Plot Structure of The Novel Tom Jones

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      Introduction. It has been widely acknowledged that the plot of Tom Jones is remarkable in the structural skill which it shows. Coleridge called it one of three most perfect plots ever planned, the other two being the Oedipus Tyranus and The Alchemist. Many critics have praised the "architectonic" skill of Fielding, and the "architectural qualities" of his novel. However, a discordant note is struck by one critic, who declares: "The conventional talk about the perfect construction of Tom Jones is absurd." This statement is in direct contradiction of the view that "the plot of Tom Jones in its unity and completeness, is nearly as perfect a plot as can be." Which of these statements is true of Tom Jones? Let us consider the various aspects of the issue, i.e. how far Tom Jones has unity of plot.

      Organic Plot. The plot of Tom Jones is found to be an organic whole. Its parts are well related to one another. As R.S. Crane stipulates, a dynamic system of actions extends throughout the novel. Divergent beliefs and intentions of different characters are made to cooperate with the distance of fortune, to bring Tom into a precarious and incomplete union, founded upon an affinity of nature in spite of disparity of status, with Allworthy and Sophia. The same combination separates Tom as completely as possible from Sophia and Allworthy, and finally brings all together in a more stable and complete union of affection and fortune than Tom has ever known before. The episodes are well-knit and Fielding is always in complete control over his material. His moral vision also governs the whole movement of the novel.

      Symmetry in Structure. The arrangement of the Books and chapters in Tom Jones shows Fielding's sense of symmetry. The eighteen Books lend themselves to a clear-cut division into three parts. The first deals with Tom's life in the countryside; the second with the highways; and the third with life in London. The comic climax falls in the exact centre of the novel, the Upton Inn chapters in Books IX and X. It is at this juncture that Jenny Jones, alias Mrs. Waters, is re-introduced into the scheme of the novel. She is the character who is concerned with both concealment and revelation of the true parentage of Tom. It is also at this point that Tom and Sophia exchange their roles. Untill the situation in Upton Inn, Sophia has been coming after Tom. From now on, it will be Tom who will follow Sophia. The symmetry of the placement of the two major digressions in the novel has also been noted. The account of the Man of the Hill occurs in Book VIII, while that of Mrs. Fitzpatrick comes in Book XI.

      Other Factors Leading to Structural Unity. There are other factors which lend support to the fact that Tom Jones is a carefully constructed novel. Tom's rural involvement with Molly Seagrim is paralleled by his urban interlude with Lady Bellaston. The scene in Molly's bedroom finds its counterpart in the scene in Tom's bedroom in London. The encounter between Sophia and Blifil is matched by the encounter between Sophia and Lord Fellamar.

      The characters too, are contrasted and balanced. Such clear-cut contrasts are obvious in Tom and Blifil, Squires Allworthy and Western, Sophia and Molly, and again, Sophia and Mrs. Fitzpatrick, or Sophia and Lady Bellaston. Thwackum and Square offer their own contrasts.

      There is yet another factor which leads to the sense of structural unity. We see the repeated appearance of certain objects and persons. The hundred-pound bill which was lost by Sophia helps Tom in following her. Later, it gives him an excuse for visiting her at the residence of Lady Bellaston. Sophia's muff, similarly, plays an important role. It first shows Tom that Sophia loved him. Its presence in Upton Inn serves to remind him of his sexual indiscretion. The different characters, such as Dowling, Jenny Jones, Ensign Northerton, and Anderson, keep coming across Tom. All this helps the novel to attain a structural unity. Each character and most of the incidents have their own place in the novel.

      Digressions: Major Drawback in Tom Jones. Tom Jones has remarkable architectural qualities; the symmetry of the arrangement of incidents and the presentation of characters shows this. But one cannot call the plot perfect'; it becomes necessary to tone down Coleridge's enthusiastic praise for it, The two major digressions are not very acceptable to modern critics, though there have been attempts to justify them. They are not completely irrelevant, though they do not further the narrative in any way. The contrast between the attitudes of the Man of the Hill and Tom, is brought out by the story of the Man of the Hill. The injustice meted out by the world has made a recluse out of the Man of the Hill, while similar injustice has made Tom take it up as a challenge. Tom does not withdraw from involvement in life. Mrs. Fitzpatrick's story does have facts which ultimately relate to the novel. Furthermore, these digressions are in the style of epic convention, and Fielding was writing a 'comic epic in prose'.

      The minor digressions, however, cannot be excused with justification. They are, in no way, relevant to the action—nor are they interesting in themselves.

      Coincidences are Too Timely. Fielding does not actually violate the rules of probability and possibility in Tom Jones. Some of the coincidences, however, are too pat and timely to be fully convincing. The coincidences are really 'too happy', as one critic puts it. The most striking of these is the arrival of Squire Western on the scene to rescue Sophia from being raped by Lord Fellamar. The ending of the book is also slightly huddled and hasty. An incident which seems almost to be contrived is that of Mrs. Arabella Hunt's proposal to Tom. The plump young widow of a rich old Turkey merchant is rather abruptly brought on the scene. The intention is obviously to show that Tom has, indeed, gained the ability to control his sexual laxity, and to prove to Sophia that his devotion to her is total. But it is a clumsy and contrived incident in the novel.

      Conclusion. Tom Jones is not without flaws; hence, it cannot be called perfect in plot construction. But the flaws are not such that they can detract much from the sense of architectural skill we get from the novel. Fielding has tight control over his plot, which is very complicated. It would be difficult to find a plot which has been carried through with more consummate skill. It is only after we have read the book that we realise how most of the trivial incidents and details have their place in the general scheme of the novel. What seems, at first glance, a happy stroke of invention, reveals itself as part of the essential structure of the book, without which the whole could not exist Fielding was, indeeduis superb a craftsman in his own way as Henry James. Thus we can agree with the statement that "the plot of Tom Jones, in its unity and completeness, is nearly as perfect a plot as can be." It goes against the evidence offered by the novel to say that "the conventional talk about the perfect construction of Tom Jones, is absurd".

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