Irony & Satirical Humour in Tom Jones

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      Fielding is essentially a comic writer. His vicarious experience of life and his natural gaiety of temperament made him treat his characters and their situations from the viewpoint of the humorist. He rejoices in the very weaknesses portrayed in his characters instead of being anxious to hide them. He had a sure instinct for burlesque. His wit and satire are obvious in his works. His view of the world is that of a genial and tolerant humorist, who sympathizes with the follies and vices of human beings, though he does not condone them. Indeed, it is his humour which gives to his novels their richness, variety, and complexity.

Comic Element Assigned an Important Role in Fielding's Conception of the Novel

      Fielding termed the novel "a comic epic in prose". He had pointed out in his Preface to Joseph Andrews that the "light and ridiculous" element is one of the most important ingredients of his novels. He also pointed out that the source of the ridiculous element is affectation. Affectation, in its turn, springs from vanity or hypocrisy. Vanity is affected when one wants to purchase applause, and hypocrisy when one wants to avoid censure. Thus vanity is ostentation, and hypocrisy is deceit Fielding is of the opinion that affectation arising from hypocrisy is a greater source of surprise and humour than the one arising from vanity. Fielding's purpose is to hold up affectation to ridicule so as to reform mankind. He intends to laugh mankind out of folly. He propounds his purpose in his dedication to Tom Jones:

I have employed all the wit and humour of which I am master, in the following history; wherein I have endeavoured to laugh mankind out of their favourite follies and vices.

      He invokes Genius in the following words:

Come, thou who hast inspired thy Aristophane, thy Lucian, thy Cervantes, thy Rabelais, thy Moliere, thy Shakespeare, thy Swift, thy Marivaux, fill my pages with humour till mankind learns the good nature to laugh only at the follies of others and the humility to shrive at their own.

      The role of the comic element is thus not for mere entertainment, but for the very serious purpose of reforming mankind. His use of satire and irony is part of his intention to make readers realize their follies and vices. However, Fielding does not let his serious purpose overwhelm him. He shows himself capable of pure fun as well. He is thus quite a master of farcical humour besides satirical humour. Fielding shows his endless fertility of comic-ironical invention in Tom Jones.

Fielding's Laughter Genial and not Bitter

      Fielding has been called a laughing philosopher. He laughs at all his characters impartially. He does not even spare himself. He suggests, for instance, that the spectacle of Henry Fielding composing a solemn discourse on the virtue of chastity would doubtless strike the reader as the height of the ridiculous. His laughter is never the cynical and bitter laughter of Swift or the sneering smile of Smollett. His laughter is genial and humane, indulgent and tolerant. He knew the weaknesses of human beings and accepted them. He did not intend his humour to hurt anyone. In Tom Jones, none of the characters escape his humorous attacks, but nowhere does Fielding seem bitter and fierce against humanity.

Farcical Humour Restricted in Tom Jones

      Fielding's fertility in different forms of humour is evident in Tom Jones. However, farcical humour is somewhat restricted in use in this novel. Joseph Andrews abounds in farcical humour whereas in Tom Jones, the humour is 'artfully controlled'. Fiel ding's sense of humour has matured and mellowed with time. The exuberant buoyancy is restrained, and horseplay is less in evidence. But farcical humour and boisterous fun are not totally lacking in Tom Jones. What could be more farcically funny than the attack on Partridge by his 'Amazonian' wife. It is one of the bloodiest battles or duels, that were ever recorded in domestic history. The fight at Upton Inn is in the same tradition, where fists, cudgels, broom-sticks and tongues are employed with equal vigour and effect. Partridge's comments verge on the farcical and in the interpolated comments in the Man of the Hill's account. He is naive and simple in his observations on Garrick's performance in Hamlet. His interruptions in the (course of the story of the Man of the Hill are also humorous.

      Farcical humour often demands the introduction of vulgar material. Not all the material used by Fielding is refined or elegant; much of it was coarse and vulgar. Yet we notice that the humour which made merry with the vulgar scenes and persons was itself clear of vulgarity. Critics have remarked on Fielding's peculiar art of writing upon low subjects without a low manner. Byron rightly observed that, though Fielding revelled in both low themes and low language, he is not vulgar, "You see the man of education, the gentleman and the scholar, sporting with his subject - its master, not its slave." In Tom Jones, however, there is of the farcical humour which involves rough and tumble buffooneries.

Ironical Humour: The Mainstay of Tom Jones

      It is mainly ironical humour which is to be found in Tom Jones. But the irony is different from the stern and scathing irony of Jonathan Wild. It is a genial and light irony which pervades Tom Jones. Further, the irony is never sentimentalized. Captain Blifil waxes eloquently in order to convince Squire Allworthy on the propriety of punishing bastard children for the sins of their parents, after having himself indulged in a secret intrigue with Bridget Allworthy. The irony is apparent in Captain Blifil's using a discourse on Christian charity as an occasion for giving damaging information against a man who has not done him any harm. Again, he falls dead in the middle of contemplating on the fine estates which would come to him on Allworthy's death. The laudatory epitaph on his tomb, placed there by his 'inconsolable' wife, is a piece of supreme irony. It is a culmination to the bitter and acrimonious wedded life which Captain Blifil and Bridget led.

      Irony is the chief and most effective source of humour in the numerous situations pictured in Tom Jones. The scene in Molly Seagrim's bedroom is a piece of remarkable irony. With tears streaming down her cheeks, Molly, in a loud voice, declares her undying love for Tom. She swears that she cannot live without him. Suddenly the rug curtain falls to reveal the grave philosopher, Square, in a most undignified position. What is more ironical is that Square is a great upholder and champion of the "unalterable rule of right and the eternal fitness of things". The wicked intentions, which are really at the heart of Blifil in releasing Sophia's bird, are hidden under the piously professed concern for the captive bird. His appeals to the most cherished Christian doctrines of freedom and mercy are ironical.

      The hero himself is not spared of Fielding's ironical humour. His pious meditations on the charms of Sophia and the declaration of his resolve never to think of any other woman, are immediately followed by his retreat behind some bushes with Molly Seagrim. The Man of the Hill is rescued by Tom from a set of ruffians. Yet, the very next morning, the Man of the Hill tells Tom to ignore the screams of some woman in distress. Tom Jones is replete with this kind of humour. Irony pervades every chapter and every page of the novel. It even overflows at times into the chapter headings. One such heading comes to mind: "A Receipt to regain the lost Affection of a Wife". The chapter deals with the death of Captain Blifil. The ironical humour which is found in Tom Jones, however, is always humane and genial. It bespeaks an author who is aware of human follies but does not wish to rant at, or lacerate human feelings. He merely wishes to banter and ridicule lightly.

      Fielding's irony is very pronounced, and is also a perpetual source of delight in his novel. It is a means whereby he exposes the drawbacks of human nature and the defects of social organization. "It is his great weapon against pretence, vanity, hypocrisy, inhumanity: his great weapon in defence of generous feelings." Irony is implicit in Fielding's view of life. It enables him to attack all that is vicious, unhealthy and undesirable in human life and institutions. It is not bitter as that of Swift. And yet, it is no less effective, for it is not the work of a misanthrope.

      Fielding's irony cuts all ways, as the following incident from Joseph Andrews shows. Having been robbed and stripped by a highwayman, Joseph is left unconscious by the roadside. A coach comes by. But Joseph is unwilling to enter it until he is "furnished with sufficient covering to prevent giving the least offence to decency". Then there follows a passage in which the callousness of the passengers is presented ironically. At last, a ruffian looking lad with very offensive manners takes pity on Joseph. Fielding shows thereby that gentlemen of refined manners and high birth are, in reality, inferior to a ruffian: "Though there were several great coats about the coach it was not easy to get over this difficulty which Joseph had started. The two gentlemen complained they were cold, and Could not spare a rag; the man of wit saying with a laugh, that charity began at home; and the coachman, who had the great coats spead under him refused to lend either, lest they should be made bloody; the lady's footman desired to be excused for the same reason, which the lady herself, notwithstanding her abhorrence of a naked man, approved; it is more than probable that Joseph, who obstinately adhered to his modest resolution, must have perished, unless the postilion (a lad who had since been transported for robbing a hen-roost) had voluntarily stripped off a great coat, his only garment; at the same time swearing a great oath, for which he was rebuked by the passengers, that he would rather ride in his shirt all his life than suffer a fellow passenger to lie in so miserable a condition."

      In Tom Jones, there are ironical passages in which Fielding attacks injustice, vice, corruption, folly and hypocrisy. In the following passage, for instance, the distinction between the rich and the poor is presented ironically:

Those members of the society who are born to furnish the blessings of life, now began to light their candles, in order to purchase their daily labours, for the use of those who are born to enjoy their blessings. The sturdy mind now attends the levee of his fellow labourer's ox; the cunning artificer, the diligent mechanic spring from their hard mattress; and now the bonny housemaid begins to repair the disordered drum room, while the riotous authors of that disorder, in broken interrupted slumbers tumble and toss, as if the hardness of down disquieted their repose.

      For the poor, the straw mattresses are comfortable enough for a night's repose, while the rich tumble and toss uneasily even on beds of down.

      But, there are also ironical passages in Tom Jones the purpose of which is only to create humour and evoke smiles. For instance, the following:

Now if the ancient opinion, that men might live very comfortably on virtue only, be, as the modem wise men just above mentioned pretend to have discovered, a notorious error; no less false is, I apprehend, that position of some writers of romance, that a man can live altogether on love; for however delicious repasts this may afford to some of our senses or appetites, it is most certainly it can afford none to others. These, therefore, who have placed too great a confidence in such writers have experienced their error when it was too late; and have found that love was no more capable of allaying hunger, than a rose is capable of delighting the ear, or a violin of gratifying the smell.

Satirical Humour: Not Very Prominent in Tom Jones

      Fielding does not indulge much in satire in Tom Jones. It is not, however, totally absent, and wherever it is present, it is most effective. But it is not the vituperative satire of Swift. Fielding seldom uses invective. His satire is discreet and general, directed at large sections of humanity, at groups and classes rather than at individuals. He makes use of satirical humour against parsons, fine ladies and gentlemen, doctors and lawyers, wailing maids and simpering ladies, at religious groups such as the Methodists and the Jacobites. His satirical humour is also directed at the manners and morals of the age. He attacks hypocrisy in general. He satirises the hypocritical moral code which was professed by his contemporaries. The Bridgets and Blifils of the society are satirised by Fielding, as are the Thwackums and Squares.

Humour in Characterization

      It is in the art of providing humour of character that Fielding excels. In Joseph Andrews, we meet the immortal comic character, Parson Adams. In Tom Jones, we have another immortal comic figure in Squire Western. Both are creations of pure humour. Much fun in Joseph Andrews is produced by Parson Adams, with his eternal faith in human nature being constantly betrayed, his little absent-mindedness and his small pedantries and vanities. Squire Western in Tom Jones shows a surprising and comic capability for the most violent outbursts and the most rapturous affection. A warm-hearted, hot-tempered, foxhunting Tory country squire, Western displays stupidity, obstinacy and indulgent affection by turns. He is a truly magnificent comic character, drawn with affection, but also remorsefully. His rapturous affection for his daughter is almost immediately overtaken by wrathful oaths and threats when he discovers that she will not marry a man chosen by him. His frantic chase after his daughter suddenly changes into a chase after a fox. His interest in foxhunting overcomes his desire to locate his daughter safely.

      Partridge is another comic character who produces innocent laughter. His utter quality of being artless and simple cannot but produce fun. His comments at the theatre on the performance of Garrick in Hamlet are in true comic vein. His cowardice produces laughter His comments which interrupt the story of the Man of the Hill, are funny. His garrulity, his cowardice and his naivete, are all conducive to fun and laughter.

Humour of Situation

      Much of the humour in Tom Jones derives from the situations depicted. Highly amusing situations are contrived as a source of the ridiculous. In Mrs. Miller's house in London, Mrs. Honour gives free vent to her opinion of Lady Bellaston's licentious behaviour, while the lady is herself hidden behind a curtain in the room. In a later scene, Lady Bellaston's disgusting wooing of Tom is interrupted by a drunken Nightingale. Lady Bellaston retires behind the curtain only to confront Mrs. Honour who is already lodged there. Such situations can hardly fail to produce humour and laughter.

Other Humorous Devices in Tom Jones: Parody, Mock-heroic Technique, Depiction of Misunderstandings and Incongruities

      Fielding uses many other devices of humour in Tom Jones besides the obvious ones of irony and satire. Parody, the mock-heroic technique are often used to produce laughter. There is a mock-trial at Upton Inn in which Fielding is clearly parodying the conventional jargon of lawyers and judges. The same parody of the terms of doctors produces much laughter. The battle in the churchyard between Molly and her jealous detractors is in the mock-heroic vein, and most effective as a humorous device. The village clowns and hoydens burlesque the gallant feats of Homeric heroes.

      There is, at times, the surprise afforded by some ridiculous incongruity. Squire Allworthy delivers a fine deathbed valedictory message to his entire household. But all the while he has been suffering from nothing more serious than a feverish cold. Often two diametrically opposite type of characters are brought into juxtaposition, such as Thwackum and Square. They are made to engage in a furious wrangle. Laughter is produced by some ludicrous misunderstanding. Such a situation occurs when Sophia and her aunt speak about a person who would be acceptable as Sophia's lover, each mistakenly supposing that each is speaking of the same person as the other.


      Fielding's humour is spontaneous, tolerant, exuberant and based on realities. He exhibits an inexhaustible source of humour. Laughter springs from practically each page of Tom Jones. He shows his capacity for a variety and range of humour. What is more noteworthy is that his humour is not contrived but ready and spontaneous. His laughter is never bitter and cynical. He shows a tolerant and benign attitude towards humanity. Indeed, it is his "broad, tolerant nature and his humour which makes his characters so vitally alive." His humour is directed towards the real facts of human nature; it is based on realities rather than on fancies. Under the exuberant humour, however, runs a serious vein, of solid thought and sympathetic feeling. Tom Jones represents a fascinating combination of the serious and the comic, of the gay and the grave.


Write a short note on the various aspects of humour in Fielding's Tom Jones.
"Fielding is a humorist with a serious purpose." Discuss this statement.
To what extent is it possible to regard tom Jones as an example of "the ironic novel—a species of novel in which an author consciously sets the real conduct of every day against the large abstractions of moral values, classical literature, or myth"?

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