Critical Appreciation of the Novel Tom Jones

Also Read

      Introduction. "Tom Jones" is, at once, new and old. Tom ones belongs to what Fielding called a new province of writing the comic epic poem in prose. Fielding was, however, also guided by tradition and some critical formulations. Thus in Tom Jones we have a blend of novelty with tradition in all its aspects —plot, theme, characterization and style. Tradition is in close contact with social fact; human nature is truly depicted through an original comic genius — the picaresque tradition combined with an intelligent control of material. In characterisation, too, there is something new—especially in the hero and heroine, both of whom are likable: because they are "human".

      Comic Epic Poem in Prose. The term describes Tom Jones fairly well. An epic, we note, is not an invention of purely original matter; it involves interpreting an existing story, basing it on a broad level of national consciousness. Tom Jones certainly has a large scale of presentation as well as a wide range of characterization. The novel opens on a wide scene and encompasses a large span of time in epic tradition.

      Characterization: Traditional Transformed into Novelty. The epical range of characterization is closely woven into the texture of the heroic historic prosaic poem" of Tom Jones. Each character embodies the seeds of traditional standard types; at the same time, each vibrates with the new vitality of a fresh observation. Restoration Comedy supplies the sycophantic chaplain (Parson Supple) and the irascible hunting squire (Squire Western). Moliere supplied the prototype of the doctors whom Fielding satirises. Stock figures of traditional comedy appear in Tom Jones - Mrs. Western is the learned lady, there are insolent chambermaids and porters, pedantic doctors and lawyers and rascally justices of peace. The names, too, suggest the traditional "comedy of humours" technique—Parson Supple is supple in views, Allworthy's name suggests his character, and so on. However, over these standard types is imposed the original observation of a comic genius who has knowledge, wide social experience, and, above all, generous sympathy for humanity at large.

      Shape and Structure of the Novel: its Architectural Quality. Prose tales had been written before; what is new about Fielding's critical tenets is the insistence on intelligent organization of material. The prose tale was not to be rambling and haphazard but everything in it was to course into a pattern, subject to the discipline of proportion and relevance. As a result of such arrangement, Life would be intellectually analysed and clarified for the reader. Tom Jones shows an "architectural" quality in the arrangement of the incidents in the plot which is something new in the history of English novel. The diversity of scenes and characters, the inexhaustible inventiveness of Fielding, the new scenes and characters, are not thrown together haphazardly. Each apparently incidental happy stroke has been included for a specific purpose, contributing to the total effect and having a relevance to the theme or plot as a whole. It is Fielding's great contribution to the English novel to have realised in Tom Jones a shape and design on the lines of a classical building. There is "God's plenty" in the novel, but this "plenty" has been splendidly arranged into a coherent pattern. This quality becomes established in English fiction only with writers of the nineteenth century such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad (leaving aside Jane Austen).

      Digressions and Prefatory Chapters. Where, one might ask, in this architectural plan, is there any place for the digressions we find in Tom Jones? There are plenty of authorial intrusions in the course of the story. We are given perspectives on social life and knowledge in general. However, most of these comments and prefaces are organic and naturally introduced—they throw light upon the story and are seldom out of place. They add scope to the richness of the story, and widen the reader's attention into a broader area of comedy. Smoothly, the narrative leaves a narrow path and widens in perspective. To take just one example, in chapter 4 of Book II, a parallel is drawn between village women gossiping in a chandler's shop and men gossiping in a barber's shop. These are related to Greek proverbs and Horace, and finally to the eternal human curiosity and appetite for news. The prefaces are, on the whole, deliberately thought out pieces on the topics which they introduce. We thus realize that these side comments and prefaces contribute to our sense of a pattern emerging from day-to-day realities and contemporary thought.

      A Panoramic Novel. Smollett described a novel as a "large diffused picture, comprehending the characters of life, disposed in different groups and exhibited in various attitudes, for the purpose of a uniform plan, (which) cannot be executed with propriety or success without a principal personage to attract the attention, unite the incidents, unwind the clue of the Labyrinth, and at last close the scene, virtue of his own importance." Fielding, we may say, put this into practice. Tom Jones is panoramic, even while it is almost perfect in its unified construction. Indeed, Fielding is the founding father of what, for more than a century, was to be the main tradition of the English novel.

      Realistic Presentation of Eighteenth Century England. Hogarth and Fielding, one a painter and the other a writer, both convey a realistic picture of eighteenth century English society through their works. The richness, the contrasts and the variety of mid-eighteenth century England are recreated in the pages of Tom Jones. The spectacle laid before the reader is lifelike and verisimilar in detail; at the same time, it transcends the transient aspects to reach universal elements of human life.

      Correction of Manners and Morals: By depicting a realistic picture of contemporary society, Fielding also presented human nature in general. There is much inhumanity which is in need of correction. Tom, perhaps, represents average humanity which is aware of the better course in life but, quite often, follows the worse. Good intentions are thwarted by the weak flesh. But Fielding understands and does not condemn, though he does not condone it either. Fielding openly criticises the prevailing double standards of morality—one code for men and another, much stricter one, for women.

      Fielding's Moral Purpose and the Morality in Tom Jones. The epic convention demanded a "moral purpose" and Fielding aims to "recommend goodness and innocence". But he is not narrowly didactic; he is broadly humane in moral outlook. The issue of morality is inevitably connected with realism in Tom Jones. The society dealt with in the book embodies human nature in various aspects. Truth and human nature give to Tom Jones an advantage over previous fictions of this kind. In spite of the shocked reactions of Dr. Johnson and Samuel Richardson, Tom Jones remains, on the whole, a "healthy" book. To say that the sympathetic depiction of a young man who gives way to licentious habits may harm impressionable readers, is beside the point. Tom's vices and follies are neither heinous nor extraordinary. Furthermore, the general tone of the novel is one of healthy realism and moral approach. By and large, the cause of true virtue is supported and advanced.

      Portrayal of Human Nature. The morality of Tom Jones is inevitably linked with the portrayal of human nature. Fielding's view of human nature, of course, encompasses its two aspects — instinctive drives and the intellectual counterpart. Instinctive drives are emphasised as an important part of human nature. Intelligence, often beneficial, could also be damaging—for instance, Blifil's calculated, shrewd wickedness and Black George's rationalization over keeping Tom’s money, or the ridiculous theories of Thwackum and Square. Ideally, human nature should harmoniously combine instinct and intelligence to the development of the complete and integrated man. But on a more practical level, it is Tom who represents "good" human nature. Tom reacts to his instinct; he is, at the same time, intelligent and capable of dignified discourse. He is human nature, with all its intricacies, difficulties and mistakes, personified. Furthermore, it is undisguised and unpretentious—without a mask. When it assumes a mask and acts for the sake of appearances, it can become indecent.

      Fielding's Realistic View on Human Nature. It is true that Fielding did not see life in each and every aspect—he does not bother with spiritual passion or saints, nor does he portray the squalor and ugliness of the very lowest echelons of society. But the range of life he did see, he depicted well: its poverty and luxury from Molly Seagrim to Lady Bellaston; its folly and wisdom-from Partridge to Allworthy; its meanness and generosity-from Blifil to Tom. Each has been thought out, not merely sketched.

      Realistic Morality. Human nature as Fielding saw it and his concept of morality are both realistic. He does not dream about life as it should be, but sympathises with certain human qualities—this sympathy supplies the direct moral in the book. As such, three facts emerge in Tom Jones: firstly, Tom will not go to the extent of a situation shown in the Nightingale episode; secondly, Tom's essential goodness is not affected by his lapses, and thirdly, these lapses are, in fact, caused by the excess of his "generous openness of soul", according to Fielding. Fielding was drawing men as he knew them and not "heroic" abstractions.

      Fielding's Appreciation of the Open Heart. In Tom are embodied, concretely and vividly, the positive values of Fielding's world— the values of the open heart. Spontaneity marks his actions in which there is no place for cunning manipulation. His strength and weakness are those of the "natural" man. However, the confidence in the values of the heart is somewhat simple, for in a world having place for Blifil's, the weapons of Tom and Sophia cannot be effective enough.

      Faith in Human Nature. Fielding's philosophy is sceptical but optimistic, too. He looks at life with curiosity, feels indignant at times, but never bitterly hurt. His is an optimistic attitude of mind accepting certain standards and confident (though not complacent) - that humane feeling and right reason can and will solve the problems of human society.

      Fielding's Comic View on Life. Confidence in human nature and the belief that problems can be solved lie at the root of Fielding's comic view of life. Tom and Sophia fight against conventional society with all its hypocrisy which is embodied in the character of Blifil. The comic view of life is seen, not merely in the happy ending to Tom and Sophia's struggle, but in the confidence we feel, all the while, that they will face and change their situation.

      Tom Jones: A Great Comic Novel. Tom Jones appeals as a great comic novel with a well told story having a fairy-tale element in its theme. It has various comic elements such as irony, satire and humour. Above all, it embodies a comic vision of life.

      Situational Comedy. Fielding's mastery over the comedy of situation is shown in the Upton Inn scenes—the pivot of action and physical centre of the novel Here we get "the smile within the smile" or comic elaboration of an excellent level. Unexpected discoveries and situations are managed well as is the comedy of mutual misunderstanding between Sophia and her aunt.

      Humour of many kinds is seen in Tom Jones. In Mrs. Wilkin's outburst at the discovery of Tom as a foundling, we get a great quality of humour—the monstrous turned into the ridiculous, hatred of mean-spiritedness being ironically treated to turn into rich comedy. Besides, we have humour of action, some horseplay, a delicate vein of verbal irony and humour of character. Squire Western is a supreme example of comic violence full of vitality.

      Satire of a Humane kind is to be found in Tom Jones. It is informed by a broad sane humor, never malicious or petty. He is not violent or brutal like Smollett, nor does he employ too much caricature. He is also crisp and swift in his comedy, unlike Sterne.

      Mock-heroic Style also contributes to comic effect.

      Comic Element Governed by Artistic Purpose. The comic and mock elements are not there merely to evoke incidental laughter. They serve the artistic purpose of deflating certain kinds of pretentiousness, conveying delight for the colour and variety of human life, communicating the ironic perception of the similarity between high-class duelling and low class brawling. The suspense in the novel is a "comic" suspense and it is combined with a comic awareness of life's follies and absurdities. We know that Tom will tide over his difficulties brought on by his lack of discretion and prudence.

      Society Emphasised, not Individual Characters. The comic point of view ensures a certain distancing of reader from the characters. The central story is of Tom and Sophia through which Fielding expresses, concretely, his view of life.

      But we are not closely involved with Tom and Sophia. It is not a drawback in Fielding's art, but a demand of the comic method that the reader is made to survey life rather than experience it. Thus, Fielding is concerned with society at large, rather than with individuals' feeling. Fielding directs and controls our reactions and imposes a general pattern on the panorama of human nature.

      Plot Construction and Characterization. It is a fact that plot in Tom Jones reflects Fielding's entire social and literary outlook. Coleridge's fulsome praise may not be entirely acceptable, but it fairly expresses the crux of the matter. As in Oedipus, in Tom Jones, too, the plot is planned towards revealing a crucial secret-that of the hero's actual birth. Also, as in The Alchemist, the final re-ordering comes about through the unmasking of an intricate design of deception and wickedness.

      Emphasis on Plot. A critic has said that Tom Jones has too much of plot, which is an indisputable fact. Variety of episodes take place-some in the tradition of comedy of humours, some which are dramatic, developing out of implicit potentialities of the situations, others simply a means to exploit a farcical moment. There are some incidents which form a part of the realistic narrative (such as Molly's fight in the churchyard). Emphasis is always on plot, not on exploration of character or personal relationships.

      Characters are not Individualised. The characters are generally "flat" type and not individualised. Characters are assigned their proper category by giving a few diagnostic features for the task.

      Family Background Important: The plot demanded the lovers to be united without disturbing the social order. Birth is certainly a determining factor. Society required a system of classes each with specific duties and responsibilities. Tom does not question the propriety of the assumption that as a foundling of supposedly low birth he is unfit for Sophia. Thus, Fielding contrives to make Tom "genteel" even if illegitimate of birth. Fielding thus subscribes to existing social thought of his day.

      Inner Life not Revealed. Psychological analysis of characters is not there in Tom Jones. Comic scene is at the expense of realistic emotion.

      It is a fact that emotional artificiality marks Tom Jones. Denouement is given comic life, but it is at the cost of emotional reality.

      Static Presentation of Human Nature. Human nature being essentially stable, tracing the process by which any human being reached full development is not required—that was Fielding's view. Thus character is more or less fixed—qualities merely emerge at different times but are present from the beginning. Thus psychological development of characters is limited and was, in any case, outside Fielding's concept of human nature and literary art.

      Pattern Imposed through Contrasts and Tensions. Fielding’s artistry and precision is revealed in the pattern he imposes through various sets of contrasts and tensions which develop stage by stage.

      Plot develops its complications by the end of Book IV where Tom's romance with Sophia begins. By Book III, the chief character-contrast has been drawn between Tom and Blifil.

      Pursuit Motif has a Unifying Role. It starts with Sophia going after Tom; from Upton, Tom pursues Sophia. Later Blifil goes in pursuit of Sophia. The pursuit motif is not only to provide comic situations—it is central to the development of the plot because it is basic to the action.

      Dramatic Contrast between Scenes. The chapters may be regarded as scenes and the Books as acts. The scenes maintain a clear system of witty contrast. They also relate to the larger unit of the "act" or Book.

      Scenes are Interrelated. The contrast of scenes is obvious if we compare a few chapters in Book I—for example Allworthy's compassionate reaction to the foundling in his bed is in sharp contrast to Mrs. Wilkins's fierce swooping onto its supposed mother. The ironic significance cannot be missed. Thus masks are dropped under the social interaction of what is termed "plot".

      Instinctive versus Formal Appearance. The theme of the novel is the contest between instinctive feeling and formal appearance. Ironic character-contrasts are extended to a wider contrast between generous, open feeling and calculated shrewdness of putting on appearances.

      Tom and Sophia versus Blifil. Tom and Sophia are, of course, rebels against conventional standards, protesting against the "respectable" and "accepted" standards of eighteenth-century society. The struggle of Tom and Sophia against Blifil (and what he stands for) is at the centre of the novel. Blifil is the villain of the piece—forever the champion of conventional respectability which is given to appearances and hypocrisy. Contrasts between Tom and Blifil are essential to the moral purpose of Fielding.

      Allworthy versus Mrs. Wilkins and Bridget. Truth and hypocrisy is contrasted in Allworthy versus Deborah Wilkins and Bridget Allworthy's sermon to Jenny Jones is simple and well-meaning. Deborah and Bridget who are listening outside the door, react in a typically ungenerous manner. Deborah takes delight in the downfall of another woman. Bridget is satisfied at her own concealment and at the chance of showing a charitable attitude to a woman whom she herself has placed in disgrace. Allworthy, on finding the baby in his bed, is at once too concerned to bother about his state of undress as he calls Mrs. Wilkins. Mrs. Wilkins, on the other hand, though aware that it must be urgent, delays to dress herself up and adjusts her hair. Thus a contrast is established and continued between appearance and reality.

      Theatrical Method Brought to Novel. Fielding brings the method of the theatre to the art of fiction. The chapters correspond to scenes, the Books to Acts, and the novel to the drama. Each chapter, or "scene", is, at once, objectified as a subject in itself and related to the larger unit of the Book or "act" and to the work as a whole. Just as in the theatre, there is an idea before there is a scene, in Tom Jones, Fielding uses a summary to set the scene, explain character and preface the realistic main action with a few indirect moralisings. The method is an adaptation of the dramatic to the art of novel.

      Shortcomings of Tom Jones as a Novel. Fielding, indeed, broke new ground even while using certain traditional methods in Tom Jones. But the work is not flawless. The novel's construction, with all its contrivances and happy extrications, has been too highly praised. While, one cannot but admire the intricacy of plot and necessity of the incidents in it, the modern reader reacts impatiently towards the digressions such as the Man of the Hill's story. It makes one wonder if the devices used by Fielding in writing a comic-moral novel are quite adequate to his purpose. The same doubt applies to the mock-heroic elements at times. Here, we realise that the literary tradition Fielding was working with was limited. The novel is, in some ways, too simple in form and even anachronistic. Of course, psychological brilliance and moral subtlety are absent in the novel. Many a time, the moral intention intrudes on the psychological one. The coincidences, again, are too ready. Too much authorial comment, at times, interrupts the narrative. The story might better have been allowed to tell itself dramatically.

      Great Achievement Despite Flaws. But the flaws of Tom Jones can be ignored, for the novel shows a high degree of artistic achievement Its vitality, range, brilliant plotting and its exuberant comedy which also serves to enrich the moral pattern—all this makes the novel a great work of art. There is a fertility of imagination and invention shown in the novel.

      Twentieth Century Reaction to Tom Jones. The twentieth century has been largely favourable to Fielding. The modern climate with its delight for variety, anti-intellectualism, love for pleasure and optimistic hope of plenty is quite amenable to the vibrant spirit of Tom Jones, and its delight in the senses. Dr. Leavis's adverse comment on Tom Jones does not reflect universal opinion; it is, more or less, subjective.

      Conclusion: Tom Jones is an Artistic Transformation of Life. Tom Jones, like all great literary works, is based on life—what Fielding calls "human nature". But it is not a straight imitation of life. Models from life or earlier literary tradition are taken for characters, but they are transformed by Fielding's own abundant observation. Traditional material and raw material from contemporary life are re-shaped and re-worked into something new. The material of the novel is a "splendid rearrangement" of life. Pattern is imposed on chaotic matter; the bleakness, dullness and ugliness of life are transformed in a work of art through comic genius. The individual in Tom Jones finds fulfilment within the accepted social pattern. There may not be psychological penetration into individual minds, but there is plenty of evidence in Tom Jones that its author had psychological insight into human nature in general—an apt subject for a novel with a comic-moral purpose. Indeed, Fielding, besides giving form and pattern to the novel, added dignity to the art by giving it epic touches and making it a vehicle for social criticism. It is an artistic blend of traditional material with the novelty of fresh observation of a living society.

Previous Post Next Post