Tom Jones as a Study of Human Nature
Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, states in the Chapter 1 of Book 1, “…nor can the learned reader be ignorant, that in human nature, though here collected under one general name, is such prodigious variety, that a cook will have sooner gone through all the several species of animal and vegetable food in the world, than an author will be able to exhaust so extensive a subject.” Fielding, as a man of learning and of healthy acquaintance with eighteenth century London society, observes that while ‘Human Nature’ as a subject is well-used but never well-expressed. Thus, he tries to express the nature of the different characters in Tom Jones and through them, the temper and the sensibilities of the British Society. Also, this mode of representation is subjective to Fielding’s thought process as we can see through his of irony at different points in the story.
Fielding tends to ‘reveal’ a character instead of describing it. In this way, we learn about the character subjective to other people. The characters in the novel could be easily placed on a gradation scale. Some like Squire Allworthy and Sophia Western are virtuous and genteel, while some like young Blifil and Lady Bellaston are evil and spiteful, both kinds being on the extreme ends of the scale. Then there are characters with varying levels of goodness. Characters like Jenny Jones, Partridge, and Tom deviate along the path and go under considerable development through the course of the book. Many of these characters are motivated by money and personal gain but they use different methods to attain those, which the author uses to show hypocrisy in England. People like Blifil’s tutors abhor and even physically abuse Tom to get in good terms with Allworthy and his sister. People at inns judge Tom on the basis of his attire and hence try to con him in paying more for his lodgings. Blifil approved of violence for marrying Sophia so he could get her money. Surroundings play a huge part in this. Tom grows under the tutelage of Allworthy and is thus, genteel and innocent. Blifil grows up in Tom’s shadows and feels jealous of him for all the attention Tom gets. This is true in other cases too. Bridget grows in the shadows of her brother with no hopes of a fortune unless she marries, making her disapproving of her brother and dismissive of marriage. Jenny who shows scholarly talent from her younger years has to resort to prostitution to make ends meet and grows more street-smart. Nightingale grows in the London societies and learns the ways of shrewd women like Bellaston, as he uses in getting rid of her. The local people also become a part of this.
Within the novel, people in the country are judgmental and more prevalent in spreading rumors than in knowing the truth, so much so that they label Tom as Allworthy’s bastard son. People at inns, too, are judgmental of Tom’s bastardry and so refuse him lodgings. When they don’t, it’s just because they don’t want to lose favor with Allworthy. Mrs. Fuller is also judgmental of Tom and asks him to leave but then discovers his charitable nature and her views about him are changed. One thing common about these people is that they all are bound by the shackles of the society and are afraid of doing anything that might bring ill-repute to them. Another thing to note that Fielding rarely describes the temper of a character, it’s usually through the eyes of some other character that we discover him, but when he does, it leads to a staticity. Characters like Allworthy and Sophia are synonyms for virtue and righteousness. But, so little of their real motivations is described. Both Sophia and Allworthy are said to be born in privilege, learn of city manners in London and are sure of their place and so, have no insecurity. They have little or no flaws and no character change throughout the story, while a lot of major characters go through some significant changes, including Blifil who gets spiteful enough to conspire against Tom’s life. It is also worth noting that Allworthy and Sophia are based on real people who Fielding knew during his time, thus we see them almost through Fielding’s eyes than Tom’s.
Another feature of the narrative worth noting that Fielding keeps people as close to their characters as possible and uses prose exceptionally in this scheme. This is evident from Partridge’s Latin ramblings, Honour’s misspelt letters, and Western’s abusive tongue. And, while doing so he may not agree with the character’s opinion and may use irony and satire boldly while patronizing those. The author uses a number of literary devices to create a most engaging narrative and thus creates some of the most memorable characters. Jenny Jones who undergoes a complete change in her character from a talented and learned young girl to a cunning woman who uses her street smart ways to avoid getting trampled in the judgmental society. She is not married and solicits for money but, takes the salutation of a wife to evoke respect from others. She stays true to her word even in the end and reveals Tom’s parentage, in spite of her hardship and a promise of a hefty sum to get Tom executed. We learn a bit about Fielding’s temperament too. He twists the plot to give a comic ending. In the last chapters, the characters have no role in all the occurrences, it is completely because of a plot twist that Tom is deemed worthy enough to marry Sophia.
Even though Fielding criticized hypocrisy and used satirical elements all throughout the novel is unable to imagine a plot where Tom can ‘become’ worthy. He must be ‘born’ worthy. He is unable to break class barriers, either because he can’t think of such a society or because he didn’t want to irk the readers. Maybe, this outcome was to ‘nullify’ the promiscuity but the book gained notoriety anyway. While the use of irony thus used, exposes hypocrisy in human nature, but in some cases, it also makes one realize the weakness in the protagonist. Jones is a highly flawed character. Even though, he is genteel and sensitive, he has no intelligence, no talent to speak of. He learns nothing to make his ends meet during his travels, he sleeps with other women while he speaks of loyalty to Sophia. He keeps landing himself in one trouble after another, from which other people rescue him. It’s always some external medium that saves him, which somehow contradicts the author’s beliefs on deux ex machina, he mentions in Book 18 Chapter 1. “This I faithfully promise, that, notwithstanding any affection which we may be supposed to have for this rogue, whom we have unfortunately made our heroe, we will lend him none of that supernatural assistance with which we are entrusted, upon condition that we use it only on very important occasions.” While the incidents that saved Tom’s life were not supernatural, but were out of his or anybody else’s means to achieve. It was a sheer coincidence that medical aid was available for Fitzpatrick, another coincidence that Mrs. Waters was staying with him. Yet another coincidence is that Partridge sees Mrs. Waters as she left. Although this scenario satisfies the comic nature of the novel, one can’t deny how well everything plays out.
While Jenny who had had academic talent and has to resort to prostitution to make ends meet is met with ridicule for seducing Tom and other men, Tom is waved off as an innocent when it comes to his affair with Lady Bellaston, just because he feels indebted towards her. Fielding’s bias towards him is highly obvious. Fielding strongly patronizes those who he feels are doing behaving immorally, but Tom’s promiscuity is always overshadowed by his greatness. Yet, it is no doubt a feat the way Fielding creates a rich amalgam of characters who are not just figments of his imagination, but who live and thrive. While they are riddled with Fielding’s subjectivity, it’s only through their motivations and that we can try to understand them.
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