Plot Construction of Tom Jones

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      Henry Fielding, perhaps, was the first English writer who gave a conscious design and plan to a narrative involving a great variety of characters and incidents. Earlier writers had often strung together divergent incidents, regardless of their connection or plausibility. They did not show the ability to draw emphasis from skillful grouping of characters and incidents. Fielding, for the first time, showed remarkable architectonic skill; he evolved a definite and firm plan for his narrative. He does not throw in incidents haphazardly upon his hero. Fielding is like a master of a house who is showing his visitors around. As Aurelien Digeon puts it "He takes them only where he wishes, and he has made a personal choice of what he is going to let them see. With this sovereign artist, we are always brought back to the idea of a personal synthesis of different elements." Fielding shows himself to be a great master of plot. His ability to construct a near-perfect plot is evident in Tom Jones.

Fielding's Remarkable Craftsmanship

      Fielding is always careful in his use of those materials and aspects of art which would bring about a structural unity in his novel. The incidents in the novel bear a close relationship to one another, i.e., they evolve logically out of one another. They help to advance the plot of the story. Thus, there is an organic unity in Tom Jones. Fielding is also careful in showing a harmony or connection between character and incident and style. The characters give rise to the situations, and the situations, in turn, affect the characters. The style is eminently appropriate to the plan of the novel as a comic epic in prose. Yet another unity is to be found in the 'moral vision' which Fielding gives to the novel. Different aspects thus contribute to the sense of coherent wholeness produced by the novel. "Fielding was as superb a craftsman in his own way as Henry James", remarks Walter Allen, while Walter Scott called him the father of the English Novel. Both remarks are indisputable.

Unity of Narration in Tom Jones

      Fielding has been accorded praise for his plot-construction by different quarters. Oliver Elton admires his skill as an "architect of plot". "What a master of composition Fielding was", enthused Coleridge, and compared the plot of Tom Jones with those of Oedipus and The Alchemist for its perfection. In Scott's opinion, Tom Jones was "the most masterly example of an artful and well told novel". In Tom Jones, Scott continues, Fielding has "set the distinguished example of a story regularly built and consistent in all its parts, in which nothing occurs, and scarce a personage is introduced, that has not some share in tending to advance the catastrophe". Though modern critics have found fault with the digressions in Tom Jones, on the whole one can say that the plot of the novel accords with Aristotle's conception of plot as being an organic whole, in which all parts connect with one another, and nothing can be added or taken away without causing damage to the whole.

Symmetrical Arrangement of Incidents: an Organic Plot

      Tom Jones represents a consummate skill in Plot Construction. The clear symmetry of the frame within which the story is embodied, becomes evident when we examine its structure. The novel is made up of eighteen books. The book is further divided into three parts. The first six books are confined to Tom's life spent in the countryside. The next six books devote themselves to the journey of Tom and some of the other characters, and are in the tradition of the picaresque. The last six books deal with the life in London, culminating in the resolution of various complications.

      The introduction of the various groups of characters is done with a certain sense of order. We are first shown Squire Allworthy, then his servant, Mrs. Wilkins. Then comes Bridget, the sister of Allworthy, after whom we are introduced to Jenny Jones, who is soon taken to be the foundling's mother. The second book sees the grouping around Jones. Captain Blifil tries his best to remove Tom from the house. The book also sees the stage cleared of Jenny Jones and Partridge, who go elsewhere to work out their destiny. Captain Blifil's death leaves the stage ready, in the third Book, for Tom and young Blifil. There is a contrast shown between their characters and in the opinions of their close associates regarding them.

      The novel thus goes along a well organised and planned path. It is so smoothly and symmetrically planned that Books IX and X are not only the mathematical center of the novel, but also the central point from the point of view of the action. It is the comic peripety of the novel. It is clearly an example of Fielding's technical skill. The scene at Upton Inn is remarkable for its place in the structural unity of the work. Tom Jones and Partridge arrive at the inn, alone with a woman whom they know as Mrs. Waters, but who, in reality, is Jenny Jones. Thus Jenny Jones is reintroduced in the middle portion of the book. She has a significant part in the development of the plot. In the preceding chapters, the situations have been set in such a manner as to ensure all the important dramatis personae in the two 'pursuits' (i.e., Sophia behind Jones, and Squire Western after Sophia) to converge on the inn. Until this point in the narrative, Sophia is pursuing Tom. Once at Upton Inn, she comes to know of Tom's escapade with Mrs. Waters. She leaves in disappointment. From now on it is Tom who will pursue Sophia. The middle of the novel thus sees a reversal of roles in the hero and the heroine's actions. The scenes at Upton are very important for they are the culminating point after which the action moves towards its denouement. New characters who are introduced, are all relevant parts of the action of the story.

      There are other features, too, which contribute to the structural unity of the novel. It has been observed that the two digressions which critics assail as detracting from the perfection of the plot, are placed symmetrically before and after the structural middle of the novel. The Man of the Hill's story comes in Book VIII, and that of Mrs. Fitzpatrick, in Book XI. Tom's escapade in rural England with Molly Seagrim is symmetrically set off by his entanglement in urban England, i.e. in London, with Lady Bellaston. Sophia similarly, has to face the unwanted attentions of Blifil in the first section, of the novel, and those of Lord Fellamar in the later section. If we have a farce of a hidden lover behind curtains in Molly's bedroom, it is balanced by similar scenes in Tom's bedroom at Mrs. Miller's lodgings. Thus, even minor incidents show a certain order in their arrangement.

Unifying Factors in Tom Jones

      Several critics have interpreted variously the unifying factor of Tom Jones. Some consider the unifying factor to be the sustained concealment and final disclosure of Tom's parentage. Oliver Elton considers it to be pleasant to see Tom Jones as a puzzle and to see how well the plan works out. Other critics consider the unifying factor to be the love interest as embodied in the love affair of Tom and Sophia, or the conflict between young Blifil and Tom, and the quasi-picaresque sequence of Tom's adventures with women along the road. Yet none of these actions subsumes the others to assume an overall importance, though each of them is important in itself. R. S. Crane, however, discovers a distinctive whole in the novel. He considers the unifying idea as consisting, not in any mere combination of the different parts, but rather in the dynamic system of action, extending throughout the novel. It is through this system that divergent intentions and beliefs of a number of characters of different natures and states of knowledge are brought to co-operate with the assistance of Fortune in the exposition and denouement of the plot. These persons are, of course, somehow related to the neighboring families of the Allworthy's and the Westerns.

      Different persons assist Fortune in bringing about, firstly, an incomplete and precarious union, based upon an affinity of nature inspite of disparate status, between Tom and Allworthy on one hand, and between Tom and Sophia, on the other. The same combination of persons and Fortune, separates Tom as completely as possible from Allworthy and Sophia through actions which impel them, one after the other, to reverse their opinions of Tom's character. Then, just as he seems about to fulfill the old prophecy that 'he was born to be hanged' the combination of persons and Fortune restores them unexpectedly to him in a more entire and stable union of both affection and fortune than he has known before.

      The action begins with Bridget's plan to gain security for herself by passing off her illegitimate son, Tom, as a foundling. She does intend, however, to explain the true situation to her brother. But her intention of explanation does not get carried out because of her marriage to Captain Blifil. Young Blifil is born, and becomes a potential rival for Tom. Bridget's plan brings Jenny Jones and Partridge into the action, and both of them have to depart from the neighborhood.

      Tom has an instinctive love and respect for Squire Allworthy. It is the instinctive love of one good nature for another. While Tom’s affection for Allworthy is in no danger of being altered, that of the Squire for Tom does admit itself to change. Allworthy in capable of misjudging character, and hence, capable of passing an adverse judgment on Tom. There are plenty of opportunities for such misjudgments to occur. Tom's actions, though quixotic and well-intentioned, can be interpreted in a bad light. One such example is his attempt to cover Black George and help his family. Blifil sees to it that every such incident is used for blackening the character of Tom in Allworthy's eyes. Initially, these actions do hot cause much harm to Tom, but they give an indication of things to come.

      Tom and Sophia are attracted towards each other, once again, in an instinctive recognition of similar good natures. They are brought together through a series of incidents. Sophia recognizes the basic goodness in Tom, and loves him in spite of his affair with Molly. She thus proves to be a better judge of character than Squire Allworthy. But Squire Western does not like the idea of Tom and Sophia marrying, because of Tom's dubious parentage and his poor material prospects. Some event is thus required to change Tom's position as a poor foundling before he can attain his Sophia, since neither is willing to flout the authority of his or her guardian.

      The true nature of Tom's birth would have been revealed and have resolved the problem of unwilling guardians, if fortune had not favored Blifil. Bridget had told the whole story to Dowling, but her letter is intercepted by Blifil. Fielding now sets in motion a complex action, which begins with All worthy's illness and ends with his order to Tom to leave his estate. Sophia follows in order to escape a compulsory marriage with Blifil.

      Tom meets three persons on his way, one after the other, all of whom know something about his birth. From the first of these people, i.e., Partridge, Tom learns that he is not Partridge's son. He also meets Jenny Jones alias Mrs. Waters, and Dowling the lawyer, both of whom know fully well about Tom's parentage. But his meeting with these two characters does not immediately lead to a revelation. The incidents at Upton Inn increase the complications. Tom's gallantry to Mrs. Waters leads to an angry encounter with Mr. Fitzpatrick. He also misses Sophia who, on hearing about Tom's escapade, leaves the inn to go to London.

      Tom follows in the wake of Sophia, to go to London. His misfortunes are not, however, over. He is led into the disreputable affair with Lady Bellaston. In the process, he brings upon himself that good lady's anger. As a consequence, Lady Bellaston sets in motion new efforts to separate Sophia and Tom. Lord Fellamar's attempted rape of Sophia, is fortunately prevented by the timely arrival of Squire Western. Lady Bellaston further sends the letter, which Tom had sent her, to Sophia in order'to estrange her towards Tom. She also arranges to get Tom kidnapped by a press-gang. In the latter attempt, however, she fails.

      Fortune, ultimately, begins to smile upon Tom. Mrs. Miller speaks in his favorto Squire Allworthy as well as to Sophia. The persons who know about the reality of Tom's birth collect near Allworthy. The letter from Square decides in Tom's favor. Allworthy, at last, sees his own misjudgment of Tom's character. Step by step, Tom is cleared of the black character which he has been given. Blifil's rashness (and fortune's intervention) leads to the revelation. Jenny reveals her story to Allworthy. Dowling, too, adds his contribution on being questioned. At last, Bridget's intention of revealing every tiling, has been fulfilled. The union of Sophia and Tom is partly brought about by the intervention of Mrs. Miller, All worthy and Western, on behalf of Tom. But the determining factor is the meeting between Tom, who is now repentant of his escapades, and the forgiving Sophia.

      Thus there is an intricate scheme of probabilities, involving moral choices, mistaken judgements and accidents of fortune, which binds the many parts of the novel together - from the time Tom is found in Allworthy's bed until He achieves his double good fortune at the end of Book XVIII. Tom Jones is a complex novel teeming with incidents and characters. The unity of the whole is achieved solely by means of a severe subordination of all the multitudinous details to the central plan. In the long and elaborate history, there is hardly any detail which does not, in some way or other, help to carry forward the main action to its conclusion.

Incidents Interlinked and Interconnected; Add to the Unity

      The seemingly insignificant and trivial incident is made to contribute to the action of the novel. The structural unity is maintained by the repeated appearance of some objects and characters. Certain things seem, to happen most casually, as if they were just not intended to have any important part to play. Yet, each such detail has a necessary place in the chain of events which leads to the denouement. "There are many little circumstances", Fielding wrote, "too often omitted by injudicious historians, from which events of the utmost importance arise. The world may, indeed, be considered as a vast machine, in which the great wheels are originally set in motion by those which are very minute, and almost imperceptible to any but the strongest eyes." Of such importance are the hundred-pound bill which Sophia loses and the muff which she rescues from the fire.

      It is the hundred-pound bill which gives a clue to Tom about Sophia's whereabouts. It later gives him a plausible reason for meeting Sophia at Lady Bellaston’s place. When Sophia rescues the muff from the fire, Tom gets an indication of her love for him. The muff is left by Sophia at the Upton Inn in order to make Tom realize his folly and give an impetus to follow Sophia. The chance encounter with Ensign Northerton and the subsequent quarrel is not without significance. Tom, later, rescues Mrs. Waters from the hands of Northerton. Tom is involved in an encounter with a highwayman, who later turns out to be a relative of Mrs. Miller in needy circumstances.

Characters and Development of Plot: Harmony and Inter-relationship

      Fielding shows skill in his management of characters and in linking their importance to the development of plot. Characters are not introduced for their own sake, as they often are in Dickens, for instance, because of sheer entertainment value. Most of Fielding's characters have a relevant part in the structure of the story. He did not let his attention be distracted from the main theme in the creation of some original and striking figures. Almost all of his characters are made subservient to the main theme of the novel. There is a good correspondence between character and plot or action. The characters are not there merely to provide interesting entertainment, but they contribute to the furthering of the plot.

      The first part of the novel ends with the expulsion of Tom by Allworthy and this is caused by Allworthy's misplaced confidence in his capability to judge. It is helped by Tom's happy drunkenness and indiscretions with Molly, which is misinterpreted by Allworthy.

      In the middle portion of the novel, Tom's entanglement with Mrs. Waters brings about a whole series of fresh complications in his relations with Sophia. In the last part of the novel, we have a similar complication arising from Tom's involvement with Lady Bellaston. Squire Western s rigid adherence to well-established social values give rise to Sophia's decision to escape from the house. Blifil's utter self-centredness and jealousy first act to bring about the downfall of Tom. In the end, they serve to resolve the issues.

      The characters are never introduced as mere comic appendages. Each has its own role to play—from Aunt Western, whose political ideas come just in time to prevent Squire Western from tyrannizing over his daughter and allow the girl to escape, to Mrs. Honour, the waiting-woman of comedy, whose very defects make her invaluable to the lovers. Indeed, the way in which things are arranged, has led some critics to feel that it is all done too carefully. None of Tom's good deeds goes unrewarded: Tom did well by the highwayman, and Mrs. Miller and Mr. Nightingale, All these persons, in her turn, help Tom. The book is a large organism, whose various parts are closely inter-connected, just as Aristotle stipulated the plot of a drama should be. Each character plays the role assigned to him, and helps in the general progress of the whole.

Movement of Plot in Tom Jones like that of Comedy

      The movement of plot in Tom Jones, follows the curve characteristic of comedy plots. It takes the protagonist from low fortune to high fortune. ]om comes on the scene as a bastard. His very earliest activities enforce the universal opinion that he was certainly born to be hanged. His reputation and his hopes are progressively blackened until he reaches the nadir or lowest position in London - 'kept' by Lady Bellaston, then accused of murder and thrown in jail, and finally-as if anything could still be added in the way of blackening, presumptively guilty of incest with his mother. But the nadir of his fortune also marks its reversal or crisis. As Blifil's malicious machinations are exposed, so is Tom's true goodness; and his fortune sails to its zenith of romantic happiness. Tom is proved to be of high birth. He marries the girl of his choice, and he inherits wealth. This is the general plot-curve, or as Dorothy Van Ghent observes, the 'concave of comic drama'.
Unity Through Moral Vision of the Author
The novel gains in unity through Fielding's moral vision, which governs the whole movement and design. The subject is human nature and his purpose is three-fold. He wanted to expose the ugliness of vice and the beauty of virtue, and wanted to convince men that they should follow the path of virtue and keep clear of vice. He also wanted to show the readers that virtue should be tempered by discretion. Fielding's purpose is realized as the action of the novel is developed.

The Comic Style: Most Appropriate to Subject

      Fielding was writing what he called a 'comic epic in prose'. The style of Tom Jones is consistently comic, satirical, and especially ironical. The light, gay and humorously ironical style, is most appropriate to his purpose. It keeps the reader at a suitably detached distance so that he does not get involved with the characters. He enables the readers to laugh without rancor at their own follies, which they cannot but recognize in the various characters. The style helps to point out the follies, but does not condemn. Thus it gives rise to reflection rather than bitter condemnation.

Blemishes or Shortcomings in the Plot-construction

      Tom Jones has been too highly praised by some critics, Coleridge among them, for its perfection of plot-construction. However, recent critics are not so blindly enthusiastic. They appreciate the rigorous construction of the novel, but they are not prepared to ignore possible shortcomings, which are as follows:

      (I) Digressions. Modern critics are not very sympathetic towards the two major digressions in the novel—the Man of the Hill's story and Mrs. Fitzpatrick's account. It has been pointed out that even these are given symmetrical places by Fielding, in chapters VIII and XI which come just before and after the middle of the book. Apart from such a symmetrical placing, however, modern critics fail to see much relevance in these digressions to the movement of the story. Some explanation is, indeed, offered for these digressions. The story of the Man of the Hill offers a contrast to Tom and helps to emphasize the sanity of Tom's view of life. Tom has been as much wronged by others as the Man of the Hill. But Tom presents a healthy attitude in that he faces life, while the Man of the Hill retires from it. Mrs. Fitzpatrick's account warns Sophia of the dangers of displaced attachment and run-away marriages. Further, Fielding was avowedly writing a comic 'epic' in prose, and hence entitled to a few digressions, if they were overtly related to the main theme. The two major digressions in Tom Jones may not be justifiable to a great extent in the artistic context, but excuses can be found for them.

      The minor digressions such as Tom's watching the puppet show and his meeting with the gypsies, however, have no excuse, artistic or otherwise. Nor is much use served by his watching the performance of Hamlet in London. Except for the fact that the gypsy law has some moral relevance in the context of the novel and that Partridge's remarks in the course of the performance of Hamlet cause much fun, these digressions cannot be justified and Fielding could have done without them.

      (II) Too Many Neat Coincidences and Chance Appearances. Tom Jones involves coincidences. Indeed, some of them are too neat to be easily credible. Chance appearances and meetings are closely involved with the pattern of coincidences in the novel. The assemblage of the various personages at the Upton Inn, just missing one another, seems difficult to accept. But then, as one critic has pointed out, such meetings would not be exactly unlikely, because people running after one another would naturally tend to reach the same place. In the eighteenth century, with fewer travelers on the road, it would have been easier to follow them from inn to inn. It is not easy, however, to believe all the chance happenings which help or retard the hero's progress. Tom comes across the beggar woman who had picked up Sophia's pocket-book, and then meets the merry gentleman who has seen her go by. In the alehouse, he comes across the very guide who had directed her to Marsden. Squire Western makes a timely appearance to rescue Sophia from the unwanted attentions of Lord Fellamar. Fielding tries to give plausible reasons for this, but we cannot accept the happening so easily. None of the coincidences are impossible, but they seem improbable. And, as Aristotle said, probable impossibilities are more acceptable than improbable possibilities in art.

      (III) Ending somewhat Abrupt. The ending of the story is somewhat hurried and abrupt. Quite a few incidents are brought together in a huddle, in the last Books. And Fielding seems to have been cognizant of the fact himself when he tells the reader:

When thou has perused the many great events which this Book will produce, thou wilt think the number of pages contained in it scarce sufficient to tell the story. (Book XVIII)

      The narrative is rather compressed and confusedly put together in the last pages. Though there are no loose ends left, nothing left unaccounted for or undetermined; though the appropriate rewards and punishments have been doled out to the various characters, it is all done in a hurried manner.


      Blemishes notwithstanding, Tom Jones remains one of the masterpieces of architectural construction of plot The masterly skill with which the suspense of Tom's real birth is kept up, is remarkable. Yet, all preceding details before the disclosure are consistent with and even suggestive of the correct conclusion. The plot of Tom Jones, then, is well-constructed, as far as possible in keeping with limits of probability. It is unified, complete and, if not as perfect as Coleridge's praise seems to indicate, good enough to be called a plot of rigorous construction. Fielding was quite a successful artist as far as plot-construction is concerned.

      Critics have generally appreciated Fielding's skill at plot construction. Arnold Kettle, though, feels that "in Tom Jones, there is too much plot." He goes on to observe "Scenes take place which do not arise inevitably from character and motive." But most other critics call the plot of Tom Jones, excellent. Says Wilbtir L. Cross, "To take thus the most interesting experiences of a lifetime and adjust them, without the perversion of their essential truth to the requirements of a rather intricate plot, was an artistic triumph of the first order. No one had ever done that before in a novel." Edwin Muir calls the plot of Tom Jones "an adroitly constructed framework for a picture of life, rather than an unfolding action."


What narrative devices does Fielding employ to unify the wide variety of characters and incidents in Tom Jones and with what success? Give a reasoned answer.
Can you justify Coleridge's enthusiasm of Tom Jones as one of the three most perfect plots ever planned?
Write a note on the plot-architecture in Fielding with special reference to Tom Jones.
Give a critical appreciation of the plot of Tom Jones.
Comment on the unity and completeness of the plot of Tom Jones.
What is meant by the 'architectural qualities' of Tom Jones? Discuss.
"No plot has ever been carried through with more consummate skill" said Walter Allen with regard to Tom Jones. Consider how far this point of view is acceptable.

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