Interpretive Problem: Is Tom’s Happy Ending Governed by Fate, Chaos, or is Justice Served by the Goodness of Man?

 

John Dennis states that in a just fable “the Good must never fail to prosper, and the Bad must be always punished: Otherwise the incidents, and particularly the Catastrophe which is the grand Incident, are liable to be imputed rather to Chance, than to Almighty Conduct and to Sovereign Justice”. Is the ending of Tom Jones reminiscent of some ancient idea of divine justice, or is this justice more incidental and dependent on the choices of humanity?

The humorous misunderstanding of Mrs. Waters as Tom’s mother and the near fatal altercation with her husband, the reader is called to think about Oedipus. Oedipus Rex, being the model for Greek tragedy, could be the antithesis to Tom Jones. After all, Tom Jones is a comedy in which events could be seen as maneuvered by the choices characters make. Mrs. Waters discloses Tom’s birth which grants him the position to attain his happy marriage. Characters like Mrs. Miller and Square reveal the true innocence of Tom to Allworthy. Fitzpatrick admits to provoking the duel that put Tom in jail. Characters are also responsible for punishment. Dowling informs Allworthy that Blifil held back Tom’s true parentage, causing Allworthy to see him in a new light that leads to his banishment from Allworthy’s life. In this way, punishment and reward are delegated by the actions of the characters.

Perhaps Tom is meant to parallel Oedipus in that his destiny is governed by fate alone. Although characters have the power to turn things around for him, Tom himself is powerless no matter how good he is to others. Events seem to happen to Tom. His downfall occurs due to a string of random events, such as seeming to have slept with two different women that he surprisingly had not had an affair with. The chance meetings of all of these characters such as Mrs. Waters, who happens to know Tom’s story, and Partridge who seems to just show up are all examples of very incidental events that lead to this chance happy ending. Maybe justice is served, but perhaps not by the characters, but by chance or even fate. The unity of the plot hints that there is a higher order governing the events other than the characters themselves.

Is fielding trying to support the Greek idea that fate is not on the side of good or bad? Unlike Oedipus, Tom just happens to find out his parentage just in time to have a happy ending. Even if there is some form of justice that is given by fate, is Fielding agreeing with Sophocles that humanity cannot control his own destiny? Or is Fielding overturning the Greek belief in fate? Is Fielding saying that it is up to honest people such as these to bring about a happy ending for their fellow man?

Nixon, Cheryl L, ed. Novel Definitions: An Anthology of Commentary on the Novel 1688-                     1815.       Peterborough Ontario: Broadview, 2009. Print.

Interpretive Problem: What role does the large number of characters play in Tom Jones?

Along with pages, snarky chapter titles, and sly interjections from the narrator, if there’s one thing Tom Jones isn’t short on, it’s characters. Although the title takes its name from the novel’s one central figure, so many others populate its pages, one practically needs to develop a separate catalog system just to keep track of them all.  What is Fielding’s purpose in creating so many characters? What role does the sheer volume of fictitious figures play in the novel as a whole?

On one hand, a large cast of characters contributes to the novel’s realism. Although most people have a core group of family members and friends with whom they predominantly interact, their lives are not limited to these people. In this way, the wide range of characters found in Tom Jones mimics reality.  Just as readers meet more people as they grow up and as life goes on, Tom naturally runs across more people after he leaves Allworthy’s manor.
Numerous characters could also serve to encourage readers to pay close attention when reading the novel. Remembering so many names and mentally juggling a high volume of personalities is no easy task. Fielding may have intended to spur his readers on intellectually and facilitate a deeper level of literary engagement by continually creating characters for them to mentally manage.
On the reverse side of the argument, Fielding may have purposefully included numerous characters in order to confuse the reader. He may have been well aware of the difficulty in keeping up with various personas and might have intentionally incorporated such a large cast in order to heighten the novel’s element of surprise. An intimidating number of characters could thus be seen as a device through which Fielding both crafts the unity of the plot and insures that readers are continually shocked by the novel’s various twists and turns.
The desire to teach the reader a moral lesson could also be seen as part of the reasoning behind Tom Jones’ large cast. As discussed by Sandra Sherman in her essay, “Reading at Arm’s Length: Fielding’s Contract with the Reader in Tom Jones, “Fielding sought to qualify readers, conferring pleasure with pain, and (as a type of benevolent patron) inculcating lessons on the nature of truth and discernment” (Sherman, 232). Lessons of this type, along with numerous others, are made possible through a variety of characters. A large cast allows for a wider range of character dynamics and interactions, thus heightening both the complexity and number of morals imparted by the novel.

Although the sheer number of characters present in Tom Jones is a challenge to manage, the variety of personalities at work creates an enriched reading experience and engenders multiple interpretive possibilities.

Works Cited
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. Ed. John B. Bender and Simon Stern. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Sherman, Sandra. “Reading At Arm’s Length; Fielding’s Contract With The Reader In `Tom Jones.’.” Studies In The Novel 30.2 (1998): 232. Academic Search Complete. Web. 27 Sept. 2012.

How Selfish is Moll Really?

 

Larry Langford warns us that to read Moll Flanders we must “continually engage in a process of discrimination, so that we can hear two voices instead of one” (Langford 173). He claims that we must be aware of the “double perspective which Defoe has built into his novel: that of Moll and that of her editor” (Langford 165). The editor’s voice is heard in the times when the narration of Moll’s life becomes uncharacteristically righteous such as when she claims, “how much happier a life of virtue and sobriety is” and “sometimes I flatter’d myself that I had sincerely repented (Defoe 201). This critique of Moll’s character could very well be, as Langford argues, the attempt of the fictional editor to shape the narrative into a moral lesson (Langford 172).

If this view of Moll’s repentance is true, does this mean that Moll does not grow and she is no longer a redeemable character? I do not believe so. During Moll’s stay at Newgate, she makes it clear that she was not penitent, “I was a penitent as I thought, not that I had sinn’d, but that I was to suffer” (Defoe 276). Her selfishness is the root of her remorse, only until she reunites with her Lankashire husband when she says, “I was overwhelmed with grief for him; my own case gave me no disturbance compared to this” (Defoe 282). This hint at selfless emotion occurs before the, perhaps edited in, religious prayer and apparently the “first time [she] felt any real sign of repentance” (Defoe 287). The sight of her husband does not cause her to feel any kind of higher moral responsibility for her actions, after all, she pleads not guilty at the arraignment (Defoe 285). She even continues to lie when she pretends to have been robbed so she can speak with her husband (Defoe 295). This evidence supports Langford in that Moll’s religious repentance may be a fabrication by the editor.

Her act does not reflect honest religion, but only honest care for her husband, which I believe, she always had. If this editor wants to reflect higher morality, he would not feel the need to reflect Moll’s sympathy with a criminal, especially after he attempts to scam her. She admits that she would have been enraged with him if she had lost a fortune to him, not an unconditional love which the editor would call righteous, but I believe that it is undoubtedly the true Moll who feels selflessly for her husband and is honest in saying, “I really lov’d him most tenderly” (172).

Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. Toronto : Broadview, 2005. 45-334. Print.

Langford, Larry L. “Retelling Moll’s Story: The Editor’s Preface to ‘Moll Flanders’.” The Journal of Narrative Theory. 22.3 (1992): 164-179. Print.