In Book 4, Chapter 2 of Tom Jones, Tom’s attraction towards Molly is explained. Tom is “backward,” the narrator implies, first because he clings to principles that prevent him from “attempting the possession of her person” and second because even after Molly clearly expresses an interest in Tom, nay, an insistence in getting him to bed her, Tom convinces himself that she has only yielded to either “the violent attacks of his passion” or to “the ungovernable force of her love for him.” When Tom finds out that Molly and Square have been having sex, and Square articulates that he is glad he had not been the first to deflower Molly, as this knowledge allows him to have his way with her, Tom feels apprehensive that he has perhaps set Molly on a course of depravity. The fact that the male characters needed to read the female characters (and indeed, themselves) in specific ways in order to justifiably indulge their pleasures is particularly interesting here. Tom needs to believe that Molly has some inkling of virtuousness about her so as not to feel as though he is having intercourse with a whore of sorts. Then he must paint himself the lustful villain to come to terms with Molly’s capitulation. Or, he must believe that she was in love with him (in which case he would still be a cad for taking advantage of her) to provide a rationale for their succumbing to temptation. When he sees Molly continue to enjoy sexual pleasures with Square, he must again tell himself that it is her experiences with him that have led her to now become promiscuous, whereas he is very well aware, though unwilling to admit, that she was sexually voracious by nature anyway. Square’s method of dealing with his lust is also noteworthy: rather than take pride in being the first, as many would, the knowledge of Molly’s earlier sexual experience absolves Square of any guilt. In laying out the psychological workings of the mind with respect to such base actions, Fielding demonstrates a complex relationship between mind and body, and shows how the intellect makes allowances for physical desires.
From the beginning of the novel, the narrator concerns himself with the presentation of Human Nature through a variety of distinct characters. Though many are deemed “virtuous” in one way or another, only a few stand out as deserving such a depiction. Through his ironic descriptions and snarky comments, the narrator imparts the important lesson that it is our conduct, rather our personal philosophy, which determines virtue.
Some of the most interesting parts of the novel involve two of its most uninteresting characters. Every now and then as the plot is rolling along, Fielding takes a moment to stop the action and insert little debates between Square and Thwackum. Though their views are conflicting, Fielding seems to suggest that the men are fundamentally the same. While Square values philosophy and believes “human nature to be the perfection of all virtue,” Thwackum values religion and holds to the doctrine of Original Sin (108). However, both miss the key to virtue in that “in all their discourses on morality” they never “mention the word goodness” (108-09).
Though Square and Thwackum are described as having opposing views, they are united in almost every aspect. Both take Blifil’s side over Tom’s in every circumstance. Beating Tom seems to be the favorite pastime of both. Both would prefer to debate the definitions of honor and virtue than display either by their actions. One of my favorite scenes with Square and Thwackum occurs at the (supposed) deathbed of Mr. Allworthy. Though the two argue about which Mr. Allworthy favors, both receive the same inheritance.
Fielding places Tom and Mr. Allworthy in sharp contrast to Square and Thwackum. Neither Tom nor Mr. Allworthy is perfect, but both act out their charity. Mr. Allworthy is fully devoted to Tom, and Tom imitates his caretaker in showing compassion to Black George and his family. One of my favorite moments in the novel so far comes at the dinner table when Square and Thwackum attempt to dissuade Mr. Allworthy from showing leniency toward Tom. Mr. Allworthy says that Tom “has suffered enough already for concealing the truth, even if he was guilty, seeing that he could have no motive but a mistaken point of honour for so doing” (107). Square and Thwackum use the comment as a launching point into a discussion on the nature of true honour as it relates to their personal philosophies. Mr. Allworthy calmly ends their debate by stating “that he had said nothing of true honour” (110).
Fielding’s rather extraordinary narrator opens the very first lines of Tom Jones with an extended culinary analogy that compares an author not with a gentleman giving a private banquet, where “the entertainer provides what fare he pleases” (29), but rather as “the master of an ordinary” (29). The menu of such a one is open to all who can pay his fare—and thus he must concern himself with “gratifying” the tastes of all who render the fee, or suffer the displeasure and “abuse” (29) of these same people. This image would seem to place the author at the mercy of his readers—a slave to their whims and appetites. Yet while there is surely in Fielding’s comparison an element of an author’s need to cater to the tastes of an ever-expanding reading and purchasing public, there seems to be a deeper meaning in the meal and menu analogy that our narrator provides: author and reader form equal sides of a partnership. Author provides the “menu” for the literary work; reader pays the fee if he finds the menu to his liking. If after consuming what has been offered the reader is displeased, he has the “right,” by virtue of having paid the fee, to complain and to “censure.” Nevertheless, the author can feel “honest and well-meaning” (29) despite such complaints because he has communicated at the outset of his endeavor what he is to serve his reader.
Another and rather more snide comment about pleasing the expectations of readers occurs some pages into Book I. Our narrator, having made some “deep observation” about Miss Bridget Allworthy’s character, remarks, “Very few readers can be supposed capable of making [such an observation] themselves, so I have thought it proper to lend them my assistance; but this is a favour rarely to be expected in the course of my work. Indeed, I shall seldom or never so indulge him” (40, emphasis mine). So much for the author as slave to the tastes of his reader or the hints of an equal partnership in the first image—this sounds downright condescending and places the author quite in a position of power over the reader. If our narrator were to continue his comparison of literature to cuisine, he might say that the insight he provided for the reader was the equivalent of a “master of an ordinary” providing his paying guests with some savory delicacy that was never listed on the menu.
Perhaps the most shocking contradiction of the expressions of author inferiority and author-reader equality in that first banquet image, however, occurs at the beginning of Book II. In explaining why his “history” will leave out large chunks of time if nothing of note happens, our narrator demands the understanding of his reader and declares that he will conform to no “court of critical jurisdiction” (68). Then, out of nowhere at all, he releases a torrent of statements claiming his right to do so—all rife with strangely imperialist language. Gone is any hint (as at first) that the author is slave to the demands of his readers’ tastes; now our narrator asserts that “I am…the founder of a new province of writing…I am at liberty to make what laws I please” (68). Now readers are “subjects” who are obliged to “obey” and “cheerfully comply” rather than to be “indulged.” Now our narrator must hasten to assure us that though these subjects “will unanimously concur in supporting my dignity, and in rendering me all the honour I shall deserve or desire” (69), yet he “principally regard[s] their ease and advantage” (68). Now he must defend himself against anticipated accusations that he is a “jure divino tyrant” (69, emphasis in original) and that readers are not regarded as “my slaves or my commodity” (69).
I don’t think that was on the menu, Mr. Fielding.
Much of the novel thus far seems to revolve around forgiving Tom.
At the beginning, he must be forgiven his birth. When as a baby he appears unexpectedly in Mr. Allworthy’s bed, Mrs. Wilkins identifies him as a “misbegotten [wretch]” who “does not smell like a Christian” (35). Her solution: to leave him in a basket for the church-warden to find.
As the book progresses, Tom must be forgiven his loyalty. Most of the early sins that Fielding describes are caused by his attempts to protect or help his one and only friend “among all the servants of the family” (104), the gamekeeper, George Seagrim. He lies to protect Seagrim from losing his job, and then when Seagrim loses his job anyway, Tom sells precious gifts given to him by Allworthy, including his horse and his Bible, to save the Seagrim family from “perishing with all the miseries of cold and hunger” (124). Thwackum feels this “charity appeared to be opposing the will of the Almighty” (124). His solution: to beat him.
Tom then must be forgiven his ability to be manipulated. Tom becomes enamored of Molly Seagrim, and though he “had more regard for her virtue than she herself,” she still manages to overthrow his virtue in such a way that he feels responsible; indeed, “Jones attributed the consequence entirely to himself” (150-151). Thus, when she turns up pregnant, Tom stands by her and pleads her case to Allworthy. Square, who hates Tom, sees him “in a bad light” (168). His solution: to poison Allworthy against him.
To this point, Allworthy consistently forgives Tom, and the audience cheers, for up to this point, Tom hasn’t really been to blame. He can’t be held responsible for his birth, and his motives for lying to protect Seagrim and for selling important objects are noble and laudable. However, Fielding is progressively introducing less excusable offenses. Tom does lie, even if for noble reasons, and when we see him seduced by Molly, he is a willing participant, even if gullible. Tom is guilty, but still, the audience, like Allworthy, is inclined to forgive.
However, Tom falls in love with Sophia, she falls in love with him, and Molly is revealed as no better than she should be. Knowing all of this, we still witness Tom idle “in the thickest part of the grove” with Molly (223). Fielding provides the amiable excuse in the title of the chapter, that “wine is often the forerunner of incontinency,” thus reminding the audience that Tom is drunk. While Fielding explains why this condition makes Tom’s behavior justifiable, this excuse is no excuse. It is neither noble nor pitiable, and the audience is thrilled that Tom and Molly’s dalliance is interrupted by the over-zealous Thwackum and Blifil, and then later Western and Sophia.
How much, exactly, is Allworthy, Sophia, and the audience supposed to forgive? For all that he claims the book is to “recommend goodness and innocence” and to “[display] the beauty of virtue,” Fielding leads us down a primrose path, justifying Tom’s sins as we go (5). Tom obviously has not learned from his misadventures, and with the narrator excusing his behavior, we have little hope he will. If, as is expected in a light comedy of this sort, Tom succeeds in marrying the fair Sophia, we may need to question Fielding’s definitions of goodness, innocence, and virtue to determine what, precisely, he is attempting to convey through Tom’s behavior.
I approached my first reading of Tom Jones in light of our overarching question for this course: How did the writers of early novels train their readers to understand this new genre? Henry Fielding accomplishes this education through the relationship he creates between the author and his readers. Rather than simply disseminating a text for their consumption, Fielding makes readers feel as if they partake of the creative process. Early in the novel he writes, “Reader, take care, I have unadvisedly led thee to the top of as high a hill as Mr Allworthy’s, and how to get thee down without breaking thy neck, I do not well know. However, let us e’en venture to slide down together” (Fielding 37). This rhetorical devise helps Fielding transition quickly from a vision of grandeur to more domestic concerns, but it has another purpose as well. It encourages readers to believe that they and the author are taking the journey of Tom Jones’s history together. Fielding strengthens this sense of camaraderie when he refers to himself and the readers as “we” (68). Furthermore, he makes the novel seem like a conversation and not a monologue when he answers objections that he assumes have been raised in his readers’ minds (148).
In using this rhetorical strategy, Fielding addresses the seemingly isolated nature of print. Just as this genre lacks music to establish the mood of an entrance, so does it lack the more obviously communal experience of the theatre (132). Readers perusing the novel at home do not have the benefit of the shared interaction between the actors and audience. The audience’s response to a performance contributes to the overall experience of the play. Given the contrast between the public viewing of the play and the private reading of novels, early readers might have felt as though they did not participate in the creation of meaning. Yet, reading has a decidedly collaborative component. Every reader has a different mental vision of the characters and setting that comes from her particular set of stored images. Fielding seems to recognize that readers will interpret his text differently depending on their background, experiences, and ideologies. In order to help his readers understand the role they play in the creation of meaning along with the author, he continually draws attention to the presence of his readers in the text itself.
While Fielding wants his readers to see how much they actively participate in the creation of meaning in the text, he also recognizes that he possesses more agency when it comes to the unfolding of the story. In the first book, he establishes the author as an authority figure:
Reader, I think proper, before we proceed any further together, to acquaint thee that I intend to digress, through this whole history, as often as I see occasion; of which I am myself a better judge than any painful critic whatever; and here I must desire all those critics to mind their own business, and not to intermeddle with affairs, or works, which no ways concern them; for till they produce the authority by which they are constituted judges, I shall plead to their jurisdiction. 33
Perhaps Fielding makes a distinction between critics and general readers and only objects to the former’s interference; nevertheless, this passage delineates that Fielding will write as he thinks best, regardless of audience receptivity. In book II, the author establishes his authority again through his metaphor of readers as subjects and the author as their king (68). Granted, the benevolent king acts only in the best interest of his subjects, but in the power structure of this relationship, he has the final say on how the history of Tom Jones is told.
The power of the author-king lies primarily in the revelation of specific events at specific times. Despite his awareness of the readers’ interest in particular details of the story, Fielding carefully measures out the revelation of information at a carefully chosen time. The chapter titles exist to provide readers with an idea of what that chapter contains (a mini bill of fare, to use Fielding’s metaphor from the novel’s beginning). Yet, Fielding does not actually provide important information in these titles. For instance, Book I, Chapter IX advertizes: “Containing matters which will surprise the reader” (51). That Fielding does not disclose what matters until the body of the chapter highlights his ability to reveal the events of the story when he chooses. At one point, he claims to be unable to declare a character’s innocence or guilt because he lacks permission from the Historic Muse, but this deflection only reminds the reader that Fielding determines when he releases plot revelations (88).
Additionally, the author-king exerts his authority when he guides the readers’ understanding and interpretation of the text. When Fielding compares Mrs. Wilkins to a kite, he “think[s] proper to lend the reader a little assistance in this place” and proceeds to thoroughly explain the meaning of the simile (41). Once again, this rhetorical technique of addressing the reader so plainly helps the author deal with clumsy prose; yet, it also points to his role in shaping the readers’ understanding of the text. He wants them to read the simile in the way that he meant it. Fielding addresses the issue of readers having different mental images of characters by describing Miss Bridget as the subject of a famous painting by William Hogarth (58). In this example, the author tacitly acknowledges the potential variety of mental images and then uses his authority as author to lead the reader to picture a woman that aligns with his conception of Miss Bridget. Throughout the text, Fielding trains his readers to understand their dual roles as readers: they participate in the creation of meaning as they bring their own experiences to the text, but they ultimately must submit to the authority of the author-king.
In their attempts to define the amorphous genre of the novel, several of the critics we’ve read thus far have considered the attempts made by the “first novelists” themselves—Fielding included—to define their works. Bakhtin finds these “formative definitions” of “more interest and consequence” than the “generic characteristics” replete with “reservations” that had characterized the scholars’ attempts up to the writing of his article (8). As tackling the whole of Fielding’s definition of the novel would be too broad for the scope of this post, I’ve elected to look more specifically at the various roles Fielding ascribes to the narrator of Tom Jones as he works out what a novel ought to look like, particularly in its conveyance of knowledge.
Some of the most notable places we see the narrator at work in the novel are the introductory chapters to each book. In the chapter beginning Book V, the narrator addresses the value he sees in these introductory materials, taking his commentary to a meta-level. Though elsewhere he calls them “digressive essays,” here the narrator identifies these “initial essays” as “essentially necessary,” composed by the author with “greatest pains” (181). Fielding wants readers to pay particular attention to these opening chapters in which the narratorial voice is highly self-conscious and fulfills several roles.
In Book II, for example, the narrator devotes several paragraphs to the passage of time in the novel. In these paragraphs, the narrator both justifies Fielding’s authorial choices and informs the audience as to how they ought to consume this new genre of writing. He will include sufficient detail about occurrences of interest as to avoid falling into the category of newspaper histories, but he also views his readers as subjects “bound to believe in and obey” the laws he creates as “the founder of a new province of writing” (68).
This same rather heavy-handed direction crops up in the narrative as well. In the end of chapter five of Book III, the narrator interjects, concerned that the reader may mistakenly believe that “Thwackum appeared to Mr. Allworthy in the same light as he doth to him [the reader] in this history,” an understanding enabled by the information bestowed to the reader by the narrator. He even goes as far to say that thinking poorly of Mr. Allworthy would be a “very bad and ungrateful use of that knowledge which we [the narrator] have communicated to them [the readers]” (117). Again we have the narrator taking a very bold, directive role in the reading experience.
A few pages later, we have another interjection by the narrator, and I found this appearance most interesting. The narrator devotes a paragraph to address young readers specifically about the importance of virtue and prudence. Following this lesson, the narrator switches from first-person plural to first-person singular to “ask pardon for this short appearance, by way of chorus, on the stage” (122). The shift from plural to singular is in itself interesting, perhaps indicating that this particular voice is Fielding’s. However, this selection is also intriguing in its depiction of Fielding’s experimentation with the role of the narrator. We’ve had the narrator as both reading and morality instructor as well as the medium for authorial justification, and now he characterizes himself as the chorus. He states, “I could not prevail on any of my actors to speak, [so] I myself was obliged to declare” (123). This metaphor introduces noteworthy ideas to consider as far as the narrator’s role in the novel. On one hand, these lines illustrate the narrator self-consciously separating himself from the narrative (the use of I, naming the characters “my actors”), but in claiming the role of the chorus—well-established by literary precedent as integral to the progression of the narrative, he indicates that the reader should take his words as part of the “history.”
Bakhtin asserts that “when the novel becomes the dominant genre, epistemology becomes the most dominant discipline” (15). Fielding’s experimentation with the roles of the narrator demonstrate that very emphasis—how ought the reader to know? What is truth within the narrative as well as without, and how is it conveyed to the reader? By giving the narrator these many roles, Fielding explores this formation and transmission of knowledge.
Operating under the assumption that it is “much easier to make good men wise, than to make bad men good,” Fielding establishes from the onset that his chief purpose is to instruct through displays of wit, and his emphasis therefore is on observations of folly rather than of vice. Or, to word it more precisely, Fielding’s aim throughout his narrative is to show the folly of vice, because he does display vices—hypocrisy, gossip, and violence—in an extremely entertaining way. Fielding is a master of his novel’s tone and structure and surely exemplifies Joseph Addison’s description of true wit: “For Wit lying most in the Assemblage of Ideas, and putting those together with Quickness and Variety, wherein can be found any Resemblance or Congruity thereby to make up pleasant Pictures and agreeable Visions in the Fancy” (The Spectator 62, 1711).
In the dedication, Fielding writes that the novel is “sincerely designed to promote the cause of virtue” (5, emphasis added), and he certainly does so masterfully and humorously. He lampoons the judgmental impulses of women like Miss Bridget Allworthy and Mrs . Deborah Wilkins, the violence and duplicity of Molly and her enemies in the hilarious church-war scene, the inconsistency of the mob-like townspeople, and the Tartuffian hypocrisy of MasterBlifil. He supplies the reader with a rich, many-layered satire on society, but with each portrait of a fool, he also makes sure to provide some insight into the person’s character and failing. For instance, Thwackum, who prides himself on his Christian faith, criticizes Tom for “disputing with Master Blifil that there was no merit in faith without works,” and he accuses Square, who also blindly opposes the doctrine, of teaching him such an erroneous precept” (141). This is one of many ironic situations in which Fielding promotes a virtue by having ridiculous or corrupt characters attack it.
But even though the novel so far promotes a comic approach to instruction, in which even Allworthy and Tom aren’t exceptions to Fielding’s scrutiny, the question, What is honor? still seems to be somewhat unanswered in the first six books of the novel, even though the theme comes up at several points of the narrative. To some extent, Tom displays a sense of honor in being flayed by Thwackum rather than betraying his friend, the gamekeeper. His sense of honor is so strong, that he would rather transgress other Christian morals (lie) and be tortured than see a family reduced to extreme poverty. However, his strong sense of honor does not seem to extend to Molly quite as perfectly. I don’t yet understand why he takes advantage of a girl with no immediate intention of marrying her, and this problem seems to highlight the incompleteness of the novel’s understanding of honor.
I certainly cannot depend on Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square for a definition of honor. In their philosophical discourse, Thwackum defines it as “that mode of divine grace which is not only consistent with, but dependent upon the…Church of England” (109). Square unhelpfully replies that honor is the natural beauty of virtue, which seems only to describe the effect of honor, and not its motivation or cause. They are both meaningless definitions. This dialogue, which Fielding apparently thinks more significant than over a decade of the protagonist’s formative years, may be his way of marking the shifting attitudes of his time regarding moral conduct and manners that his audience would unquestioningly tie up with their definition of honor.
Perhaps the ambiguity surrounding Tom’s sexual exploits with Molly, and his pursuit of Sophia is what elicits a strong reaction against the novel by his readers (though it’s possible I might come across more shocking things in the 600 pages remaining). As the back of the book informs us, the novel was attacked as a “motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery.” I take it that Fielding is far more concerned with the disturbing prevalence of dead Christian faith than with Tom’s sexual purity. The “treacherous friend[s]” to Christianity are everywhere in the novel, hurting the religion more with their hypocrisy and polite civility, absent of charity. (111). But it’s hard for me to tell, still, if his comparative lack of judgment of Tom’s actions is intentional or not. If Fielding’s purpose really is to show “nothing prejudicial to the cause of religion and virtue, nothing inconsistent with the strictest rules of decency, nor which can offend even the chastest eye in the perusal” (5), then why does Tom Jones sleep with Molly and come out relatively unscathed?