Commonly regarded as one of the very first novelists (the others being Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe), Henry Fielding is a must-read for anyone who is curious as to the ways in which prose may be manipulated to fit the novel form. Simply put, “Tom Jones” is less a novel than it is a bastardized mock classicist epic: a triumph of humdrum heroism.
This being said, this novel, or more appropriate, this mock-epic is not for everyone. Most readers are likely to cringe at its 800 pages or the fact that Fielding’s narrative voice constantly demands reader attention and therefore breaks the spell that the grandeur of the story may hold readers under.
For all its bulk and density, the story of is relatively simple to follow. A young man, Jones, is born out of wedlock, which is of course a near-mortal sin in mid 18th century, puritanical Great Britain. This means that his life as a bastard will be a tough one. Thankfully, he falls under the care of the kind parson, Allworthy (the name-denoting-status is a Fielding trademark), who rears the boy as though he were his own son.
Unfortunately for Tom, this draws the animosity of his best friend and near-brother Blifil, who constantly orchestrates his downfall whenever he gets the chance. However, Tom remains pure, foolhardy and young, but pure, and it is under these preliminary auspices that he falls in love with the charming and angelic Sophia, the daughter of the rakish but lovable Squire Western. Of course, given Great Britain’s class system, the bastard Tom is unable to marry Sophia and yet this by no means prevents the pair from falling in love.
At this most opportune time, Tom and his cantankerous schoolmaster, Thwackum, have a bit of a row, and the scheming Blifil seizes this opportunity to complain of Tom’s misconduct to Allworthy. In turn, Allworthy interrogates Tom who, though he had little to do with the cause of the row, is nevertheless unable to defend his innocence because of some smaller misfortunes that recently befell his relationship with Sophia. Thus, Allworthy kicks Tom out of his house and the latter is forced to begin his arduous journey of self-discovery and maturation. That story comprises the next two thirds of the novel, which I won’t summarize here for the sake of brevity.
Fielding’s book may be regarded as a classic in many ways. Of note is the poise of the structure of his plot: no threads of plot or characters are ever dropped, which is to say that no incident occurs from pure happenstance. Each of Tom’s decisions, from his quarrel with Thwackum, to a liaison that he engages in, bears some future significant outcome—mostly by influencing a character’s opinion at one crucial juncture or another.
What’s also delightful is Fielding’s mock-epic tropes of diction, such as this comparison to Homer’s Odyssey and the eating of a meal: “Indeed, it may be doubted whether Ulysses, who by the way seems to have had the best stomach of all the heroes in that eating poem of the Odyssey, ever made a better meal” (440). Delightful words for the well-read reader.
Unfortunately, or fortunately, Fielding is aware when he is being clever and when he’s being smart and any joy that the reader may obtain from discovering the careful structure of the plot or the hilariously highfalutin scenes that take place is offset by the intrusion of a boastful narrator.
One gets, as one often does from reading the classic British novelists, a sense that they like to hear themselves talk more than they like for their readers to enjoy the story. And aside from this, there is also the impression that the author is forever hesitant to let the reader’s hand go, even for a moment, less a crucial plot detail or a particularly inviting description be missed.
Which is fine; I mean after all, why should the writer cater to his audience, particularly when he’s experimenting with a new form? Who’s to say that the writer shouldn’t delight in his own intelligence?
All of this makes for a very difficult reading experience in “Tom Jones.” We must recognize that the novel was a tentative thing and that the novelists, realizing that it’s life was fragile, were careful not to push the form or reader expectations too far, too fast.
So read “Tom Jones” if you’re curious about the early days of the novel phenomenon, or read it to admire its gloriously deliberate pacing and construction (“like the Parthenon” a professor of mine commented). Mind Fielding’s cloying narrator but don’t let him distract you too much; the novel was, after all, invented to be enjoyed.