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?