The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Aspects Related to the Classical Aesthetics and

the Construction of the Individual




Originated from a financially ruined family, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was a former barrister in the Court of King’s Bench at Westminster and on the Western Circuit. But he abandoned his career and his Law studies to look for his subsistence as a dramatic author, always producing texts impregnated of mordacity against writers and dramaturges of his time: after attacking the minister Walpole in one of his texts, Fielding offered to the English government an excuse to establish the previous censorship, through the Licensing Act of 1737. As a consequence of this, Fielding abandoned the theater for the first time and started his career as a writer of novels.


In 1749, he published The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, considered his masterpiece and a development of the “general formula” earlier applied to his Joseph Andrew (1742), a parody to Richardson’s Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded. Coleridge considered Tom Jones as one of the three most perfect plots in literature, along with Oedipus Tyrannous and The Alchemist.


With this “comic, epic poem in prose”, Fielding contributed to the development of the novels, through an extensive narrative which focused on the individual experience of a hero, obtained through a long learning process plenty of peripeties – which may even be considered out-fashioned nowadays as there is too many narration for few scenes. But the way the narrative is written brings, undoubtly, a very formal and elegant style of writing in the English language.


We may classify the narrator as a full-omniscient one – and such ironic, intrusive narrator can be assumed to be Fielding himself. The omniscience makes the reader realize, at first, that the story is fictional but, on the other hand, the verisimilitude seems not to be harmed as the reader, aware of this “trick”, experiment a certain sense of real, identifying him/herself to the Hero, our “trickster”. Such third-person omniscient point of view is narrated, thus, in an ironical prose by an “implied author” who plays a role of directing, judging and taking sides while chatting with the reader, as evidenced in the opening chapters of each Book.


Divided into eighteen books (something between Virgil and Milton’s twelve and Homer's twenty-four), Tom Jones is an opposition to the realistic fiction of the eighteen century. According to James J. Lynch: “recent rhetorical studies of Tom Jones demonstrate convincingly how Fielding urges us to participate in the novel by making us conscious of our own readership” (in “Moral Sense and the Narrator of Tom Jones” - Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 25, No. 3 – Restoration and Eighteenth Century - Summer, 1985, pp. 599-614).


            Besides the already mentioned division of Tom Jones in Books – and the cases of reversals and peripeties during the narrative, some other items make a linking of this novel to the Classic Aesthetic. Although this is not the most remarkable fact about the book, it is interesting to outline the following:


1)    Idea of a journey, by comparing Tom to Ulysses: the story recounts the adventures of a hero during his difficult, prolonged journey. However, together with this sense of “mobility”, this idea of a “journey” is something very present in both French and English romances, according to Doreen Roberts in her Wordsworth Classics' introduction to Tom Jones;


2)    A case of incest occurs, as in Oedipus Tyrannous: Tom visits the bed of “Mrs. Waters” in Upton, ignoring her real identity. But this is a false pretense incest as Jenny Jones is not Tom’s real mother;


3)      Division of “low” and “high” characters: obviously, Allworthy is not a King to be considered a “high character”, like those in the ancient classical texts. But he has the real “virtue of justice” and it is clear that the narrator treats him completely different from villains like Tom’s tutors. Also, there is a parallel universe of prostitutes, soldiers and ordinary people which could be classified as “low” characters. On the other hand, there are other characters which cannot be properly classified according to this dichotomy like Mr.Western, whose composition seems to come from the picaresque.


4)    The “revelation” or “discovery” (anagnorisis): similar to what Aristotle stated on his “Poetics”, Chapter XVI. But in Fielding’s case, there will be no Achilles’ scar but, instead, a letter written by Jenny Jones relating all the truth;


5)      The “knots” and “outcome”: In the first part of the book, there is a passage from good to bad fortune and, in the second part, from bad to good fortune which, according to Aristotle (“Poetics”, Chapter XVIII), refers to something proper of tragedies and comedies, respectively;


There is another point to be discussed apart: Tom’s bastardy. While illegitimate, and, thus, treated with prejudice, Tom is legitimized, at first, by his innate good nature and, finally, by the discovery that his mother was his adoptive father's sister, Bridget Allworthy. And, in spite of not being born from a wedlock like Blifil, Tom becomes Squire Allworthy's “foundling” twice during the narrative: in the beginning of the book, as a baby, and, at the end, as an Adult, after the “revelation”.


We may mention some sources that possibly inspired Fielding: the most immediate one is the original foundling, Moses. Tom also has the same stereotype of another well-known literary bastard: Edmund, from Shakespeare's King Lear. Both (Tom and Edmund) are more honest, trustworthy, and virtuous than their legitimate half-siblings. Because of these (and other) coincidences, we may say that Tom Jones is a “pot-pourri” of literary influences.


            No plot summary will be included in the present essay. But there is still another point which is relevant to be outlined: in his “Ideology of Aesthetics”, Terry Eagleton states that “the English landowning elite had itself long been a capitalist class” and that “in the 18th Century [there are] a robust, well-founded unity of agrarian and mercantile interests”. This is a point very well reflected in Tom Jones, as a possible marriage between Blifil and Sophia may join both Allworthy's and the Western's estates. So, everything would be very well arranged but something unexpected happened: Sophia falls in love with Tom, a Bastard! The result is that there would be no place in that community to Tom anymore and, so, he had to go to London to find a job: a forced emigrational movement of an uprooted, very similar to what was happening in the English society at that time and which, certainly, most of the readers had heard about or testified. This “escape” from the countryside to London was also evidenced in other books like Dickenson’s Oliver Twist, years later.


At this point, it is useful to our analysis to locate the action in time and, also, to understand the social circumstances of that era of changes, caused by the Industrial Revolution: the landholding regimen previously in vigor was the one of the “open fields”, based on the Hereditary Right. The Enclosure Acts of the 17th Century, implied not only in the closing of lands but, also, in the expulsion of small croppers from the countryside. A Law of 1662 regulated the domicile changes and only in 1793 it was re-established in England the freedom of locomotion for the poor people.


The main theme treated in Tom Jones is Virtue, being it evidenced more in acts than in words. In this way, Fielding contrasts the concept of Virtue from characters like Square and Thwackum to the one actually practiced by Jones and Allworthy. Tom's faults (or his “imprudence” and “lack of chastity”) do not allow him to be a perfect hero but his good heart and generosity, convert him in a virtuous character. Tom may also be seen as an intermediate hero between the Classic and the Romantic: as the virtuous classic model of the Epic hero was already atrophied, Fielding composed a smart but naïf hero, very associated to the picaresque (years later, Walter Benjamin would establish a basic difference between the hero of the Classical Epics and the hero of the Romances: while the first represents all the community, the second one would make evident the individual differences).


Not only a model of hero but, also, the individual conscience – something that took centuries to be formed – was under construction at those times. It is evidenced through the analysis of some contemporary philosophical discussions concerning the search for a practical reason, which were expected to determine the relations between moral and liberty, while making more consistent the concepts of duties and autonomy. Such construction of the individual had different phases throughout times so this is not a coincidence that Tom Jones’s moment (1749) is the same 18th Century in which many other similar studies were written like Shaftesbury’s “Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times” (1737); Humes’ A Treatise of Human Nature” (1739-40) and An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals” (1751), among others, followed later by Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781).


Therefore, the new concepts of the personal liberty (or modern “citizenship” as we know today, with its rights and duties) were being formed (or transformed), as Fielding lived and produced during an important period between the first concepts of the individuality (originated with the habeas corpus instituted by the Magna Carta of 1215 and, later, endorsed through the Bill of Rights of 1689) – and the political changes which were to come, mainly in the continent, through the Déclaration des Droits de l'Homme et du Citroyen of 1789 (and its posterior deliberation by the Convéntion Nationale Française, in 1793).


But Fielding dared to anticipate his point of view about the individual rights and opportunities, criticizing the current hypocrisy and offering a new criteria to evaluate the people’s actions and the practical moral in vigor in the society that was creating the industrial capitalism, as the revolution that was in course in England, differently from the events of 1789 in France, had a more economic nature than properly a political one.


            And as the romantic hero was still under construction (we are far from the “reflecting subject” and it’s ‘aufhebung’ movements, as described by Hegel in his Lectures on Aesthetic, of 1835), Tom Jones had no psychology, being more patient of the circumstances and events than an effective modifier agent of his environment, differently from Jane Austen’s character Elizabeth Bennet, in her Pride and Prejudice (also, Lukács said that Novels became a kind of bourgeois epics which replaced the Epic genre).


Tom’s constitution is the one of a hero with an anti-hero’s face – while Blifil is the anti-hero with a hero’s face. In other words, despite being a bastard, Tom had all the virtues that Blifil (the man who had a family name and, thus, properties), did not have. In her already mentioned introduction to Tom Jones, Doreen Roberts outlines that this discussion about the ethos of these two characters (Tom and Blifil) leads us to a scheme of moral taxonomy evidenced by polarities: “appearance and reality, action and motive, reasoned principle and instinct, prudence and impulsiveness, self-interest and disinterestedness, suspicion and trust, and justice and mercy” (pp. x and xi). One example of such polarities – and hidden motifs - is when Blifil releases the pet bird given to Sophia by Tom: he is not acting with benevolence, as we may believe at first. There is an implicit reason for this act and the reader will realize it and will form an opinion about Blifil’s real intentions.


            The fine irony of the book – which comes with a certain “cynical” excess of formality from the narrator – allows readers to have an own moral judgment about characters, much beyond their appearances, being the act of judging – and looking through the first impressions – something that a former barrister like Fielding was definitively very used to. This dichotomy between an exposed appearance and a hidden, hypocritical intention was, also, an efficient resource to deceive sensors.


            Another good example of real intentions versus moral appearances is when Allworthy was deadly sick and about to die: he said to Tom that, as he already had goodness at heart and honor, the only thing missing to him was the religion. But the representatives of Philosophy and Religion, Tom's tutors – together with Blifil –, were anxiously expecting Allworthy's death in order to receive their part of the will. As Allworthy recovered, Tom became euphoric and “inconvenient” to them: so it was the right time for those “representatives” of the “good principles” and “bastions of the moral” to banish him, using a completely unfair accusation.


The low-life circumstances and characters enable readers to experiment the impression of a new, realistic world, despite many somehow unreal situations that occur during the narrative. Also, they will forget, sometimes, that Tom, a “likeable” character to whom readers easily identify themselves with, is unreal. This identification between readers and character is mostly due to the fact that what is being portrayed is the private life of a common man at those times when a new reading public was being formed.


In general, details in the names of characters will enable us to better understand their reasons and roles in this complex plot, as in the examples below:


  • Mr. Allworthy: Just like his name implies, he has a benevolent, altruistic behavior. His main fault is that he is not able to notice the evil in the others due to his goodness, what justifies his act of banishing Tom from the country, exactly like he did to Jenny years before;


  • Squire Western: This title added to his name brings implicit the idea of “a member of the British gentry, a ranking below a knight and above a gentleman” (Webster) as well as the owner of a country estate or the principal landowner in a village or district” (idem, ibdem). He is a caricature of the rough countryside landowner, with no refined – or “affected” – manners, like his sister, just arrived from London;


  • Mr.Thwackum, “the philosopher”: He is Tom’s tutor and his name is a very suggestive one, probably a derivation of “thwack” as he constantly beats Tom and praises Blifil while claiming to value Religion above all else;


  • Mr.Square, “the divine”: Another Tom’s Tutor. According to the Webster Dictionary, this term defines “a person who is conventional or conservative in taste or way of life”. However, he is less sinister than Thwackum and his transformation at the end of the novel allows Allworthy to forgive Tom;


  • Lady Bellaston: The stem of her last name (“Bella”-) means ‘war” in Latin and suggests her malicious nature and selfishness;


  • Partridge: Supposed to be Tom’s father, he is a pathetic and coward man, compared to a Harlequin by Fielding. His name (a gallinaceous bird) reflects such “qualities” and, like a buffon, he oftenly causes problems to everyone despite his good intentions;


  • Mrs. Honour: The virtuous Sophia’s servant, as her name indicates.


In addition to such examples, other characters have a more elaborated ethos and their behavior reflect relevant facts about their own moral as the following ones, among others:


  • Sophia Western: She treats people of all classes with respect and tries to conciliate her affection to Tom with her father’s disapproval. According to Martin Battestin, she is “an allegorical figure, meant to represent the feminine ideal and therefore kept as anonymous as possible”;


  • Master Blifil: Although he seems to be at first a virtuous character, his hypocrisy provides a portrait of humanity’s selfishness as he keeps secret of the letter which reveals the secret about Tom’s origin. Also, he does not desire Sophia but he is interested in joining both properties.


  • Squire Western: He acts like a caricature of the rough countryside landowner, with no refined and affected manners like her Sister, arrived from London;


Doreen Roberts states, on the other hand, that “names like ‘Thwackum’, ‘Squire’, ‘Nan Slouch’ and ‘Will Spray’ (…) [lead to the] ridicule” while “characters like ‘Tom’, ‘Sophia’, ‘Allworthy’ and the villain ‘Blifil’ are ‘types’ in the non-caricature sense (…)” (p.XVI)


Despite having both rationalist and benevolent influences in the book, Fielding avoided in it the morality present in Pamela. But, also, he took care of not glorifying the simply view that virtue is the genuine impulse of a good heart and, thus, not reducing Tom Jones’ attitudes to something pre-rational or involuntary. “So Fielding attempts a progressive reconciliation between his {Tom’s} polarities, especially between ‘reason’ and ‘instinct’, by arranging for Tom a succession of episodes in which he can learn to direct his good impulses prudentially”, observed Doreen Roberts.


However, such experiences do not grant to our hero a learning through a “thesis”, its “antithesis” and a final “synthesis”, as described in Hegel's dialectics: Tom had no developed psychology – and such model of learning through a three-step process would be something typical of the Romantic characters and Aesthetics, some years later. Anyway, the full, excessive omniscience – a resource used to supply the lack of psychology of the hero –, is something that would be very present in the literary production from that time on, as seen in Dostoievsky and Tolstoy’s narratives – or even in Eliot and Joyce’s texts.


Although Fielding was pledged to criticize the (lack of) morality of his villains, he was also trying to establish a moral behavior – or reason – for his hero. According to our standards nowadays, Tom could even be considered a sexist character but, despite of his gallantry and handsome face – which attracted women’s love and affection –, he always acted like a gentleman.


There is something else to be mentioned concerning Tom’s journey to London. While in the countryside, Tom was a man with natural, almost animal (sexual) instincts, but good-hearted: this was his true virtue! After arriving to the “civilized” city, he learnt not only good manners but, also, the importance of appearances, through his affair with the lusty and malicious Lady Bellaston – and, so, all his instinctive, natural self-attraction was transformed in pure seduction, with clear interests. However, his inner good nature was stronger and he could not adapt himself to this new “civilized” seduction game, being this “lack of adjustment” much more than an evidence of his ethos but a comic, somehow picaresque element, efficiently used in the narrative towards its “happy end”, when readers finally realize the inutility of any innate virtue: only the revelation about Tom’s birth saves him from being hanged and, also, secures him his beloved Sophia and the Paradise!


Many years before the implementation of the rigid moral standards of the Victorian Period – when all the rigor in the education of the individuals was provided with the main purpose of preparing the labor class for the hard work at factories (and, obviously, the masters to command them) – Fielding was denouncing the hypocrisy and taking characters’ masks off.