Sunday, September 12, 2010

Required Work: Tom Jones

This book is long. Like Bleak House long. Even reading a summary just now almost put me to sleep.

Although this book is almost twice as long as Invisible Man, this post probably won’t even be half as involved as my post was on Ellison’s novel for two simple reasons: 1. It has been a few years since I have read Tom Jones, while I was able to post of Invisible Man in just a few days after I had read it; and 2. I didn’t get the following notes from a lecture. I am basically pulling from my memory and the summary I just read. And to make things even more difficult, this isn’t exactly a book that a lot of people have read (or at least finished). I may force myself to watch the movie at some point, because I am definitely NOT rereading it.


To me, Tom Jones reads like a very long and convoluted romantic comedy. Tom truly is a good person and wants very much to do what is right, but his temper, and his appetite for food, alcohol, and women constantly get him into trouble (although in almost every instance, Tom can honestly say, “Hey, she came onto me!”). There is one woman, Sophia Western, whom it is obvious Tom wants to end up with, and Sophia cares for him as well. But Fielding keeps these two crazy kids apart for 800+ pages through various misadventures, miscommunications, and misunderstandings. There are family members who think Sophia can do better, enemies who want Tom to do worst, women who want Tom for themselves, and then there is just Tom, who is fully capable of creating his own trouble. Most of the adventures have a comedic tone to them, with Tom and Sophia being united in an ending that everyone saw coming. See? Just like a romantic comedy.

Tom Jones is also very much a social commentary and satire. Upon publication the book was condemned by critics for being lewd and unseemly. However, what really seemed to upset them was Fielding’s funny attack on 18th century British society and its hypocrisies. Throughout the novel, Tom Jones is looked down upon for being a foundling and/or bastard, when really has one of the purest hearts of the entire cast. This criticism of class friction served as Fielding’s social commentary. And while they are intent on looking down on him, they are still very willing to use him to get what they want, which usually involves the wealth of the man who raised him, Squire Allworthy. Fielding makes the point that the family you are born into does not determine the quality of your character.

And of course, Tom Jones fits the category of a Bildungsroman. The book follows Tom from adolescence to adulthood, but also follows him from the English countryside to London after he leaves Squire Allworthy’s house. Tom does undergo a change as well. He remains a good person, but at the end of the novel, the narrator states that whatever tendency he had towards vice had been corrected by staying in contact with Squire Allworthy, and also by his marriage to Sophia.


One thing that always comes to mind when I think of this book (besides its length) is the intrusive narrator. Fielding wrote the book with a third person omniscient narrator. Of course, readers are more used to being directly addressed when it comes to first person narrators, but Fielding allows his narrator to not only know everything, but also tell the story as he is a participant. Many times throughout the novel, the narrator will stop the flow of the story, usually right before a crucial revelation, to go off on some tangent that could not be further from the reader’s mind. We are given intricate details we never asked for (maybe this is where Dickens got this from), and it almost seems as if this unseen narrator is enjoying telling the story. Fielding managed to create an omniscient narrator that the reader has a hard time trusting.

There is also a running theme of travel and escape. After Tom is basically kicked out of Squire Allworthy’s house, he travels from the English countryside to London. Sophia, who escapes her father’s house, also makes the same journey with her maid. Someone is continually after the both of them. With Sophia it is usually someone trying to return her to her father so she can be forced to marry Blifil, and with Tom it is often someone he has offended, or a woman he has recently slept with. Of course, the physical journey across England serves as a metaphor for the bigger journey of Tom’s transformation from a lusty hot-headed boy into a responsible man. But with escape and travel often being one and the same in the novel, I do wonder if Fielding is making the point that, much like Sophia, Tom isn’t just traveling, but also escaping.

Now, this probably isn’t a theme so much as it is something that just keeps happening, but even when just going through the summary I lost count of the number of women that threw themselves at Tom, one of which he later believes is his real mother (she isn’t though so it isn’t weird after all). Like I said, probably doesn’t count as a theme, but I felt I should bring it up.


Tom Jones is one of the earliest English prose works describable as a novel (also included in this category are Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Published in six parts in 1749, it was criticized for its inclusion of prostitution and sexual promiscuity and was seen as a “low” novel.

Fielding modeled the character of Sophia after Charlotte Cradock, the woman he elopes with in November of 1734. Tragically, Charlotte died of a fever in Fielding’s arms in 1744. He would actually go on to marry Mary Daniel, the family maid, in April of 1747.

As for next week…I really don’t have a plan. I’m sure I’ll come up with something, but as of right now, it is a surprise.

No comments: