Immortality & Sexual Ethics in Tom Jones

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      The main indictment brought against Fielding's novels in general and Tom Jones in particular, was that they were "low". The contemporaries of Fielding were shocked at the "immorality" of Tom Jones and expressed their disapproval in no uncertain terms.

      It is the apparent sexual laxity of Tom that is the target of the charge of immorality in the novel Tom Jones. Modern opinion, however, has brought about a great change. It will be seen that a careful study of Tom Jones shows that the charge of immorality cannot be sustained against Fielding. We will examine the charge in detail and then offer a vindication of Fielding's sexual ethic.

Dr. Johnson and Richardson: the Chief Detractors of Tom Jones

      Dr. Johnson professed to be horrified when he heard Hannah More quote a passage from Tom Jones. "Shocking" he declared, "I scarcely know a more corrupt book." He called it a "vicious" work. Samuel Richardson expressed himself in equally strong terms. He called it a "dissolute book" and a "profligate performance". He took offense at Tom's being a bastard and Fielding's apparently indulgent attitude towards his hero's sexual aberrations. John Hawkins, a biographer of Dr. Johnson, attacked Fielding's novel, as seemingly intended to sap the foundation of the morality which it is the duty of parents and all public instructors to inculcate in the minds of young people.

      It is difficult in the modern times to find much justification in such charges. Even within the novel itself, such charges do not seem valid enough. We realize that Fielding's approach to moral issues is different from the conventional stand. It does not mean that his approach is immoral.

Tom's Sexual Involvements: The Necessity of a Correct Perspective

      It is the sexual issue which is crucial, both in the moral scheme of Tom Jones and in the objections of its critics. Tom is considered to be a debauched profligate on the basis of his sexual involvements with Molly Seagrim, Mrs. Waters and Lady Bellaston. On the face; of it, it seems as if there is plenty of justification in condemning Tom as a depraved wretch, and most unworthy of Sophia. As such, it would be easy to condemn Fielding of moral laxity for bringing about a reconciliation between Tom and Sophia. It seems to be a denouement of "vice rewarded". It is, however, an incomplete picture. A more careful study of Tom's involvements is required, before we make a pronouncement on his behavior.

      Tom, it will be seen, is innocent. In all three cases, he is more the seduced than the seducer. He is quite naive and inexperienced when he gets entangled with Molly Seagrim. Molly, on the other hand, is an accomplished flirt with plenty of amorous experience. Next comes Mrs. Waters at Upton. That lady's lovely bosom cannot fail to attract Tom's eye as it is deliberately left uncovered. Besides, Mrs. Waters, too, is accomplished at the art of love—she releases all her amorous artillery at the hapless and defenseless Tom. The involvement with Lady Bellaston does, to some extent, give a feeling of disgust. But Tom would not be Tom if he had not felt that "gallantry" required him to appease Lady Bellaston's amorous challenge. Indeed, Fielding tells us that Tom never felt less inclined to be amorous than when he met Lacy Bellaston. He merely suffers her bad breath so as to get in touch with Sophia, and, in the process, get some alleviation from his poverty.

      It is also to be said for Tom that he is never really certain, until the very end of the book, if his love for Sophia is not utterly hopeless. Tom's "affair" with Molly occurs before his love for Sophia. The entanglement with Mrs. Waters occurs at a time when he has lost all hope of reconciliation with Sophia. With Lady Bellaston, he is a victim of exploitation as well as of his own misguided sense of "gallantry".


Tom's Laxity not Condoned by Fielding

      Tom's sexual aberrations are set in certain extenuating circumstances. But this does not absolve Tom from all responsibility. Fielding does not condone him, though he does understand Tom's weakness. There is an inter-involvement of action and didactic theme. The fluctuations in the fortunes of Tom can be seen as punishments and rewards for Tom's imprudence and his good nature. Tom's own very explicit attitude suggests this. In prison, he tells Mrs. Waters that he lamented the follies and vices of which he had been guilty every one of which he said; had been attended with such ill consequence that he should be unpardonable if he did not take warning and quit those vicious courses for the future.

      The reader is meant to see Tom's story, as he himself so specifically does, as a series of follies bringing eventual retribution. Tom's misfortunes are not directly caused by his wrong-doing, but they do ultimately derive from it. He commits four major indiscretions, and in each case a chain of unlucky circumstances brings about a painful result.

      Tom's first escapade with Molly does not cause serious damage, but it led to Allworthy getting his "first bad impression concerning Jones". The second indiscretion, which occurs during Allworthy's illness, when Tom, in a drunken state, retires behind some bushes with Molly, leads to more serious consequences—Tom is turned away by Allworthy. But Sophia has not yet been estranged from Tom. His third involvement, with Mrs. Waters at Upton, results in a frustration of his love for Sophia when it is on the verge of realization. Sophia's muff, which he discovers on his bed, makes him regretful of his lapse. The affair with Lady Bellaston further alienates, at least initially, Sophia from Tom. He reaches the lowest point with his imprisonment and the dreadful thought that he has committed incest. His plight is appropriately punitive. The structure of the novel is, thus, closely connected with the moral intention.

      By the end of the novel, Tom has learned continence. He can refuse the amorous advances of Mrs. Fitzpatrick and the marriage proposed from a rich widow, Arabella Hunt. He has achieved emotional stability and mental maturity. He has learned wisdom from his past errors. He gets Sophia only when he fully deserves her. We thus find that Fielding does not condone his hero's faults. However, he does not treat them as vices but merely as follies. It is very clear that Fielding does not present a case in favor of immorality.

Fielding's Attitude Towards Sex: More Healthy than Richardson's

      Considering the sexual ethic of Fielding and Richardson, which of them has a healthy attitude to sex? Is it the author who treats it openly and frankly but without detail or suggestiveness, or the one who, through two lengthy novels, keeps the reader's imagination in a long drawn out suspense, culminating in a wedding night and a rape respectively? It is too simplistic to argue that in Tom Jones it is the hero who is guilty of immorality while in Clarissa, it is the villain. Clarissa, it cannot be denied, is full of lewd excitement, on whatever account it is introduced. The letters of Mr. Lovelace to Mr. Belford are no less "improper" than any "improper" passage in Fielding's Tom Jones. It is interesting to note that the Victorians, with their concern for "propriety", censored Richardson as much as they did Fielding. The modem sympathies in sexual matters are much nearer to the open, frank and healthy treatment of sex in Fielding.

      Fielding did not disapprove of the healthy attraction between the sexes, both in body and in mind. As an example of "virtue rewarded", Richardson's Pamela must have irritated Fielding. Love, in Fielding's vocabulary, is not only appetite. But sexual appetite is quite definitely a part of love between the sexes. Indeed, as Middleton Murry points out, the consummation of physical passion between a man and a woman of good nature who love one another, Fielding holds to the supreme felicity attainable on earth. It is the end of Tom's adventurous pilgrimage. When Tom says, as a possible justification of his past conduct, that the delicacy of the female sex "cannot conceive the grossness of ours, nor how little one sort of amour has to do with the. heart", Sophia replies with dignity:

"I will never marry a man who shall not learn refinement enough to be as incapable as I am of making the distinction."

      Tom has achieved that refinement. Desire and Love have become identical; no distinction was possible anymore. Sophia's words also show Fielding's disapproval of the double standards of morality existent at the time—one moral code for men and another for women.

Fielding's Sexual Ethic: Part of a Broader and Positive Moral Vision

      Fielding, then, has a healthy attitude to sex. This attitude is a part of his broad, tolerant and essentially positive moral vision. His purpose in Tom Jones was clearly didactic. He intended to show the beauty of virtue, the ugliness of vice, and the need for men to avoid vice and follow virtue. He also wanted to show that virtue had to be tempered by discretion.

      Virtue, for Fielding, is inherent in good nature or the instinct of generosity towards others. It is the inner goodness of heart. It is not to be equated with chastity. Chastity, when it evolves from a deliberate suppression of instinct at the behest of public opinion, was nothing but hypocrisy. Hypocrisy was one of the worst sins in Fielding's philosophy. Such a chastity becomes a saleable commodity, capable of getting material prosperity. True virtue lies in "good nature", which is better than goodness. Tom represents this good nature, though his exuberant warmth of heart has to be guided by prudence to become balanced. Fielding's fundamental concept of good nature is conceived as fairly embracing the sexual with all the rest of human relations. Virtue was a natural tendency to goodness or benevolence.

Fielding's Balanced View-point

      Fielding keeps a moderate tone in his approvals as well as his censures. His irony is apparent in his description of Tom's retreat behind the bushes with Molly. At the same time, however, he is also genuinely appreciative of Tom's intense, though animalistic, good spirits at Allworthy's recovery. Tom is genuinely sympathetic towards Nancy and Anderson. His actions show his inherent benevolence. He even pleads on behalf of Blifil, who had done him so much of harm. Fielding is merciless in his exposure of Thwackum's hypocrisy. Indeed, hypocrisy in any form disgusts him and he spares no pains to expose it for what it is. Bridget's 'inconsolable' grief is ironically commented upon. Nor is Fielding very mild in his satire against Lady Bellaston. It is always an opposition of good nature and hypocrisy. The good nature of Tom is easily recognizable, especially by another who has it. Sophia recognizes it and is willing to forgive him many of his lapses, which, she correctly realizes, are the outcome of an excessive warmth of heart and generous impulses and unsuppressed animal spirits, rather than a vicious character. The suppression of such instincts in the name of public opinion, would, in Fielding's eye, constitute a greater moral lapse, than indulging those instincts. It is hypocritical to entertain desires while pretending not to have them at all. Tom Jones remains an endearing and natural human being. Some have called him a lovable rogue. Sophia is a spirited, feminine and delightful heroine as charming as she is free of irritating prudery.


      We have seen that Fielding's conception of morality is different from the conventional views held by his contemporaries like Richardson. He proves himself to be a "deep, accurate and scientific moralist". His vision is broad and tolerant. The charge of immorality against Tom Jones cannot be sustained; in fact, it falls to pieces on a careful consideration of the novel. Dr. Johnson, for once, proved fallible.

      In the context of Fielding's morality, J. Middleton Murry points out that Tom "never lays siege to a woman; it is always the women who beleaguer him. Tom's trouble is that he cannot find it in his heart to rebuke them: and he is, fundamentally an idealist about women. Rightly or wrongly, he discerns generosity in the woman's offer of herself to him, to which if he does not respond, he is self-condemned as ungenerous." Thackeray comments:

"Tom Jones sins, and his faults, are described with a curious accuracy, but then follows the repentance which comes out of his very sins, and surely that is moral and touching." Walter Allen compares Richardson and Fielding, and says "...their conceptions of morals were poles apart, indeed, each thought the works of the other anything but moral. Certainly, the morality of Pamela was offensive to Fielding. For Fielding at the heart of right moral lay, what he called 'good nature'."


"I scarcely know a more corrupt book than Tom Jones", said Dr. Johnson. Discuss this statement with reference to Fielding's conception of morality as implied in Tom Jones.
Examine the charge of immorality against Tom Jones and state whether it can be sustained or not.
"In spite of the adverse criticism of contemporaries like Dr. Johnson, Fielding was as serious a moralist as Richardson himself." Do you agree? Illustrate your answer.
"Fielding offers not merely an interesting narrative but a responsible wisdom that plays upon the deeds and characters of the novel". Discuss with special reference to Tom Jones.
Says Ian Watt about Fielding, "He believed that virtue far from being the result of the suppression of instinct at the behest of the public opinion was itself a natural tendency to goodness or benevolence." Consider Tom Jones in the light of this statement.

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