Tom Jones: A Picaresque Novel

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Introduction: What is a 'Picaresque'?

      The term "Picaresque" is derived from the Spanish word "picaro" which means a rogue. The term was originally applied to a class of romances that dealt with rogues and knaves. The earliest important examples are Lezantle de Tonnes and Guzinan de Alfarache. Gil Blas is the most famous picaresque novel in French. As Edwin Muir points out "In the eighteenth century the novel had not yet freed itself from the trammels of the story centred on a single figure who had always to be present, and though characterization was then considered the main thing, the narrator remained on the centre of the stage. Perhaps he doubted the capacity of his characters to hold the reader's interest and felt that an exciting story, containing adventures, was necessary. In any case, a tale centred on a hero had to be kept going, and at the same time, a number of characters had to be given an excuse for appearing. So we have the hard worked travelling hero, passing from inn into inn, now in the country, now in London, knocking at the doors of the great, meeting with rogues and thieves, languishing in prison or on board ship, suffering every vicissitude—good and bad and enduring them all not because the novelist has any tender regard for his hero's sufferings or fortunes, but because he is arid of variety, and is determined to get a pass to as great a number of contrasting scenes as he can."

      The object of the picaresque novel, then, is to take a central figure through a succession of scenes, introduce a great number of characters, and thus build up a picture of society. This is exactly the pattern which the story of Tom Jones follows. The hero is taken through a succession of scenes and situations, and has a number of adventures on the roads and inside inns. He meets persons of different types and tempers. In this way, a picture of society is gradually built up. The novel which follows this design is known as the picaresque novel.

Advantages of the 'Picaresque' Method

      A novelist gained some advantages through the use of the picaresque" mode of writing. It did not demand a well-organised or closely-knit plot, though Fielding refused to make use of this advantage. The mode also gave an author an opportunity to introduce a wide range of characters and incidents. Tom, for instance, had adventures in the countryside, on the road to London, and in London itself. He meets thieves and rogues, rescues damsels in distress, falls in love, fights duels, gets arrested and imprisoned, gets cheated by seemingly innocent people and helped by apparent scoundrels. He encounters members of the lowest rungs of society as well as the highest echelons. The picaresque mode, furthermore, offers a writer the chance to present the life and culture of his age. It gives him an ideal chance to criticise and satirise the evils of his age and its customs.

Traits of Picaresque Novel in Tom Jones

      We cannot call Tom Jones a regular picaresque novel. But it is written after the manner of a picaresque novel, and possesses some characteristics. Its hero is, however, not a rogue. But, the essential feature of the picaresque novel is the travel and adventures of the hero. Like the hero of the picaresque novel, Tom Jones undertakes a journey, and meets with a succession of adventures on the way to his destination.

      The story of Tom Jones follows the pattern of the "picaresque" novel. Tom Jones, the hero of the novel, is a foundling, mysteriously discovered one night in the bed of the wealthy, virtuous and benevolent Mr. Allworthy. The kind Squire brings him up and educates him. But Tom incurs the wrath of his benefactor with the result that he is turned out of his house. Now begin the travels of Tom Jones. Accompanied by a schoolmaster, Partridge, he sets out for London. It is easy to see in Partridge a parallel to Sancho Panza, the travelling companion to Don Quixote, in Cervantes's picaresque novel. Fielding also sends his heroine, with a suitable lady companion, on adventures along the highway. On the way, Tom meets with a number of adventures, some of which are amorous in nature. He goes from place to place, stopping at numerous inns on the way. He joins the army as a volunteer but, being seriously wounded in a fray, cannot accompany the soldiers with whom he wants to go. He meets several strange persons, one of whom is the Man of the Hill, who wilfully leads a lonely life. He rescues the old man from being attacked by two ruffians. The next morning, he saves Mrs. Waters from being killed by Ensign Northerton. After the boisterous scenes in Upton Inn, Tom and Partridge are again on the road. They now meet beggars, highwaymen, and finally fall among gipsies in whose camp they spend a night. Finally, they reach London. But Tom's adventures do not come to an end there. He meets Lady Bellaston, a lustful woman who for some time, supports him in London. Misfortune, however, persistently dogs his heels, and he is imprisoned in London. In this way, the story of Tom Jones is a long string of adventures in different scenes and situations.

      If Tom Jones is studied, we find that the hero is sent on travels by which device he comes across hosts of characters of diverse types and temperaments. The travelling hero meets persons pursuing different occupations and belonging to different social strata. Besides, he has a long succession of adventures most of which befall him on the roads and inside the inn. Now, a novel in which the hero is sent on travels for the sake of adventures, and in which he passes through different scenes and meets different sorts of persons is called a "picaresque" novel. We can say that Tom Jones has several traits of the picaresque novel.

Criticism of the Age through the Picaresque Mode

      The "picaresque" novel offers a criticism of the age whose picture it presents. Cervantes, in his great picaresque novel, Don Quixote, gives a smashing blow to the tradition of chivalry. He ridicules knight-errantry by making his hero, Don Quixote, charge wind mills. The novels of Fielding too, offer a criticism of his age and society. In Joseph Andrews for instance, Fielding ridicules the ways of a corrupt society. The laws of that society are meant to oppress the poor. Its lawyers are selfish and egocentric. Its priests are worldly-minded. Its aristocracy is dishonest and lustful. A similar satirical picture of a corrupt society is presented in Tom Jones. Tom is a good man, and yet he suffers, for he falls a victim to deceit and treachery, cruelty and revenge. The "picaresque" novel is not purely a novel of adventures. It has an innate moral, or satirical purpose. It exposes the vice and corruption inherent in a society. It ridicules its folly and frivolity. If its purpose is wider and universal, as in Tom Jones, it ridicules folly, vice and weakness of mankind in general. Characters like Square and Thwackum, Bridget Allworthy, Captain Blifil and young Blifil, Mrs. Honour and Lady Bellaston are epitomes of hypocrisy and dishonesty and Fielding exposes them in the novel.


      Tom Jones has several traits of the picaresque novel, yet in one essential it differs greatly from the picaresque tradition. Unlike the picaresque novel, Tom Jones has a coherent, well-knit and well-planned plot. It further shows a harmony between character and incidents.


Would you consider Tom Jones as a picaresque novel? Give reasons for your answer.
"The object of the picaresque novel is to take a central figure through a succession of scenes, introduce a great number of characters, and thus build up a picture of society" Discuss Tom Jones in the light of this statement.
Discuss the development of the picaresque novel and consider whether Tom Jones belongs to this genre of literature.
To what extent is it correct to call Tom Jones a picaresque novel? Does it, in any way, differ from picaresque genre? Discuss in detail.

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