Realism in The Novel Tom Jones

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      Realism is an attempt to present in literature a truthful impression about life, both in its tangible form and in the mental processes of the human beings. Realism precludes any kind of distortion or idealization and sentimentalism. Actual observation and experience are the basis of the realist's art. A realistic writer brings a dispassionate and objective mind to his work.

      Fielding is called the father of the realistic novel in England. It was as a reaction against the sentimentality of Richardson's Pamela that he started his campaign for realism in novels. The extravagant sentimentality of Richardson occurred to him as a fit subject for burlesque and, therefore, he promptly began the story of Joseph Andrews, Pamela's similarly tempted and equally immune brother.

      As a novelist, Fielding is essentially a realist. He was the first Englishman to understand that the job of a novelist was to tell the truth about life as he saw it, and he told it in his own way. In The Adventures of Joseph Andrews, he writes:

      Are not the characters then taken from life? To which I answer in the affirmative; nay, I believe I might aver that I have written little more than I have seen.

At another place he writes:

      Everything is copied from the book of nature, and scarce a character or action produced which I have not taken from my own observations and experience.

      In Tom Jones also points out that his aim is to show life as it is. He says:

      The provision which we have here made is Human Nature.

      Fielding is thus a great realist and, as he himself has said, he has written little more than he has seen.

Close Observation and Experience: Basis of Realism

      Fielding's keen observation and wide experience of life are evident in his novel. The value he attached to experience is shown in the following lines from Tom Jones:

......Experience, long conversant with the wise' the good, the learned, and the polite. Nor with them only, but with every kind of character, from the minister at his levee, to the bailiff in his sponging-house; from the duchess at her drum, to the landlady behind her bar. From thee only can the manners of mankind be known; to which the recluse pedant, however great his part or extensive his learning may be, hath ever been a stranger.

      Fielding has shown, more than any other writer, his all embracing observation of the world around him. He gives us a more vivid picture of the life of his day than what we could get from thousands of memoirs and collections of letters. Richard Church has aptly commented: "The importance of Fielding, from a historical point of view, is that he is the first writer to focus the novel in such a way that it brought the whole world as we see it within the scope of this now rapidly maturing literary form."

      Fielding observes the whole reality, shutting his eyes to no part of it. He then selects a few characteristics which he considers the most expressive. But before making his choice, he has looked at everything, and we feel it. This places him at the very antipodes of Richardson, who sees only one half of the moral realities and is not even curious about the other half. A detailed study of his four novels will show the meticulous perfection with which he collects the most significant material details. The whole of contemporary England lives in them with an accuracy of information which we can control by historical documents or memories.

Creation and Judgement: Intellectual Realism

      Fielding has tried to combine the act of creation and the act of judgment. He has practiced a method of dramatic analysis and anticipated Meredith in this respect. Like a historian, Fielding undertakes to interpret and usually to make his own comments upon the matter in hand. He thus gives an intellectual account or interpretation of facts of life, i.e. an ordered version of life in general rendering intelligible that which was confused and obscure. Baker has, therefore, called Fielding's realism as 'Intellectual Realism' and Aurelien Digeon has given to it the name of 'Psychological Realism.' Fielding's intellectual realism scrutinizes the actualities of life and presents a general likeness in which everything is made coherent and the whole can be understood.

Realism and Inner Self

      Fielding's realism attempts to depict things as they are seen—not forgetting to take note of the hidden movements of the natural being in the reality of the inner self. Giving sentiment its right place and integrating it in an organic series of tendencies, each contributes to a mutual balance. Fielding s realism "unites the most common desires of the new society in England; the taste for the concrete, the need to see it without illusion in order not to feel any surprise or disappointment when acting upon it and co-operating with it; the resolution not to sacrifice the several elements of the human being one to another, and to know at times how to feel a soft emotion, when it is useful that the soul should be softened". As Richard Church says:

      "Here, finally, is realism at its truest and most significant; not the coldblooded realism of Defoe, nor that multiplication of it which was to overload so much of the fiction of the nineteenth century. Utter honesty of soul; that is the quality which sums up the genius of Henry Fielding."

Realistic Portrayal of Contemporary Society

      Fielding remains unsurpassed today in the realist's portrayal of the contemporary society. He gives a vivid presentation of the habits, customs, the actions and pursuits, the scenes and conditions of his time. "His work was," remarks Walter Allen, "the most powerful expression of that social conscience of the age." His canvas is wide, and the view of society presented in his Tom Jones is panoramic.

Picture of Poverty and Luxury in Tom Jones

      True to his promise, he shows us the whole of life as he saw it, in its extremes of poverty and luxury—from Molly Seagrim to Lady Bellaston; its extremes of folly and wisdom-from Partridge to Allworthy; its extremes of meanness and generosity—from Blifil to Tom Jones. And every character in the book has been thought out, not merely adumbrated. Fielding has used to the full his opportunities of exercising his enormous interest in men and women. His wide experience had brought him into contact with nearly all kinds in nearly all circumstances. Fielding has thus drawn men as he knew them. That is why in every incident throughout the crowded story, and in every character throughout the wonderful array of personages high and low, the force of his own knowledge and conviction may be felt.

Psychological Realism in Tom Jones

      Most of the incidents are something more than a momentary amusement. They are philosophical and thoughtful. At the bottom of each is a realism even more penetrating than the realism of material detail, a psychological realism, which laughs to see fine theories shattered by the vulgar truth of daily life. The essential thing about Fielding is his effort to plumb deep and reach the truth. He wants us to see deep into the matter and not merely to stop at the moral or immoral appearance of an action, for he suggests that the prudish Pamela may be an artful little minx, the virtuous Blifil a rogue, and Square, the moralist, a great hypocrite. He says "Go deeper than words and judge deeds; go deeper than deeds and judge intentions, which are the immediate expression of the soul: go deeper even than 'conscious intentions'." Whoever has made an impartial self-analysis knows how difficult it is to recognize, even in himself, the actual beneath the apparent motives for an action. Like Bernard Shaw, Fielding; stands for the 'real' or 'essential' reality behind the apparent reality.

Fielding's Translation and Distillation of His Experiences in Tom Jones

      Also, in imagining real life, he was not content merely to produce a literal copy of it—to transcribe precisely; in the style of a careful newspaper reporter, what he has actually seen and heard and known. It is true that, in his fiction, he kept, for the most part, within the bounds of his own personal experience. "I believe I might aver that I have said little more than I have seen'', he once, declared. (Joseph Andrews) But though he put into his books what he had himself observed, he did not put it in the exact form in which he himself observed it. He translated his experiences; he did not merely record them. All the items were passed through the alembic of art, and redistilled into new compositions.

Realism and Characterization: Universal Truths of Human Personality in Tom Jones

      Fielding's realism is seen at its best in his characterization and vivid dialogues. There are very few English novelists who have the same unfailing gift of breathing life into every character they create or borrow as Fielding has. All of his characters are alive and kicking. They are life-like because they are drawrn from life and by his own observation of contemporary reality. As he himself says:

"Are not the characters then taken from life? To which I answer in the affirmative".

      Fielding's realism was not of that inferior kind which concerns itself only or chiefly with the faithful representation of the surface of life. He did indeed picture that surface convincingly and brilliantly; but lie was also intent on bringing to light what lay beneath. In his delineation of reality, he exercised that "power of the mind" which he called 'Invention', and defined as a quick and sagacious penetration into the true essence of all the objects of our contemplation. (Tom Jones IX-i). Thus he endeavored always to exhibit, not merely the particular action, but also the general law or principle which it exemplified; not merely the individual person, but, also the universal truths of human personality. Thanks to his faculty of penetrating through the superficial to the essential, he was able, while he depicted with remarkable fidelity the real life of his own time, to display simultaneously real life as it is lived in all ages.

Veracious Picture of Real Human World in Tom Jones

      In Tom Jones, we are given a strictly veracious picture of that real human world which Fielding had so diligently observed and studied. That was the primary thing. He had no use for fanciful idealizations. He did not desire to describe the world as it ought to be, or as he should have liked it to be; he wished to describe it simply as it was. In other words, he endeavored to reproduce Human Nature as closely and accurately as he was able; nor did he consciously allow himself to tamper with the material which Nature supplied. Thus, he did not attempt, like the Victorians, to gloss over what was hideous and disgusting. Nor did he, as Hogarth was inclined to do, omit what was delightful from his picture. He did not heighten the lights or deepen the shadows. He just drew that he saw, and the whole of what he saw, with perfect honesty and candor. "Truth to Nature" was his watchword.

Fielding Cherished Ideals while Portraying the 18th Century Social World in Tom Jones

      Mrs. Calderwood's description of English roads as given in her 'Journal' written in 1756, i.e. two years after Fielding's death, confirms word for word the one in Tom Jones. It is always so with Fielding. He takes everything from life; for his main 'sources' one would have to go to report of news in the gazettes of his times. Louis Cazamain has justly remarked:

"Town manners, the pleasures and amusements of the capital, country society organized around the squire and where the Vicar occupies, for a time, a singularly less dignified place, stagecoaches, inns, and the incidents of the road, the underworld of vice and crime, have here left traces sufficiently accurate in themselves to be of use to the historian"

      There is poverty and squalor alongside wealth and magnificence. Fielding shows accuracy and veracity in his presentation of the dangerous conditions of the highways on which the travelers felt unsafe, where it was all too easy to be waylaid by robbers. He shows the inadequate educational system, the poor knowledge of medical practitioners of his day, the corruption and rigidity of the legal men and system, and the frivolity and folly of the fashionable society in London.

      The complete picture of society in England emerges in a striking manner. The country squires, innkeepers, gypsies, highwaymen, the barber-surgeons, stage-coach traveling, the boisterous and rowdy behavior in inns and taverns, the dramatic shows; puppet shows, masquerades and dances and duels of honor, all come alive in the pages of Tom Jones.

      Fielding was not merely a portrayer of the life of his time; he was also a critic of that life. While the pictured realistically the eighteenth-century social world, it is evident, though, both from his manner of handling his materials and from his comments thereon, that he had constantly in mind the vision of a better and happier state of existence than that which he so accurately described. His aim was, by showing men and women what they actually were, to shame them into an endeavor to become what they might be, but actually were not.

      Fielding exposes the vanity, the hypocrisy, the malice, greed and affectation of the people in his portraiture. He makes it clear enough that such qualities are to be discarded and not followed. It implies the ideals which he wanted his countrymen to hold and cherish. If he portrayed the rowdy and boisterous behavior at Upton Inn, it was to indicate to his readers that a better situation and condition could be made to prevail through their efforts. There is no doubt about where Fielding's sympathies lie. He wants to advocate the essential goodness of the heart in combination with discretion and prudence, which Tom, we are told, has managed to achieve. He appreciates the novel aspects of life. If he depicts malice and evil, he does so with the intention of exposing their ugliness. He does it all with a tolerant air of humor; he never rages and rants with hatred and bitterness.

Fielding's Knowledge of Human Life in Tom Jones

      Fielding's knowledge of human life and his sympathy for human virtues and vices were so wide that there is hardly any type of human life which has not been depicted realistically by him. In Tom Jones, he says:

We shall represent human nature at first to the keen appetite of your reader, in that more plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragoo it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford.

      Allworthy is as gullible as he is benevolent and generous, while Squire Western is at once a despotic and an indulgent father. Tom is not perfect. All the warmth of heart and generosity and chivalry cannot really excuse his sexual vulnerability. Though we do not gain psychological insight into each individual character's mind, we are, all the time, aware of Fielding's own psychological perception. He presents the psychology of human nature in general, if not the psychological working of one particular human being in certain situations. We note the pertinent remark made by Saintsbury in this connection. He says that Fielding's characters are "real people who do real things in a real way now as they did nearly two hundred years ago; however much dress, and speech, and manners may have changed. And we are told of their doing in a real way too."

An Illusion of Reality

      Fielding's realism is thus no less an advance. It is not laborious and minute, but it is sufficient. He does not, like Defoe, "protest too much" for his object is to create an illusion of reality and not a belief in fact. Commenting on his realism, Harold Child remarks "Reference has been made to his (Fielding's) realism; and if by a realist is meant an artist conscientiously determined to express life exactly as he sees it, then Fielding was one. But if a realist is one to whom all the facts of life and character, all aims and emotions are of equal value, Fielding cannot be called by that name.

Fielding's Concern with the Probability of Incidents: An Aspect of His Realism

      Fielding was the first writer to give a coherent design to his work of fiction. Incidents do not follow one another haphazardly in a disjointed manner. There is unity of vision and plot in Tom Jones. In many earlier works, imagination was not controlled. As a result, the most fantastic incidents were depicted with no concern for their probability. Fielding, on the other hand, is always concerned with the probability of events. Even though Tom Jones has several coincidences, they are ultimately made to seem probable. This is a hallmark of the realistic author. And the characters, within the structure, seem to act in accordance with their natures. Thus the actions seem to spring from their natures.

      The probability of character and event is well illustrated by the scene at Upton Inn. The chief actors in the scene are Tom, Mrs. Waters, Partridge, Fitzpatrick, Sophia and Western. All that happens in the inn seems probable in the light of what we know of the nature of each of the characters. If Tom and Mrs. Waters indulge in some love-making, it is not out of character. We know that Tom is vulnerable to women and that Mrs. Waters is a flirtatious woman of easy virtue. If Fitzpatrick breaks into Mrs. Waters's room and picks a quarrel with Tom, it is in keeping with his volatile and rash temperament. Partridge's garrulity and irresponsibility is shown in his behavior. Sophia's behavior is in accordance with her sensitive nature. Squire Western's action is also in accordance with his uncontrollable and violent nature. There is thus a correspondence between realism of characterization and realism in presentation of incidents throughout Torn Jones.


      It is not only as a guide to the human heart that Fielding excels; he is an admirable imitator of his own times. The pictures of the eighteenth-century life in Tom Jones have a stereoscopic quality; they stand out from the page. As an example of the social history of his day, Tom Jones is unequaled; the touches of color are applied with beautiful precision; the weather, the noises of an inn-yard, the chatter of a drawing-room, the feel of a dress, the taste of beef, the creaking of a coach-spring—all the events of daily life become glowing and personal as soon as Fielding's eye or ear have noticed them. What Fielding had seen was not a limited and superficial view of the life of his own day. He had caught, within his preview, the soul of a generation, in all its fullness and its depths. His acquaintance with life was fully as wide as Defoe's while his insight was keener and deeper. It was the catholicity and realistic observation of Fielding that Richardson censored when he made it a reproach to Fielding that his "brawls, his bars, his goals, his sponging houses, are all drawn from what he has seen and known." The great rival of Fielding did not know that his reproach was a real tribute to the realistic genius of Fielding.


1. Write a note on the realistic aspects of Fielding's art as a novelist with reference to Tom Jones.
2. Discuss Fielding as an artist in realistic fiction.
3. Write a note on Fielding's realism.
4. "Real common life is the material of Tom Jones but it is handled with the freedom and imagination of an artist." Discuss this statement.

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