adds many, many more pages of Enlightenment elaboration in the forms both of local color and philosophical musing, but not enough to disguise the archetypal armature.
He might have wished to disguise it, since Fielding intended to put prose fiction on a more solid literary foundation than earlier popular novelists like Behn, Defoe, and Richardson had in his view provided. Wanting to join his young genre to the classical tradition, Fielding proposed to recast the novel form as the modern inheritor of the epic, with the important differences that it would be in prose instead of poetry and comic instead of tragic in mode. Also, Fielding self-consciously wrote in a modern age that could not credit supernatural happenings, so he promises to dispose, too, of Homer’s “heathen” resort to gods and monsters. What, after these strictures, is left of the epic? Very little except for rote gestures toward Homeric similes and (comically) epic episodes, such as Molly Seagrim’s famous battle with the judgmental townspeople in the churchyard, where the combatants hurl the bones of unburied parishioners at one another. After the novel’s first half, these epic mannerisms gradually drop out as the genre’s seemingly incorrigible bent toward realism brings Fielding closer to the quotidian dilemmas of his characters. Most of the mock-epic language serves only to trivialize the story, though Fielding’s invocation to the love of fame and the genius of comedy, among other tutelary spirits, is memorable and moving, as he discloses that Sophia is based on his own late wife, wishes for future readers such as ourselves, and pays tribute to his comic forebears:
Foretel me that some tender maid, whose grandmother is yet unborn, hereafter, when, under the fictitious name of Sophia, she reads the real worth which once existed in my Charlotte, shall from her sympathetic breast send forth the heaving sigh. Do thou teach me not only to foresee, but to enjoy, nay, even to feed on future praise. Comfort me by a solemn assurance, that when the little parlour in which I sit at this instant shall be reduced to a worse furnished box, I shall be read with honour by those who never knew nor saw me, and whom I shall neither know nor see. […] Come, thou that hast inspired thy Aristophanes, thy Lucian, thy Cervantes, thy Rabelais, thy Molière, thy Shakespear, thy Swift, thy Marivaux, fill my pages with humour; till mankind learn the good-nature to laugh only at the follies of others, and the humility to grieve at their own.
Each of Tom Jones’s 18 books opens with a chapter explaining the epic theory of the novel—abortive forerunner of Joyce’s “mythic method”—and other of Fielding’s literary opinions. While I’m sure to some people this sounds as inauspicious as Melville’s whaling digressions, they are actually the novel’s most appealing chapters in my view, much more interesting than the formulaic plot with its allegorically flat characters. Someone should publish these 18 essays in a short book of their own, an Enlightenment collection to put on the shelf next to Dr. Johnson, with the author’s lively, genial persona offering fine entertainment in the form of coffee-house book talk about everything from who should or should not write novels to the question of plagiarism to the proper place (not a very high one) of the professional critic in the literary world. The sententia is better than the demonstration:
There are a set of religious, or rather moral writers, who teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery, in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.
Despite his influence on Dickens—David Copperfield, we recall, describes himself as “a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature,” as if to sum the difference between the ribald 18th and the infantine 19th centuries—Fielding seems a path not taken, and for mostly good reasons, in the art of the novel. I was inspired to finally read the book (which I started and left unfinished 15 years ago) by the observation in Martin Amis’s recent Inside Story that the “easy candour and humour and sexual straightforwardness” of Tom Jones, not the priggishness of Richardson, “went on to constitute fiction in English.” Yet this isn’t very persuasive to my literary-historical eye, and I find support from an authoritative source.
It’s true that when speaking of the 18th-century novel everyone always intones, as if saying one long word, “Defoe-Richardson-Fielding,” but the very study that cemented this triumvirate in the critical pantheon, Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel (1957), argues that our trio is not mutually commensurate. Watt shows that Defoe and Richardson, two middle-class tradesmen of puritan religious disposition, wrote in the true spirit of the emerging novel, a realist record of everyday thought and event committed not to traditional literary models but to verisimilitude, and backed by a faith in the importance of the individual non-elite citizen’s activities and the individual soul’s infinite inner depths. Both Defoe and Richardson, who lacked classical education, scorned the epic as a backward, barbarous survival of violent and aristocratic ages, and wrote to no Homeric or Virgilian model; they wrote, instead, what they saw and felt. Insisting on this contrast between Fielding and Defoe/Richardson in the middle of the 20th century, Watt recalls the extravagant praise heaped on Defoe by modernists Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner, and anticipates the importance Richardson would hold for the Marxist and feminist critics of the century’s second half, such as Terry Eagleton, Nancy Armstrong, and Margaret Anne Doody. Fielding’s 20th- and 21st-century legacy seems much more threadbare.
By contrast to Richardson and Defoe, Fielding was a classically-educated scion of the gentry with appropriately classical tastes. He consequently moves his characters here and there like pieces on a game board, rarely entering their minds—in fact, he sometimes praises his own discretion for not doing so—nor taking careful note of their settings, which he seems to see as an inert backdrop for their activities, as he sees the Jacobite rebellion as plot device and comic relief. With these priorities, he composes a novel far more carefully and intricately plotted than the casual-seeming Robinson Crusoe or Pamela; yet because he never relaxes his grip, because he carefully rations out surprises to the reader and never allows himself to be surprised, he never gives us a scene as astonishing and haunting as Crusoe’s vertiginous discovery of the footprint or Mr. B.’s assault on Pamela while her clothes are lined with the very narrative we’re reading.
“What induced you to say that you would have rather written Pride and Prejudice or Tom Jones, than any of the Waverley novels?” wrote Charlotte Brontë to George Henry Lewes in 1848. Lewes was probably so induced because both Fielding and Austen are smarter, shrewder writers than the rather plodding Scott. Yet Brontë has a point, too. As I’ve mentioned, the historical event that furnishes the backdrop for Tom Jones also provides the setting for the novel that made Scott famous, Waverley (1814)—the Jacobite uprising of 1745 that threatened to undo England’s constitutional monarchy and restore the Stuart dynasty to the throne. Fielding, writing more or less as the event unfolded and shortly in its aftermath, uses it as a source of convenient plot developments and as the occasion for topical humor—as when an innkeeper mistakes Sophia for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mistress.
For Scott, on the other hand, even though he was writing a picaresque bildungsroman not too dissimilar from Tom Jones, and writing moreover six decades after the event, the defeat of the uprising is the tragic birth of modernity in the suppression of a wilder, freer way of life, personified in the Scottish warriors Fergus and Flora, who have to be vanquished so that Rose, domestic woman, that avatar of novelistic middle-class realism and kin to Fielding’s Sophia, can triumph. Fielding the comedian, the neoclassicist for whom nature under rational management will lead us all to Sophia (i.e., wisdom), is alert only to half this tragic dialectic, which is to say that his novel has no dialectic at all. There is no sublime in Tom Jones, and though neither is my favorite novel, I, with Charlotte, would rather have written Waverley myself, or, indeed, the even more flawed Robinson Crusoe and Pamela.
Watt notes that Dr. Johnson shared my qualm about Fielding despite his own neoclassicism—and my belief that one should not have to choose between instinct and intellect in art does shadow my thesis. Yet pure intellect is as damaging to art as pure instinct; T. S. Eliot may have been wrong about much, but not about the dissociation of sensibility. Watt proposes that in Jane Austen we find the synthesis of Richardson and Fielding, or, in my terms, the union of feeling and intellect, that leads on to James, Proust, and Joyce, but let me propose George Eliot instead. She showed, in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, that a writer can combine a well-made plot, a philosophical narrative persona, and characters of endless depth and complexity to create sublimely dialectical novels. While I hesitate to say that history is to blame, it’s possible that Fielding came too early in the development of his chosen literary form for his intelligence to do more than to hinder its growth, like a father who stands uselessly in the way of true love’s youthful course.