Henry Fielding. (17071754). The History of Tom Jones.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.
Criticisms and Interpretations
IV. By Gordon Hall Gerould
IN turning from Jonathan Wild to The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), reader and critic alike must feel a sense of relief. The tension of the former work is almost too severe; the latter introduces us to a healthy, hearty world, where good as nearly balances evil as it does in real life, and where the only sins to be castigated are the fruits of animalism and hypocrisy. It is the legitimate successor of Joseph Andrews and greater than the earlier novel in a good many ways. By common consent it is regarded as Fieldings masterpiece, nor is it likely to be cast down from that proud eminence. If he had written only this one book, Fielding would still be regarded as a member of that inner circle of novelists to which but few have attained. Here he shows his powers at their best,his unflagging vigor of thought, imagination, and phrase, his splendid flow of satirical and vitalizing humour, and, in spite of certain critics like Dr. Johnson, who regarded Fielding as a ruffian, and Taine, who rather unamiably spoke of him as an amiable buffalo, his tender appreciation of the delicate shades of nobility and virtue. Tom Jones has the advantage of Joseph Andrews in its very clear and definite plan. It is more mature, though youthful in the same delightful way, more coherent, and more solid.
The novel, indeed, is constructed on a generous scale. It recounts the lives of the titular hero and his circle of acquaintance. Skillfully welded, they are unfolded to the reader in a complex series of events which for the most part are not of themselves very extraordinary but which never fail of interest. Tom Jones, the foundling, is informally adopted by Mr. Allworthy, a country gentleman of great wealth and goodness. He is educated with the son of his foster fathers sister, young Blifil. His innocent and frolicsome boyhood is delightfully painted. Later, as the result partly of his own misconduct but more by the malice and treachery of Blifil, he is cast off by Allworthy, sets out from home with no definite purpose, and meets with many adventures on the roads of western England. Before this happens, however, he has fallen in love with the beautiful Sophia Western, the only daughter of a neighbouring squire, and is beloved by her in turn. After his departure she is urged to marry Blifil against her will and flees from home with her maid, Mrs. Honour. There follows a complicated series of adventures in which most of the personages of the story are involved. Finally Sophia meets her cousin, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and goes with her to London, where she makes her home with Lady Bellaston. Thither Jones follows her and is involved in a new series of adventures which are creditable neither to his brain nor his morals, though he honestly tries to live righteously and to rescue Sophia from the clutches of her enemies, who number not only the despicable Lady Bellaston and a nobleman who wishes to marry her, but her aunt and her father, who speedily come to town. Thither also come Squire Allworthy and the villainous Blifil. Poor distressed Sophia is ground between the upper and nether millstones of the conflicting wishes of her relatives and her love for Jones. She believes her lover to be more guilty than he is and nearly succeeds in stifling her regard for him. He too meets with misfortunes, though not in proportion to his deserts, and is finally arrested on the charge of murdering a man in a street quarrel. From this he is released, partly through the efforts of various persons whom he has befriended and partly by the discovery of Blifils unspeakable villainy, for that young man eventually overreaches himself. In the event Jones is proved to be the son of Allworthys sister and is acknowledged as such at the very time when Blifil is disgraced. Sophia, in spite of resolutions of spinsterhood, forgives him readilyall too readilyand consents to an immediate marriage. The many characters of the story who stand in need of forgiveness are duly forgiven or disposed of by death or disappearance, while all those who have any claims to sympathy are rewarded with good fortune and happiness. So the curtain falls on a scene of domestic bliss in which the beauteous Sophia and the reformed Thomas Jones are the central figures.
As to the stupendous achievement of the novel there can be no question. Beyond all cavil it is supremely great. By the very might of its revelation of human nature it disarms criticism and tempts to the use of the superlative. Indeed, where Gibbon and Scott and, with reservations, Thackeray have so indulged themselves, there is excuse for us. Yet for that reason the book needs no praise, but only the explanation of its virtues and the enumeration of its defects. The merit of it consists in the performance of what Fielding in his prefatory chapter promised to give the reader: The provision then which we have here made is no other than HUMAN NATURE.In like manner, the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the authors skill in well dressing it up. In other words, Tom Jones is great because it pictures real men and women, and because its craftmanship is marvelous.
As to the characters, the most various opinions have been expressed, though no one has yet arisen to say that they are not truly flesh and blood. Fielding, said Thackeray in his preface to Pendennis, was the last English novelist who was permitted to depict to his utmost power a man; and Fielding, we might add, has suffered from his frankness in painting certain characters and certain scenes which no right-thinking man can commend. In spite of stains upon their reputations, however, the men and women of Tom Jones are, almost without exception, gloriously alive. As for Tom himself, though by no means a hero in the conventional sense, he is a most interesting young person. His lack of moral stamina in conflict with his really excellent principles, his selfishness oddly mixed with extraordinary generosity, his cowardly weakness combined with vigorous manliness of body and soul,all these things present that painful contrast which is always present to some degree in the undeveloped man. Pendennis and Richard Feverel have many of the same characteristics. From one point of view all three got more than they deserved, yet all three are in the main sound and good. Toms bad qualities need not be condoned, nor should he be absolutely condemned. He became, one cannot doubt, a useful citizen, a faithful and unselfish husband, and a good Christian. He was one of those scapegraces who repent sincerely and are spared by fate as far as the world can see.
The lovely Sophia is not less persuasive, while she gains the unreserved respect and sympathy of all who know her. What man ever read Tom Jones without becoming for the nonce her admirer? Times have changed, it is true, and our ideals of womanhood are not altogether those of Fieldings day. Most of us find Sophia excessively passive and absurdly plastic, but we are taken captive by her goodness and beauty all the same. She is vastly the superior of poor Tom in every way, and because she is the embodiment of the eternal virtues of womanhood she can never lose her freshness of appeal. That the authors first wife sat for the picture as well as for the portrait of Amelia is of no special importance to usexcept as it makes us honor Henry Fieldingin view of the greater fact that the two are types of womankind such as the world could ill spare.
It is almost sacrilege to speak of Blifil after Sophia. Here, one cannot but feel hatred of cant and hypocrisy carried Fielding too far. Blifil is too perfect a villain. He overacts the part and becomes a monster,a thing to shudder at but not to believe in. On the other hand, we do not altogether believe in Mr. Allworthy because he is too good, or rather because his humanity is too thin. He is an excellent eulogy but not always a man. Of the other characters of this multiplex tableau it would not be profitable to speak at length. They are all living and breathing creatures, neither better nor worse than the average of their generation. Bluff Squire Western, stubborn, tyrannical, unspeakably foul-mouthed, yet not without redeeming traits, is probably but a composite of many country gentlemen. The sisters of the two squires, the one prim and not impeccable, the other obstinate and conceited, are as well done as their brothers. Mrs. Honour and the landladies need no commendation, especially the excellent Mrs. Miller, who is a good and true woman though not very wise. As for Lady Bellaston, cynical and passionate, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, foolish and deceptive, let us, while we wonder at their creators art, hope that such types do not exist to-day. Square and Thwackum, twin representatives of philosophy and piety, who are equally destitute of true religion; poor Partridge, immortal representative of masculine weakness; young Nightingale, as ready to give good advice and to follow the wrong path as Jones himself; the Seagrim family and Mrs. Waterswhat other novel can show a wider range of perfectly individualized characters?
In Tom Jones Fielding has attained the maturity of his art. He handles his material with consummate skill, never allows the unessential to obtrude, yet wisely permits himself the utmost latitude of space in developing his theme. Such art is unhasting and unresting. The phrase fits the thought, the thought the situation, the situation the general plan. It is altogether probable that the authors early training as a playwright helped him to an easy mastery of narrative form. The very haste and profusion of his dramatic work must have given him an eye for situation and a nice sense for the arrangement of material. How to make such episodes as the Man of the Hills story accord with this praise is difficult to see, to be sure. Indeed, in spite of the historical reasons for their introduction, allying the work with the Picaresque novel, one cannot help feeling that their insertion is a weakness. Yet the very fact that they have nothing to do with the plot and are easily skipped, renders them less obnoxious. Certain other faults which are inherent in the author rather than in the book can best be discussed in another connection. As a whole, Tom Jones is a picture of eighteenth-century life and manners drawn with unfailing vigor and unfailing insightso wonderful a picture indeed that it transcends the limits of time and takes its place in universal literature.From Introduction to Selected Essays of Henry Fielding (1905).