24 Nov 2023

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Literary context

Henry Fielding's (1707-1754) picaresque narrative Tom Jones (1749) draws on the Spanish tradition of Don Quixote (1605). Cervantes invented a manuscript to lend realism to his story and, in the second part of Book 1, he documents Quixote's adventures as a journal, a procedure followed in Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. Both of these narratives are also travel stories, as is Tom Jones. (Jones also has a Sancho Panza sidekick in Mr. Patridge.) Cervantes structured Book 1 as a 'history' with the author following the antics of his leading characters. This is how Fielding also presents what he calls his history

Cervantes' narrative points also towards the modern novel through its subplots, low and high styles and self-commentary. However, Don Quixote went deeper than Tom Jones since the author himself became a character in Book 2. This allowed Cervantes to write a fiction about fiction, a satire on realism. Nonetheless, because of its chosen theme Cervantes' masterpiece remains unrealistic and credibility will be the mark of the new art form of the novel. Quixote's distorted perception of reality lies in his belief that romance novels are real and Cervantes is satirising these chivalric tales. The English author, on the other hand, uses the romance theme of true love to power his narrative.

Some Enlightenment French novels also adopted themes from Spanish literature which appear in Tom Jones, too: satire, a panorama of social milieux and coming-of-age stories such as Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane by Alain-René Lesage (1715).

Fielding had been a playwright and was steeped in classical literature. The characters in Tom Jones are presented in the Greco-Roman dramatic tradition, many dominated by humours, such as lechery, avarice or superstition. Fielding was famous for the formula that the novel was ‘the comic epic in prose’. However, the epic as a classical genre was oral and poetic. It dealt with historical or legendary deeds and people working as a collectivity. The novel is none of these things but deals with individuals and their personal stories. Tom Jones is epic in the sense that it presents a panorama of society, unlike Richardson his contemporary who portrayed a small social group. Nevertheless, the novel does introduce characteristics of the epic plot by using mock heroic battles in a comic context and includes many quotes from classical writers.

Fielding's deep classical background led him to maintain that the contemporary literary taste was anarchic. He affirmed that no critic should be officially recognised unless he had understood Aristotle, Horace, and Longinus, in their original. Aristotle prioriterised plot over character but Defoe and Richardson inverted this, making plot dependent on characters. Fielding reverts to an aristotelian priority of plot. He does this through theatrical portrayal in Tom Jones, treating the plot as a history and his characters as actors. Unlike Defoe, Swift and Richardson before him, who carefully constructed a credible story through a first person narrator, Fielding sets himself up as the chorus in a Greek comedy. He is an omniscient narrator who addresses readers constantly, guiding them through the interpretation of his own fiction.

In the neoclassical tradition epic action featured two elements: verisimilitude and the marvellous which are very difficult to integrate. Fielding thought that the novelist should remain within the limits of probability. He emphasised verisimilitude as a reference against the contemporary romance and epic novels, yet avoiding the commonplace as represented in the home section of newspapers, as he explains in Book VIII, chapter 1.

Among Fielding’s contemporaries were writers who contributed to the newly emerging genre of the novel, including Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson. The circumstantial manner in which Defoe’s and Richardson’s novels imitate reality was essential to the new, empirical approach to the world, invoked by scientists of the Royal Society whose approach to truth was through the amassing, weighing, and measuring of particulars. This approach is particularly apparent in Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels. However, it was Richardson's bestselling novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), narrated as a series of letters, that prompted Fielding to turn from playwright to novelist. The same novel later inspired Rousseau to write Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761), also an epistolary novel depicting romantic love.

Pamela was the story of a young woman who became a great lady and found true happiness by defending her chastity. Fielding admired the novel's success but disapproved of its moralising. He wrote an anonymous parody called Shamela in 1741. The next year the author penned his first novel, Joseph Andrews, which began as another spoof of Pamela, but then found its own narrative voice. 

Fielding, while embracing the empirical approach to some extent, in other respects differed from the style of Defoe and Richardson. As a classicist Fielding remained loyal to the tradition of Plato and Aristotle who taught that reality transcends the singularities of daily life. This highest reality is found in the essential forms of things and in generalized representative types; the artist must show the general through particulars, the universal through the accidental. Thus, Fielding’s characters, though they have a life and integrity of their own, can also be read as symbols of a reality larger than themselves, and his novels can be seen as broad depictions of society and even of human nature.

Political background

Tom Jones (1749) was written following the Stuart attempt to reclaim the British throne in 1745. Mr. Patridge is a Jacobite, a supporter of the deposed Catholic king James II and his claim as the legitimate heir to the throne. There was support for the Jacobite cause of a Stuart Catholic monarchy from 1688 until 1745, when the last battle was won by Protestants. The Test Act 1673 was passed to ensure that non-Protestants could hold no State power. It stated that anyone filling any office, civil, military or religious, must take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance and subscribe to a declaration against transubstantiation. (The first Catholic Prime Minister since Thomas More (executed in 1535) was Boris Johnson.)

The Whigs were members of a political group representing some powerful aristocratic families and the financial interests of the middle classes. They monopolized parliamentary politics for most of the century. Whig policies were strongly anti-Catholic, anti-Jacobite, and anti-French.

The Tories were a political group that supporting the hereditary right of the deposed Stuart king James II, in spite of his Roman Catholic faith. They were mainly High-Church Anglicans, the aristocracy, and the squirearchy (country gentry) such as Western. Although they held little parliamentary power after the Hanoverians ascended the throne in 1714, they were dominant in local politics.

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