Tom, a foundling, is discovered one evening by the benevolent Squire Allworthy and his sister Bridget and brought up as a son in their household; when his sexual escapades and general misbehavior lead them to banish him, he sets out in search of both his fortune and his true identity. Amorous, high-spirited, and filled with what Fielding called "the glorious lust of doing good," but with a tendency toward dissolution, Tom Jones is one of the first characters in English fiction whose human virtues and vices are realistically depicted. This edition is set from the text of the Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding.
Who reads this and laughs but a little is too dour and prideful to be of much use, and only laughs when he cannot help it.
Who reads this and laughs a score is the wretched false-wit, and only laughs when it suits his crowd.
Who reads and laughs but once a chapter has a mirthful soul, if no great love for words.
Who reads and laughs at every page shall be my boon companion, and a kiss for each grinning cheek.
Who reads and laughs at twice and thrice a page shall be my worthy better, and may they forgive my endless queries.
It helps that Tom himself is much more likable than I expected from what I had heard of the novel--or even the description on the back of the book. I'd heard this was a picaresque tale with a hero that could be called a rake. But although he's no monk, I wouldn't describe Tom that way. He's neither rapist nor callous seducer. In fact, he's usually the seduced rather than the seducer. And he is young, after all; no older than twenty-one at the end of the novel. He says of himself:
Nor do I pretend to the Gift of Chastity... I have been guilty with Women, I own it; but I am not conscious that I have ever injured any--Nor would I, to procure Pleasure to myself, be knowingly the Cause of Misery to any human Being.
When Tom seemingly gets Molly Seagrim pregnant, he's quite willing to stand by her and marry her, even though she's poor. He'd been raised as a gentleman, and even though being base-born and not the heir doesn't mean he can look to marry the lady-of-the-manor next door, he could have done materially better than that. It's not until he finds out she's being unfaithful that he breaks things off with her. He shows himself generous and compassionate throughout. Tom's greatest fault indeed seems a naivete that allows others to take advantage of him.
I felt more mixed about the female characters and especially Tom's love Sophia Western. She's a bit too blushing and apt to swoon--on the other hand, she doesn't let herself be rolled over but takes action to change her fate. It's obvious Fielding does have respect for women and although like the men, they might be fools, often his female characters are more intelligent and better educated than their male counterparts. Note the maid Jenny Jones, who is more learned than the schoolmaster who taught her. To be honest, it's the secondary comic characters that have the most vividness like the Sancho Panza like Mr Partridge or the affected Aunt Western and uncouth Squire Western.
This was a surprisingly enjoyable novel on the whole, even if I wasn't as enchanted by it as I was by its comic descendents by Austen and Thackeray. I immediately felt the kinship to books such as Sense and Sensibility and Vanity Fair in the sparkling wit, the ironic tone, and wickedly sharp satire, even if Fielding is more genial than Thackeray, and more bawdy than Austen.
In an era whose modus operandi is instant gratification, it can require extra discipline to make it through this lengthy work that at times uses some unfamiliar language. Nevertheless, reading Tom Jones is completely worth the effort, as you will enjoy a master storyteller at his best.
The novel follows Jones through his torment of not being able to have the woman he loves. The problem lies not with her but with eighteenth century British society. Her father will only consent for her to marry a man of fortune and consents to have her instead marry Blifil. The exact relationships between these characters are complicated, and I will not go into details about them so as not to spoil the novel for those who have not read it.
Also of interest are the chapters that Fielding uses to preface each of the eighteen books that make up the novel. Some of these chapters are rather dry and all could be skipped without affecting the reader's enjoyment of the novel, as Fielding notes. However, I did find them to be worth reading both for Fielding's more serious notes about the writing process and literary criticism as well as his more humorous contributions.
The greatest strength of this novel is Fielding's unique ability to describe the exact qualities of each character. Fielding truly knew people. Despite the fact that this novel was written over 250 years ago, Fielding's characters are motivated by the motivations and act in the same ways that people would act today.
Tom Jones offers every pleasure a reader could want; rip-roaring humor, cliffhanging suspense, a brilliant philosophical treatise from the author every so often; a tender love story, a Bildungsroman, a meditation on growing old gracefully; a magnificent cast of 18th-century rogues, strumpets, scheming noblemen, gentle girls and pompous fools; ambition, lust, malice, humor, passion, beauty, betrayal--just read it!!
Go on, read it right now!
What can one say about Tom Jones? A heart of gold - yet so easily tempted by women. Heroic and courageous - yet so unstable. I liked Mr. Allworthy - and also Sophia - her concluding remarks on Jones' character really says it all.
The author presents his story with many asides to the reader and often telegraphs his intentions in advance with his descriptive chapter descriptions or the colourful names he gives his characters. So we are assured that Squire Allworthy is a very good man, while Mr. Thwackum is heavy handed and likes to dole out physical punishments. Personally I found Tom Jones rather an insipid character but he was the perfect canvas to help reflect the many vivid characters that he came into contact with.
At over 900 pages, the book at times was rather tedious, but the author’s clever use of words, his satire of both the day’s social and political conventions, and the many turbulent yet comic events kept the pages turning. Often touted as a history of bastardism, fornication and adultery, Tom Jones is also a romance with two star-crossed lovers, the lusty Tom and the strong-willed Sophia battling the odds to obtain their happy ending.
I listened to an audio version of this classic, as read by Bill Homewood, who did an excellent job of bringing this book to life, and, I am positive, raised my rating with his reading style. Reflective, philosophical yet lively and very entertaining I found [Tom Jones] to be an immersive reading experience that was well worth the time invested.
The characters are satires, mainly of the landed gentry and the titled, although it’s always clear where the lines of power and authority lie (so much clearer than in our contemporary times.) Much of the humour and enjoyment of the novel comes from Fielding’s ironic descriptions of his characters’ motivations and actions, and his observations on the society they live in – apparently hypocritical at all levels.
Through the satire and his ongoing commentary, Fielding points to the inequality of women in society, while also pointing out that many of the women are more intelligent and well read than the men they are linked to. The strongest storyline aside from Tom’s is the conflict between the strong-minded Sophia and the idiot father she loves, but who wants to command her obedience. It ends only when their two interests finally come together in the union of two large estates.
Fielding also shows the stark contrast between the wealthy and the common people, although with no suggestion that that inequality might be a problem. Poor people struggle with their lot, and sometimes don’t make it, just like the higher class people who run out of money. But there are both good and venal lower class people as well as upper class ones. In fact, one of the interesting features of the book is that many of the characters have complex morals. They may at times be venal, and at other times generous and loyal. In this way, they are less stereotypes than the characters in many other novels where most characters except for the leading ones are either good or bad, with little shading. One of the few exceptions is the good Squire Allworthy, whose kindness and generosity are exceeded only by his wisdom and honour. He’s a bit godly, and a contrast to the more realistic common characters. The other exception is his evil nephew, whose unscrupulous lies, greed and lack of honour are also unmixed.
Tom’s early relatively carefree life and his kind nature set him up as a good person with a natural morality, but it seems that that’s not enough. Fielding makes a strong argument for morality in the last parts of the novel, and his favoured morality is Christian. (The Christian clerics, however, don’t come off well – in fact, of the representatives of Christian and “natural” morality, although both are extremes, it’s the natural philosopher who comes off best after his deathbed conversion to real Christianity.) And while it seems that Tom’s natural inclination to enjoy life, including his relationships with women, is at first carefree, it later gets him intro trouble and he has to renounce his free sexuality to enter a relationship with his true love. (Much like Fielding did, the introduction suggests.) Interestingly, however, while Tom is a willing participant in a range of sexual adventures, it seems to be the women who initiate the relationships and get Tom in trouble. So Tom is a sort of innocent, much in contrast to the reality of young men of privilege, I suspect. The story of his parentage, however, shows that women cannot enjoy the same carefree sexuality that he does.
I’m glad to have read this after Mason & Dixon, because it shows how closely Thomas Pynchon copied an 18th century style in his writing, with the absurdity, authorial commentary and extraordinary characters. The formal style of Tom Jones is quite different from the informality of Mason & Dixon, but both have a complex plot, complex characters, and long discourses on side topics. But in spite of the rambling stories, it was always a pleasure to come back to both of these novels because their worlds are so rich and full of enjoyment.
What remains is a charming story, and one that is remarkable on many levels. A modern reader may find its plot simple, its ending contrived, and its characters cliched, but just consider that all of these elements were revolutionary at the time. The best way to learn from history is to read between the lines of a novel such as this, to consider the shape of the story and what sort of society might have produced it.
Well worth the effort and the time invested to read it.
But I digress, under the influence of Fielding, from the story itself which is billed as a history of Tom Jones who, as the name suggests, is a sort of every-man, a more common version of Odysseus or Don Quixote for the eighteenth century. The history is a fiction and as such is populated by fictional characters. The characters surrounding him, from his teachers, Thwackum and Square, to the Squires, Allworthy and Western, are clearly drawn with wit and wisdom; lest I forget the women for Tom has a strong and healthy interest in them whether they are low like Molly or high like Sophia Western -- women continue to perplex Tom and enliven the plot. And Tom has a good opinion of himself as the narrator notes, "Can any man have a higher notion of the rule of right and the eternal fitness of things?" (Book IV, Ch. 4).
As I entered the concluding chapters of this lively novel I found myself looking for a word to sum up my experience. I think I have found that word -- cornucopia. The abundance of characters, stories, places, and all that goes with each of these can best be considered a cornucopia. These melded with Fielding's continual insertions through essays and commentaries begins to suggest to me why this novel is considered great - one of the first of its kind in modern literature.
I also find myself comparing the hero of this story to other literary heroes whose name adorns the title of their stories. For example, David Copperfield, Adam Bede, Pendennis, and Jude the Obscure come to mind. All of these owe at least a part of their literary heritage to Fielding's Tom. Even though there is a significant change in the psychology of the characters from David to Jude, the foundation for them all and many others is the History of Tom Jones.