The novel begins with the narrator's assertion that authors should consider themselves as publicans, and that their purpose should be to outline what they have to offer to the reader in the way a menu is presented to a customer.
The main provision on offer by Fielding is human nature. The narrator explains that this is a wide subject which could be seen as general and crude. However, he argues that what matters are not the elements he represents but rather the way he uses and presents them, similar to the way a chef manipulates ingredients in order to fashion a dish that can appeal to many palates.
The narrator purports to follow the best cooks of the age in serving the plainest fare first, then spicing up his offering to equal the elaborate and exaggerated presentations of Europe.
Squire Allworthy is introduced as favored by Nature and Fortune. Allworthy is a widower whose children had died in infancy. He consoles himself that he will join his wife in the next world.
Squire Allworthy lives with his sister, Bridget Allworthy. She is thirty years old, rather plain in appearance, and contemptuous of those women who are not.
The narrator digresses, and apologizes to his readers that this is his proclivity; he also says critics will simply have to accept his approach.
Squire Allworthy returns from London, where he had passed three months on a business trip, to find an infant abandoned in his bedchamber. He is captivated by the child's innocence, whereas his maidservant, Mrs Deborah Wilkins, condemns the mother's loose morals. To her, the child would be better off dead than growing up to adopt the wicked morals of its mother. Allworthy instructs her to feed the child and take it to her chamber. She does so, and Allworthy sleeps a peaceful sleep.
Allworthy’s house is described. There is an emphasis on his goodness and generosity. He calls for Mrs. Wilkins to fetch his sister, and he gives the child to her as a present, even though she too condemns the mother's shameless actions. Mrs. Wilkins is charged with finding the infant's mother.
Mrs. Wilkins and Bridget assess one another’s reaction to the child. When Bridget kisses the child, Mrs. Wilkins copies her affectionate approach, though they both see such indulgence as foolish. They fulfill their obligation to Allworthy, and the narrator observes how often people carry out such virtuous duties with bad grace.
Mrs. Wilkins descends upon the town to seek out the child's mother. She brainstorms with an elderly matron, and both suspect that the mother is Jenny Jones, an intelligent young lady, cleverer even than many men her age. She has been subject to envy because of this ability, and has recently been condemned for attending church in a new silk dress. She had also been seen at Squire Allworthy’s house.
Mrs. Wilkins challenges Jenny, more as a sentence of guilt than a questioning of involvement. Jenny confesses to being the child’s mother and is brought to Allworthy. Here, she will face a sermon rather than punishment.
Jenny is lectured by Squire Allworthy for having both conceived and abandoned the child. He tells her that if she mends her ways from this time forward, he will provide for her. He asks her to give the father’s name but she refuses, saying she does not wish to bring upon herself further condemnation by betraying another.
Bridget listens at the keyhole as Squire Allworthy chastises Jenny. She then praises her brother’s judgment to Mrs. Wilkins. Bridget admits that she pities Jenny, and Mrs. Wilkins agrees, raising the point that sinful men corrupt many innocent girls.
After Jenny is removed from the parish by Allworthy, many people begin to suspect he is the child's father. They can imagine no other reason for his actions. He is of course guilty only of acting from kindness, rather than acting as the cynical masses expect a person to act.
The character of Dr Blifil is introduced. He was forced into medicine by his father, though his talent for science is formidable in every area but medicine. He stays frequently and for long periods with the Allworthy family as a guest on their estate. He woos Miss Bridget, even though he is already married, believing that a union between his family and the Allworthy family would be beneficial. To solve the dilemma, Dr Blifil sends for his brother, a half-pay officer, in hopes of encouraging a match between them.
Miss Bridget falls for Captain Blifil even though he is not an attractive man. Captain Blifil is aware that the the liaison with Bridget would be a valuable one, and is attracted only to the lands and property that could come from the marriage. He is not particularly interested in her. The couple follow a traditional pattern of courtship.
Mr. Blifil tells Squire Allworthy of the impending marriage between his brother and Bridget. Allworthy is quite happy with the union even though he was not asked for his consent, as he could have expected. Allworthy deems his sister old enough to make the decision herself.
As soon as the union is solidified, Captain Blifil turns against his brother and begins to treat him coldly. Mr. Blifil eventually leaves the Allworthy household and subsequently dies in London of a broken heart.
It is significant that the first chapter of this large work is a treatise on authorial intent, providing the narrator’s view of how a writer should regard himself and his craft. Fielding's suggestion that an author should be considered as a publican (someone who manages a pub) posits a reader more as a customer than an admirer, and hence is a writer expected to earn the reader's support. He extends the metaphor by explaining that each chapter will be prefaced with a ‘bill of fare’ designed like a menu, to detail the action and purpose of each section. Overall, the author's philosophy presupposes that every reader has the power to decline the narrative if he or she wishes.
When explaining the main subject of his narrative, "HUMAN NATURE", the narrator extends this metaphor by describing his text as a broad offering, and hence one difficult to make palatable to a wide audience. However, as he explains, the skill of storytelling lies not in the subject, but in the way it is presented. Using this premise, the narrator explains that he will begin his story plainly, then enhance it, so as to appeal to those who enjoy both low and high cuisine.
Further, Fielding's tone suggests that he considers this work less a piece of literature and more a work of history. He will consistently refer to the events as though they have already happened and as if he is simply relating them. In this way, he accomplishes a few goals. First, he is able to eschew traditional psychological interpretation of the characters. If he is merely recounting their actions, then he does not need to account for their motivations. This philosophy works with his desire to show the myriad qualities of humans and society. Further, by treating the work as history, he again gives the reader a bit of power - we are now to interpret these people. If our author is not going to explain to us their every inner working, then we must supply such understanding from our own experience.
The character of Squire Allworthy is quite fascinating. His name has an obvious symbolism - he is "all worthy" of our admiration thanks to his virtue. As the author states, he is blessed by both "Nature and Fortune." Both of these elements are personified in him, and become vital traits for his successful existence. Allworthy is wealthy and has "a benevolent heart." Though he has lost his wife and children, he still lives with hope. In stark contrast to him is Bridget - a plain and jealous woman, in very few ways worthy of the reader's admiration. In acting as a foil to the laudable Allworthy, she already poses an instance of Fielding's intent - he has presented two markedly different manifestations of humanity.
There is much consideration of innocence and purity in Book 1. Consider how Allworthy feels about the child he finds. It is telling that he discovers the young Tom Jones in the most intimate of places: his bedroom. And even though Mrs. Wilkins reveals an obvious disdain for the child, Allworthy is oblivious to it as he demands she look after it. He cannot see the ill will in others, which helps explain his "pleasing slumbers."
Bridget, on the other hand, is obsessed not with purity but with depravity. Her initial reaction to the child is to consider the ill morals of its mother (whereas Allworthy saw only its innocence). Though she does provide for the child from duty, the narrator is quick to intercede that fulfilling an obligation does not necessarily speak to a person's virtue. We see in this dilemma an indication of Fielding's desire to educate; he wants us to realize the complexities of human nature. In an amusing epilogue to Chapter 4, he validates his educational purpose by noting that the reader might need assistance in identifying such complexities, since he lacks "the inspiration with which we writers are gifted."
Similarly, Mrs. Wilkins shows little interest in considering the child's innocence. Instead, she focuses on the moral lapse shown by the child's mother. In Chapter 6, she is compared to a bird of prey in the simile of a kite as she descends on the parish to find the mother. When Jenny is presented as a suspect, Mrs. Wilkins is quick to decide she is guilty, which is a rather damning insight into the small-mindedness of those who immediately assume the worst of people. The strongest evidence against Jenny is that she wore a new silk dress, which stokes the imaginations of the gossips: where could she have gotten it from? Further, her intellect - something not expected for a woman - makes her suspect. When Jenny is brought to Squire Allworthy for punishment, people like Mrs. Wilkins and Bridget entirely expect a suitable punishment. Hence, it is a surprise when the kindly man offers only "wholesome admonition and reproof’: that is, an attempt to better her, rather than condemn her. His lengthy sermon in Chapter 7 provides further evidence of his kindness.
There is an allusion in Chapter 8 to the Pyramus and Thisbe story as Bridget listens through a keyhole, and it is played mostly for humor. Considering that that tale was chosen by the ordinary laborers in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridget is presented as a person far below her social status because of her behavior. Again, Fielding is less interested in the traditional class separations, and more in the way every human is capable of the highest and lowest of behavior.
The story shows the fickle and suspicious side of human nature as well. Once Allworthy begins to help Jenny and the child, he is immediately assumed by the public to be the father. The narrator makes an important observation on where public opinion becomes cruel and ignorant. He explains that this ‘mob’ mentality is not limited by class; ‘it intends persons without virtue, or sense, in all stations, and many of the highest rank are often meant by it..’ This is quite an attack on the values of the (upper and middle) classes who believed themselves well above the label of ‘mob’.
The tragic character of Dr Blifil – unlucky in his career as a reluctant and unsuccessful doctor, and unfortunate in lacking any chance with Bridget - is introduced in chapter 10. And yet his tragedy is of his own making. What attracts him to Bridget is almost entirely her family name, and because of it he introduces his heartless brother to her. Human folly is again show to be one of Fielding's topics. He also makes a contemporary joke in relation to Bridget, by asserting that she was immortalized in a Hogarth drawing. This reference would have amused his reader, as Hogarth’s work was well known. This is another way in which the characters are made more universal than real.
The courtship of the Captain and Bridget is humorous in its predictability, tradition and form. Fielding mocks the predictability of the action and reaction involved: "The captain made his advances in form, the citadel was defended in form, and at length, in proper form, surrendered at discretion" (81). The repetition of ‘in form’ heightens the amusement, and ultimately draws our attention to the silliness of upper class custom.