Characterisation in The Novel Tom Jones

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      Fielding declared that his purpose in Tom Jones was to present human nature in all its wide variety. The human nature with which Fielding is concerned, is of the general kind. As he had already said in Joseph Andrews, he intended to show "not men but manners; not an individual, but a species." Fielding's approach to characterization is external. He is interested in those features of a character which would be necessary to assign him to a particular moral or social species. His method of characterization is closely connected to, and influenced by the fact that he was writing a "comic epic in prose." But the fact that his method of characterization embodies the external approach, does not detract from his merit as a novelist, or from his knowledge of human nature.

Multitude of Diverse Figures in Tom Jones

      The sheer variety and vastness of human nature found in Tom Jones is astounding. There are as many as forty different figures in the novel. Each represents a different type of human nature. They do not merely remain lifeless 'types', but gain a distinct vitality through the author's treatment. Thackeray drew his characters mainly from the gentlemen and ladies whom he encountered in London clubs and drawing rooms. Dickens's speciality lay in portraying vividly the 'humours' of the lower strata of society. In Fielding, we find a vast representation of human nature in general. He does not concentrate on any particular type or class of human being. He set out to represent human nature as a whole, through a multitude of diverse figures. He wanted to show human nature in its intrinsic essence and 'prodigious variety'.

Characters Drawn from Lower and Middle Classes: Homely and Pedestrian

      While Tom Jones represents a vast variety of 'types' of human nature, its characters, as far as social representation is concerned, are mostly from the lower and middle classes. It is true that we have a Lady Bellaston and a Lord Fellamar, who can be said to represent the aristocracy. But they make a rare appearance; they are not constantly present Generally speaking, Fielding deliberately excludes from his picture gallery members of the aristocracy or the highest class of society. Apparently, Fielding felt that the 'manners' of the aristocracy was too stylized and artificial and did not offer much scope for an observer and delineator of human nature. Fielding's world is composed of squires, doctors, schoolmasters, lawyers, businessmen, innkeepers, landladies, clerks, soldiers, and servants, which is the world to be found in "Tom Jones". It is the world of people whose thoughts and basic nature are not hidden beneath the veneer of highly conventionalized modes of behavior and expression. In this world, Fielding felt human nature could be properly observed and presented.

Trite Representatives of Eighteenth Century Society: Both Local and Universal

      The characters in "Tom Jones" are not only typical of the general traits found in human beings all over ages; they are at the same time true representatives of the eighteenth century. They thus gain a local as well as a universal color. It is not without cause that critics have called Tom Jones, a great epic of the eighteenth-century England. Squire Western is a typical figure of the eighteenth century with his thoughts and interests centered on the hunting field, the stable, or the kennels. A hard drinking and slightly foolish and coarse man with an uncertain temper, Squire Western is representative of one type of the eighteenth-century country squire. Lady Bellaston and Lord Fellamar are fairly true representatives of the flighty and insincere 'upper classes' of the day. Other figures such as Jenny Jones, Partridge, Thwackum, Square, and Mrs. Wilkins, are also typical of eighteenth-century England.

Representation of Universal Traits

      The local touch in the characters, however, never blinds us to the fact that each embodies universal human traits. They are the benevolent, greedy, hypocritical, lustful, gallant, thieving and crafty men and women who are to be found not in one particular age, but in all ages and in all lands. The characters of Tom Jones are at once 'local' and 'universal'. They, like the lawyer in Joseph Andrews, have existed from time immemorial and will continue to do so till the human species ceases to exist.

Characters Based upon Human Nature

      Fielding professed to be a historian, who drew "his material from Nature only." He declared:

We have good authority for all our characters no less indeed than the vast authentic doomsday-book of Nature.

      When any of his characters seemed too attractive or amiable to seem entirely credible, he referred to the supreme authority of 'Nature'. He was drawing a picture which was "really a copy from Nature." If there seemed to be illogicality in a particular character's manner of behavior, the reader is told to "look carefully into Human Nature." If oddity is represented in the pages of the novel, it is because there is oddity in human nature.

      Fielding's avowed endeavor; was to picture Human Nature faithfully and accurately as he observed it. He would not extenuate or embellish; he would neither conceal nor idealize. He would present what he saw. "It is my business to relate matters of fact with veracity, he states. In Tom Jones, we find a general vindication of Fielding's claim to have recorded 'truth'. In the process of the accurate representation of 'truth', Fielding's ironic and humorous approach helps a great deal. He presents facts candidly, fully and fairly, regardless of whether they went against the conventional ideas about what was fit to be expressed. We recognize the truth to eternal human nature in figures like Tom himself, Sophia, Squire Western, Partridge, Bridget, Mrs. Honour, Jenny Jones and Mrs. Miller.

Characters Compounded of Good and Bad Elements: neither Angelic nor Diabolical

      Fielding's characters are based on human nature. It is natural that none of them is angelic or diabolical. They are 'real' human beings in their endearing combination of virtue and vice. He presents homely, sane, and pedestrian men and women. He is not concerned with the heights and depths of human nature; i.e., an angelic saint or a devilish sinner has no place in his novel. Nor did his conception of the novel as a "comic epic in prose" allow the plumbing of the "reprobate and abandoned soul". Such matters would be more suitable for tragedy. The extraordinary potentialities of humanity for good and evil were not taken into account in his philosophy.

      In Tom Jones, we have no paragons of virtue nor monsters of depravity. It is true that Blifil is wholly malicious, hypocritical and greedy, but even he is not a profound psychological portrait of a villain. However, Blifil, on the whole, does not convince us as an authentic figure as the others do, precisely because Fielding makes him an unrelieved villain. Leaving aside Blifil, there is no character who is plainly 'good' or 'bad'. Allworthy, as his name suggests, is a worthy and good man. But his goodness is toned down by his coldly rational appoach to everything. Fielding represents this cold rationality as a weakness. It is what makes Allworthy blind to the warm hearted vitality and good nature of Tom.

      Sophia is as near perfect as possible, but there is always a sense of humor in Fielding's treatment, which makes her 'human' rather than a pure abstraction of perfect womanhood. She is not so perfect as to be above employing a little flattery to her own way. When Mrs. Western tries to make her marry Lord Fellamar, Sophia flatters her into changing her mind and saves the situation. Sophia is not dishonest or deceitful. It is a touch of the instinctive ingenuity of women, and she uses it to get out of difficulty. Sophia is not above a little bit of vanity, in entertaining the mad notion of sacrificing herself to filial piety, in the style of the typical romantic heroine, and becoming a martyr. However, her good sense brings her back to normal. Her flaws make her human, while they do not detract from her merit.

      Tom is unable to control himself as far as sexual attractions are concerned, but he is also chivalrous, courageous, generous and warmhearted. Squire Western is, at once, an indulgent and despotic father. He is hot-tempered as well as cowardly. Jenny Jones is not completely crafty and flirtatious; she also has a generous and open heart. The mixture of vice and virtue in each character is what makes the characters 'interesting' while being true to human nature.

Flesh-and-blood Vitality given to Characters by Distinguishing them from One another

      Though Fielding refrains from giving us an insight into the working of characters' hearts and minds, he manages to make them into living and real personages of flesh and blood, all the same. There is no vagueness or indefiniteness in the character-portrayal. Each is clearly distinguished from the other. Even two landladies are not alike. This is so, because in each character Fielding embodies a different trait found in human nature.

      Fielding does not employ the method of characterization which Dickens and Smollett do, i.e., of giving the characters a special mannerism which is often repeated in order to realize the character's individuality. Fielding underlines a mass of traits which give a character a peculiar stamp, and in this way, gives an individuality. We remember Dickens's characters through their peculiar features—the strange laughter of Fagin or the lack of eyebrows in Uriah Heep. In Fielding, however, we do not have any such special feature given to the characters. Yet we remember Tom, Blifil, Sophia or any other character, as distinct figures.

      We seem to know the characters in Tom Jones quite well, and can hardly make a mistake in recognizing them. Whether humorous or serious, whether elaborately described or sketched with a few impressionistic strokes, almost all of the characters are 'alive', it is all the more remarkable because the characters are more flat than rounded.

Realistic Details in Characterization

      Fielding achieves the vitality and lifelikeness of his characters through realistic details. He refrained from presenting paragons of virtue or monsters of depravity. "Our business is only to record truth", says Fielding. Hazlitt praises him for his keen observation of human nature. Indeed, underlying the irony and humor, we have evidence of Fielding's keen perception of human nature in general. The petty hypocrisies, vanities, small kindnesses, greed and benevolence, all find realistic representation through his characters and their actions. We have a rather vivid account of the conflict between conscience and avarice - in Black George, on the question of stealing Sophia's purse of sixteen guineas.

Characters Based on Real Men and Women or Transcriptions from Real Life

      One reason for the vividness and realistic quality of Fielding's characters may be because some of them are based on men and women in real life, whom Fielding knew. His model for Squire Western is supposed to have been the Tory sportsman, Mildmay, the great friend of Pope and Bolingbroke. It has been pointed out that Sophia was based on Fielding's first wife, Charlotte Cradock. Fielding's great friend, Ralph Allen of Bath is considered to have been the model for Squire Allworthy. But the characters in Tom Jones are not exact replicas of personages in real life. Fielding always combines imagination with observation. He used his inventive powers to add something to what he saw, so that he could fit the character to the needs of the novel. He was not a mere copyist, but an original artist. We find everywhere a fusion of fact and fancy, of imitation and invention.

      Qualities of known persons were selected, re-combined, exaggerated, toned down, or otherwise modified. At other times, Fielding seems to have taken types, or fabricated figures illustrating various temperaments, senses of humour, or passions; but then he took care to give some individual qualities to them. He filled in the fictitious outlines with details copied from real men and women who had been keenly observed. In whatever manner the character is conceived, it gets its realistic aura because Fielding makes it speak and act in the strictest conformity with the laws of Human Nature.

Contrast of Characters with Each other

      An effective aspect of Fielding's characterization is the contrasts which he brings about between the characters. Tom is virtuous. He makes a direct contrast to Blifil's vicious and malicious nature. Tom's courageous behavior and attitude is set off by Nightingale's cowardice. Tom's sensible and positive attitude towards life is contrasted with the Man of Hill's response, which is that of negation. Allworthy's cold rationality is set off by Tom's warm but impulsive nature. Sophia is set off against Molly, Mrs. Fitzapatrick, and Lady Bellaston. Through such contrasts, Sophia's innate virtue, grace, and faithful love is given added emphasis.

      Fielding sometimes conceals ironic parallelisms under apparent contrasts. Thwackum and Square are, on the face of it, contrasted characters. But below the surface, the reader realizes that both are hypocrites. The contrast of characters is brought about through different reactions in certain situations, and through conversation.

Connection between Plot and Character: Harmony between Character and Incident

      It is an evident fact that the plot of Tom Jones is more important than the characterization. The structure is, on the whole, imposed upon the characters; we cannot say that character is action. But within the structure, the characters get what they deserve with the help of coincidences, which make their own efforts seem ironic. The letter of revelation, written by Bridget on her deathbed, falls into Blifil's hands. Given Blifil's malicious and wicked nature, it is but natural that he withholds the secret from Allworthy. Tom is expelled from the Allworthy household without getting a proper hearing. It is in keeping with Allworthy's inability to see the true state of affairs. Tom's sexual involvements follow naturally from his inherent weaknesses in that direction.

      The incidents, in their turn, influence the characters. It is true that Tom's goodness is obvious from the beginning. But he gains a mastery over the weakness of sexual vulnerability and learns the combination of warmth of heart and prudence, before he attains the hand of Sophia.

Avoidance of Caricature

      Fielding does not caricature as Dickens does. Sometimes he does point out some eccentric feature in a character—Mrs. Western and Parson Thwackum have peculiarities, and Fielding emphasizes on these. It gives added intensity and heightened effect to the characters. This kind of emphasis is not in the manner of distortion, whereas distortion is the very essence of caricature. We do not come across such characters as Mrs. Gamp, or Mr. Micawber, in Fielding's Tom Jones. Exaggeration is never carried so far as to shake our belief in the substantial truth of the figures. The humorous effects are brought out in strong relief, but there is no distortion. The characters are not too eccentric to be real.

Psychological Depth Lacking in Tom Jones

      Fielding's characters seem real enough. They have a quality of lifelikeness about them. Yet they lack what may be called 'psychological depth'. Fielding leaves the minds and hearts of his characters alone. One cannot, however, say that Fielding's knowledge of human nature was limited or inferior to that of a writer like Richardson. The irony of Tom Jones hits out against some eternal follies of human nature, which are also psychologically true. The hypocrisy and cunning greed embodied in many human beings are brought out well by Fielding. It implies a keen psychological perception of human nature. But it is human nature in general that interests Fielding. His psychological knowledge is about humanity in general. He stops short of going into the minds of individual characters.

      Fielding's refusal to expose the inner working of his characters' minds is understandable. He was writing a 'comic epic in prose'. His comic purpose demanded that the reader be kept at a distance from the characters. Psychological probing would have made the readers involved with the characters. It would damage comic effect. It has also been rightly pointed out by critics that Tom does not develop in the course of the novel.

      In Fielding, character is often revealed through dialogue. It shows a dramatic approach. Fielding is not entirely incapable of psychological presentation. He analyses the psychology of a character when it suits his comic purpose. An instance is the conflict in Black George's mind between conscience and avarice on the question of stealing Sophia's purse of sixteen guineas.


      Fielding's characters are typical Englishmen and women of the eighteenth century. On another level, they are embodiments of basic elements in human nature all through the ages. Fielding's world is true to life in a wide manner. It preserves the real proportions of good and evil as we find them intermixed in actual life. It is true that Fielding does not go deep into the minds of his characters. It does not imply that he lacked psychological insight He preferred to study the psychology of humanity in general than that of particular individuals. His characterization is well suited to his comic purpose in writing the novel.

      Fielding is concerned with human nature in general, and not with individuals. Arnold Kettle observes "And the characters themselves are not, in the fullest sense, people. They are almost all 'flat' characters in the tradition of the comedy of humors..." Walter Allen considers Fielding's characters full of vitality, the source of which is "the element in which they live, Fielding's mind and style." Hamilton Macallister calls the minor characters "types", but "they are full of interest.....Their importance in the novel is nearly always a thematic one. They are there for a purpose— the light they throw on the major characters, or on some aspect of human nature."


"Fielding's greatest achievement is that he took the traditional standard types but because of the vitality of his vision, his characters are bouncingly alive." Comment.
Fielding has said that in Tom Jones he has portrayed human character in its 'prodigious variety'. Elucidate.
"Fielding has that broad tolerant nature, that faculty of observation, that curiosity of life for itself, which usually go to make the creators, of characters." Amplify and illustrate.
"It is his (Fielding's) broad, tolerant nature and his humor which makes his characters so vitally alive." Discuss.
"Fielding's characters, though simple in outline, possess great complexity." Discuss with special reference to Tom Jones.
"As a novel of character, Tom Jones belongs to that class of novels, the aim of which is to present by multitude of characters a complete picture of human life." Amplify.
"I describe not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species."
Consider the aptness of this remark of Fielding with reference to Tom Jones.
"The material of the novelist is (a) the world of human beings and (b) their relations to each other." Examine Tom Jones in the light of this remark.

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