Critical Analysis of The Novel Tom Jones

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      In the three years between 1746 and 1749, Fielding was working on his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones. It is a great book in itself and a microcosm of the later hundred years in prose fiction. Today it is impossible to underrate it, but the literary coteries of the time looked on it coldly. They were devoted to Richardson's sensibility cult, and were unmoved by Fielding's harder brilliance and more masculine vigor.

An Ample Panorama of Epic Dimensions

      Tom Jones may claim to be the first novel written to a theory. It was epical in structure or rather an alternation of epic and dramatic; the narrative complicating itself so as to bring various conflicting interests and rival intrigues to a close encounter, and then, by means of a sudden disclosure, unraveling the complications. In other words, Tom has a series of involved adventures, which are shaped towards their climax at the hands of a dramatist.

      Of Tom Jones, one may say, as did Dryden of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, 'here is God's plenty'. The description Fielding applied to Joseph Andrews, 'a comic epic poem in prose,' is still more applicable herer the scale is larger and the representation of the spirit of the land and age an ampler panorama. Fielding was guided, in the art of his fiction, by certain critical preconceptions recognizing himself as 'the founder of a new province of writing'; he claimed the liberty "to make what laws I please therein". The new province is not that of the prose tale as such, of course, but that of the prose tale so intelligently organized that everything contributes to at pattern and the whole life is intellectually disposed and clarified. Its laws include the discipline of relevance and proportion; they prescribe human nature in its life-like normality to be the subject matter, and they demand of the author the four-fold equipment of 'genius' (the combination of invention and judgment), knowledge (of history and literature), wide social experience, and generous sympathies.

      The novel has epic dimensions. It has been pointed out by Aurelien Digeon, that a work is epical if it expresses, "at a given moment, the soul of a generation, in all its fullness and all its depth, perhaps in all the dimness of its hidden dream". A work becomes an epic "when it is a complete expression of a collective life, a fragment of the legend of the centuries." If we look at Tom Jones from this point of view, the novel definitely produces the impression of an epic. Tom Jones gives a picture of all England. It is a "picture of England at a moment when, suspended between her great past and her prodigious future, she was most limpidly herself... Tom Jones is the England of the time", as Digeon so aptly sums up. In Tom Jones, we have a more complete picture of English society than we have in Joseph Andrews or in Amelia.

Narration of Story in a Simple and Straightforward Manner

      In Tom Jones, the narrator of the story is the omniscient author. The novelist himself describes the world he has created. He knows all the events of the story, and has full knowledge of the psychology of his characters. He can reveal their thoughts to us, for, the inner working of their mind is not hidden from his view.

      Fielding narrates his story in a simple, straightforward manner. The eighteenth-century masters are great story-tellers; they have written immortal novels. Tom Jones is the greatest "prose epic" in English literature. But the structure of the eighteenth-century novels is, on the whole, simple. Complexities of structure and niceties of craftsmanship develop mostly in the modern novel.

Fielding's Theory of the Novel in the Author's Comments in the Prefatory Chapters

      Fielding is not only a great artist but also a great theorist. In fact, he is the first novelist to evolve rules of his art. The novelists before Fielding practiced their art without any clear knowledge of its nature and scope. Fielding analyses the nature of the novel, and defines its scope and bounds. Thus he sets critics and novelists thinking about what the novel is, or what it ought to be.

      Fielding has given us his literary theories in the prefatory chapters of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. For instance, in the Preface to the first novel, he gives his views on the comic and the burlesque. He draws a learned distinction between the two. Again, in the prefatory chapter appended to Book III of Joseph Andrews, he gives his views on characterization, and the type of characters he has presented in his novel. Tom Jones, too, is divided into several Books, and each book has a prefatory essay appended to it. These essays contain Fielding's musings on literary and other topics. Thus, the essay appended to Book IX of Tom Jones contains Fielding's views on the essential qualities of a novelist. These essays reveal that Fielding was a man of thoughtful nature. He was given to thinking not only about literature and the literary man's craft, but also about men and manners, or, in other words, the spectacle of life which he witnessed around him.

The Structure of Tom Jones Compact and Well Organized

      The plot of Tom Jones is compact and not discursive and rambling like that of Joseph Andrews. Its plot is perfect according to Coleridge. "What a master of composition Fielding was", he says. "Upon my word I think Oedipus Tyrannus, The Alchemist, and Tom Jones are the three most perfect plots ever planned." But a compact plot of the type of Tom Jones is likely to have certain drawbacks. For one thing, it may be so mechanically put together that its very cleverness may impress us with a sense of laborious artifice. Then, it may make frequent use of coincidences and thereby lack plausibility. The plot of Tom Jones is, on the whole, very compact. There are only two digressions within the story. One of them is Squire Allworthy's homily on the benefits of matrimony, and the other is the story of the Man of the Hill.

      Tom Jones is divided into eighteen Books. Six are devoted to life in country, six to the adventures on the road, and the last six to life in London. The story is conducted with artistic finish by Fielding. In spite of F. R. Leavis's derogatory comments on the absurdity of calling the plot of Tom Jones perfect, Fielding's constructional skill remains indubitable.

Nature of Characterization in Tom Jones

      Fielding takes his characters from the lower classes, the middle classes, the landed gentry and the aristocracy, (i) Characters like Partridge, Mrs. Honour, Jenny, George, landlords and landladies come from the lower classes, (ii) Thwackum, philosopher Square, Mrs. Miller, Miss Nancy, Mr. Nightingale, etc. belong to the middle classes, (iii) Squire Allworthy, Squire Western and Sophia Western are members of the class of landed gentry. (iv) Lady Bellaston and Lord Fellamar come from the Aristocracy. Fielding presents a wide range of characters. But are they simple or complex, 'flat' or 'round'?

      A flat character is unchanging. Throughout the novel, he speaks the same language and behaves in the same way. His nature can be expressed in a simple, single formula. But, there are characters who reveal newer aspects of their nature as the story advances. Hardy's Jude is a complex, or round character. When the story begins, we find that the pursuit of knowledge is the one strong passion of his life.

      Fielding has hardly created a really complex character, who, in his nature, combined contradictory traits. Tom Jones is a good man, but has his own weaknesses. But because of those weaknesses, he does not become a genuinely complex character like Jude of Hardy or Lord Jim of Conrad, or several of the characters of Dostoevsky. In fact, the eighteenth-century novelists do not create complex characters. As Myres points out in his valuable book Later Realism, characterization in English fiction arrives at the stage of complexity gradually. It is in the nineteenth century that novelists like George Eliot, Meredith and Hardy create complex characters. What is remarkable, however, is that, in spite of being "flat", Fielding's characters come alive before us.

First Authentic Portraiture of Children

      In Tom Jones, for the first time in the history of English fiction, we have a realistic portrayal of children. The little Sophia and Tom and Blifil, as they play about and talk, are the first convincing pictures of childhood given by a novelist. Fielding gave a hint of his skill at portraying children in Joseph Andrews itself—we are struck by the ten year old Dick Adams struggling through a Latin reading, prompted by his father Parson Adams. Here in, Tom Jones, we have, admittedly, a brief passage depicting children. But it is remarkable for its convincing authenticity.

Humour in Tom Jones

      Fielding calls Tom Jones a comic epic in prose. All through the novel, the spirit of the comic Muse pervades. The rigid linking of cause and effect lies partly in the nature of comedy and is partly the direct result of Fielding's philosophy. Taking a point of vantage outside the story, the author is inspired by the Comic Spirit; his analytical intelligence reaches the point where the planes of 'Being' and 'Seeming' intercept, and reverberate with thunderous laughter at the contradictions and hypocrisies suddenly revealed. Behind all the chance encounters, incongruities and anomalies that make up the affairs of mant are a scheme, a pattern, perhaps a little too artfully Contrived; but due to all; events to comic deliberation.

      It is a "broad, sane, extroverted humor, never malicious and never petty", that we find in Tom Jones. The many facets of Fielding's humor find expression in action, the knock-about comedy of fights and boisterous horse-play. We also have humor through characters such as Western and Partridge. There is humor in the carefully contrived entrances, exits and exposures — such as the discovery of Square in Molly's room when she is protesting her love for Tom. The mock-heroic style enhances the humorous effect, especially in the battle scenes at Upton Inn. What is noteworthy is that Fielding's humor is never cynical or bitter; it is always tolerant and genial. He understands man's weaknesses but does not rave fiercely at them.

Selective Realism in Tom Jones

      The art of Fielding is realistic. But it is a special kind of realism—selective realism—that we find in Tom Jones. We note that, though the eighteenth-century life, presented in the novel, is a vivid picture, Fielding's interest is not in atmosphere, for its own sake. He deals with what is necessary for his purpose. We get a sketchy outline of Allworthy's house, and not much of the external aspects of Western's house. Though he describes London in detail, it is only one aspect of it He does not give us a picture of the dirt and the squalor of the great metropolitan city; Tom goes to prison. Yet Fielding does not describe the horrible conditions prevalent in the prisons of the time. We know that Mrs. Miller's relative is very poor but we do not get to "feel" the poverty. The horror, the squalor, the brutality and the ugliness under the polished and glittering surface is hinted at, but never clearly described. Fielding's ironic humor and comic vision keep the ugly and the horrific at a controlled distance.

Moral Vision in Tom Jones

      Dr. Johnson's comment on Tom Jones, that it was shocking and corrupt, is well known. For once, the great critic seems to have been misled by the superficial "indecency" of Tom's sexual misadventures. Tom Jones, in fact, is governed by the healthy moral vision of its author. Fielding puts forward the necessity of 'goodness of heart' as against cold chastity which is often accompanied by hypocrisy. Tom Jones is an all-out attack on hypocrisy of all kinds. It is peopled by hypocrites from various sections of society. The only two characters who possess virtue, in Fielding's sense, are Sophia and Tom. Tom's sexual vulnerability has, of course, to be tempered by discretion. He has to pay for his earlier lapses. Fielding is thus an advocate for a combination of warmth of feeling and prudence. He does not favor the cold rationality of Allworthy either.


      Tom Jones is a masterpiece, and certainly one of the greatest novels written in the eighteenth century. It was not too well received by some of Fielding's contemporaries. Time has, however, vindicated its value and merits. It is not without faults, but its significance outweighs its shortcomings. Above all, we remember the "comic spirit" which pervades the novel.

      Tom Jones is, at once, the last and the consummate literary achievement of England's Augustan Age, as Martin Battestin states. Many reasons are given for its continuing popularity, especially in the twentieth century. William Empson points out that Fielding's moral perceptiveness enhances the value of the book. R S. Crane brings out the contribution of an intricate architecture towards the novel's success. Indeed, Tom Jones is a great achievement for its richness and complexity. "The world of Tom Jones is dynamic, charged with the energy of sunshine and laughter and love. And it is, at the same time, a celebration of that rational design which gives meaning to vitality, and which alone, perhaps, makes it a source of joy and of wonder."

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