Tom Jones: A Unheroic Hero - Explain

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      Tom Jones: A Foundling and an Illegitimate Child. The very beginning of the novel sets a note which strikes the reader as being different from the conventional romances, which had hitherto been written. Tom's introduction to the reader comes when he is discovered in Allworthy's bed. He is a foundlings; and the comment from Mrs. Deborah Wilkins is worth noting:

"It goes against me to touch these misbegotten wretches, whom, I don't look upon as my fellow creatures. Faugh! how it stinks! It doth not smell like a Christian."

      Apart from the obvious satire against the so-called Christian moral code, we realize that we are meeting an entirely new kind of hero. It is the 'unheroic' hero. As Tom grows older, the unheroic aspect seems to be emphasised. We are told that many people thought that he was "born to be hanged". He has good intentions but completely lacks prudence.

      Ordinary Man with Ordinary Human Weakness. Fielding was writing a comic novel. His characters are all ordinary human beings. What is more, as an author he accepted the ordinary weaknesses of men and women of this world. None of his characters are paragons of virtue, because no one on this earth is like that. Tom is a human being, and as such, cannot be perfect. He certainly has his weaknesses. He represents, like most of Fielding's characters, a healthy and realistic mixture of virtue and vice.

      Tom's Weakness: Vulnerability in the Face of Female Charm. The weakness, which shocked most of Fielding's contemporaries, was Tom's vulnerability as far as sex was concerned. He shows an amazing willingness to jump into bed with any female who appears to be inviting enough. He falls in love with Molly Seagrim, the gamekeeper's daughter. Carried off by her charms, he is easily seduced by her. One has to admit that she is the more experienced partner. He develops a passion for Sophia. Here, however, one notes that Tom is capable of experiencing a moral dilemma—he cannot be accused of total immorality. He is capable of feeling responsible for some one to whom he thinks he owes loyalty. He tries to resist Sophia's charms because he owes something to Molly. However, the situation reveals the disordered state of Tom's mind. Though ultimately he is freed of Molly because of the discovery of Square in her room, and the fact that the possible father of her child is Will Barnes, it cannot be gainsaid that Tom went initially to her room with the purpose of buying her off. His original purpose was to offer money to Molly in return for freedom. It shows a curious confusion of moral thoughts and feelings. The state of Tom's fallibility has been portrayed very neatly and accurately by Fielding.

      Tom is a naturally boisterous and gay lad. Allworthy's recovery from illness sends Tom to celebrate, and his animal instincts come to the fore. He is, as yet, not aware of how to control these impulses with prudence. He gets drunk. He meditates on the charms of Sophia and vows that he would not fall prey to any other woman's charms. Indeed, he declares himself incapable of appreciating the charms of any other woman. Almost immediately, he sees Molly, who is sweaty and coarsely dressed, and retires gratefully behind some bushes with her. So much for the high ideals expressed a little while earlier. It is a deflation which would not have been thrust on the conventional hero. Tom is certainly an 'unheroic hero' though all the more human for that.

      Tom's involvement at Upton Inn with Mrs. Waters is once again more of a seduction by an experienced woman. But it is Tom's susceptibility or weakness, which leads him into indiscretion. It is true that his succumbing to Mrs. Waters comes at a time when he has almost given up the hope of gaining Sophia. However, Fielding does not condone his weakness, nor does he expect the reader to do so. But he does not condemn it either. He wants to portray the weakness as something of which human beings are capable. In London, Tom allows himself to become a 'kept' man by Lady Bellaston. He takes money for favours given. There are some extenuating circumstances, but Fielding does not completely exonerate Tom.

      Curious Mixture of Indiscretion and Moral Impulses. Tom embodies a curious mixture of indiscretion and moral impulses. He lies — and lying is, indeed, a vice. But then, he lies in order to save Black George. He sells his horse and his Bible, but again, it is to save the gamekeeper's family from financial worry. He is determined to keep intact Sophia's hundred-pound bill but does not scruple to accept money from Lady Bellaston. In order to get in touch with Sophia, he is ready to indulge Lady Bellaston's sexual whims. And the money he gets from Lady Bellaston, Tom gives to relieve the family of the poor relative of Mrs. Miller. All this speaks of a disordered state of mind in which a confusion of values exists. Tom has to learn how to temper his good impulses with discretion and prudence. He has to gain control over his exuberance and warmth of heart. But it is obvious that his character is not in keeping with the conventional romance hero who is always and completely noble.

      Are Tom's Virtues the Vices of a Truly Noble Man? Though Tom's actions are doubtful if considered from a purely moral point of view, it is not possible to agree with Richardson's rather stringent and uncompromising opinion that Tom's virtues are the vices of a truly noble man. Courage is a virtue in itself, and Tom does not lack in it, whether physical or moral. He shows physical courage in dealing with the highwayman and the assailants of the Man of the Hill. Physical courage bespeaks a moral courage. It is what leads him to lie for the sake of Black George in the face of dire consequences to himself. It is only a rigid and unflexible moralist, who is too much of a theorist to appreciate practical aspects of human behaviour, who can condemn the basic goodness of impulse behind Tom's trivial moral shortcomings.

      As far as sexual aberrations are concerned, Tom certainly requires some censure. Extenuating circumstances apart, we are also shown that Tom does achieve some kind of self-realization by the end of the novel. Besides, his sexual adventures are a part of his carefree, animal spirits, which are closely connected with his warmth of heart and his curious idea of gallantry to women. He has to learn to combine his warmth of heart with discretion. He has to realise that animal spirits have to be given a proper direction and tempered with intelligence and prudence. Self-realization of Tom. It is true that we are not shown the inner workings of the characters in Tom Jones. The treatment is external. As such, we have to depend upon what the author, with his omniscience, tells us. By the end of the novel, Tom's own words and Fielding's comments as narrator tell us that Tom has arrived at self-realization. He has always felt his unworthiness as far as Sophia is concerned. He admits that his downfall is the result of his own actions, and not those of Blifil. He writes a touching letter to Sophia, confessing his feelings of despair and unworthiness. In prison, he declares:

"But why should I blame Fortune? I am myself the cause of all my misery. All the dreadful mischiefs which have befallen me are the consequences only of my own folly and vice."

      He has learnt his lesson. He admits:

"I thank Heaven, I have had time to reflect on my past life, where though I cannot charge myself with gross villainy, yet I can discern follies and vices more than enough to repent and to be ashamed of: follies which have been attended with dreadful consequences to myself, and have brought me to the brink of destruction."

      Tom's Goodness of Heart. Fielding's philosophy was based on the view that goodness of heart is the most important virtue in human beings. He did not judge men by their deeds alone but by their motivations as well. Tom possesses goodness of heart. His virtues cannot be called the vices of a good man. They are virtues in themselves, and would be such in any person. He is generous. He does not hurt anyone consciously. Indeed, he takes great pains to help anyone else in distress. He does not mind risking, his own life to rescue Sophia's bird, and later, to rescue Sophia herself. He rushes to the help of the Man of the Hill and Mrs. Waters. He helps the highwayman when he hears of his distressed conditions. He is generous enough to forgive Black George and Blifil. Even Squire Allworthy is led to remark that Tom carried the forgiving spirit too far.

      What Tom lacked was prudence which would help him to discharge his duties better in the world. Allworthy says:

"Prudence is indeed the duty which we owe to ourselves."

      If a man neglected to be prudent, he was laying the foundations of his own ruin. Others would not hesitate to accelerate his ruin. Tom, however, has been learning the need for prudence. He has gained maturity. By the end of the novel, he has become a better human being, though not perfect.

      Conclusion. Tom is, indeed, an unheroic hero. As a protagonist of a novel, he is a departure from the conventional concept of the hero as a man with all the noble virtues embodied in him. Fielding makes him an ordinary man, with ordinary weaknesses. But Tom is aware of those weaknesses, and tries to overcome them. "Tom Jones was a new type of hero, one might say the unheroic hero", says Walter Allen. One cannot argue with the observation. It is, however, a totally different thing to say that the virtues of Tom are the vices of a truly noble man. Tom has vices; he also has virtues which are virtues by any standard, and his vices are not as bad as they were painted by Fielding's critics.

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