Tom Jones has been both criticized and celebrated for its depiction of a society of vice and corruption, with one side believing it encourages such activity, and the other applauding its representation of it. Whatever the moral effect of the text, its literary merit in offering guidance and exploring the art of writing is without question. The novel's most original aspect is its use of digressions, or literary essays, which characterize the opening chapters of each book. Through these essays, Fielding identifies his purpose, progress and process in the building of a new style of storytelling. It is interesting to consider how deliberately Fielding laid out his text both for the purposes of entertainment and moral education.
In his opening chapter, we are given “The Introduction to the Work or Bill of Fare to the Feast.” (51). The extended metaphor of the service industry both addresses the challenge of satiating diverse appetites and helps to outline Fielding's objective. As he embarks on a journey into a new type of writing, he explores the world around him to assist in the development of this new form. He has a clear plan as to how the novel will be structured, and he defines this as parallel to the creation of a food dish. He says that he will present the simplest creations first, then he will spice up the action “with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford” (52). This structural plan is indeed followed through the course of the novel. The first six books detail the gentle rural upbringing of Tom, Sophia and Blifil. Then, after Tom is cast out by Allworthy, we are served the meatier intrigues of his attempt to reconcile himself to Sophia’s affections. It is in books 15-18 where Tom’s life and experiences in London present the high seasoning of both the story and his character. Here, Tom is seduced at a masquerade ball and preyed upon by Lady Bellaston. He also faces the reality and consequences of a duel with Mr. Fitzpatrick.
The narrator explains that the narrative structure will vary, and that details will be chosen in order to maintain reader interest rather than for their own sake. He clearly defends these choices through his overarching philosophy: “The provision then which we have here made is no other than HUMAN NATURE.” (51) The variation of book length, and variable periods of represented time, support this claim of diversity. Book 2 covers approximately two years across nine chapters. Book 3 covers five years in ten chapters.
A good example of his deliberate structure is Book 2, which focuses on “Scenes of Matrimonial Felicity in Different Degrees of Life” (87). The text covers the courtship of Bridget Allworthy first by Dr. Blifil, and then more successfully by his brother, Captain Blifil. The decline in their relationship, from love to rejection to death by greed, is cataloged in detail. Other narratives contained here include Mrs. Wilkins's cruelty to the foundling, and the tempestuous relationship between Mr. Partridge and his wife. In all these Book 2 narratives are comments across the social boundaries on love, trust, truth and loyalty; in other words, it is exactly the bill of fare that Fielding promised.
In contrast, Book 3 explains Tom's and his peers’ development from age fourteen to nineteen. There is considerable detail to clarify Tom's impetuous good nature, such as his support of the Seagrim family through theft. Despite myriad punishments, Tom continues throughout the story to act with spontaneous generosity, and those gestures ultimately reap benefits for him.
The value of Book 3 is not under question, but it is fitting that it explores a longer time period since it deals with a narrower social spectrum than that of Book 2. If Fielding is exploring human nature across society as a whole, the investigation of more characters means more information should be given to the reader. The narrator had said he would “hasten on to matters of consequence” and he follows his plan (88).
When the narrator celebrates English pantomime as a perfect example of contrast, there is humor in his words, as this form of drama was seen as appealing for the lower classes. However, Fielding does employ contrast as an effective means of demonstrating character and creating humor within his own text. In Book 10, the reader sees the fair Sophia reaching an inn late in the evening, and refusing to have the other guests disturbed on her account: “Indeed I cannot bear to think of keeping any person from the fire this dreadful weather”(478). Her empathy and humility is tempered by her servant Honour’s arrogance and rudeness: “I am extremely nice, and have been always used from my cradle to have anything in the most elegant manner” (480). We see flashes of bawdy humor, such as when Square hides nearly naked in Molly Seagrim’s bedroom, or when Mrs. Waters insists on walking bare breasted to Upton. However, events which could drag the novel towards crude and vulgar avenues – such as the suspected incest – are carefully handled and subtly managed. The narrator adheres to his own premise for quality writing, made in Book 8, that "it is by no means necessary that his characters, or his incidents, should be trite, common or vulgar” (367).
Fielding is under no illusion that vulgar, trite and common events do not realistically happen. It is by choosing to allude to such actions, rather than to describe them in detail, that he prevents the text becoming what the less informed critics unjustly dismissed as vicious and corrupt. It is a careful balancing act that allows him to both entertain and provide strong moral example.
Fielding promotes the value of education through his text on several levels. He apologizes that some readers will struggle to understand his many allusions and references, both classical and contemporary. Of course, these generally serve to embellish the narrative rather than hinder it, especially considering the modern ease of locating references. Despite his obviously broad education, the narrator advocates that the best learning for society is society itself. In Tom Jones, Fielding tries to refer to all strata of society, believing we ought to explore its myriad conversations and manners.
The novel was an exciting deviation from the literary norm, and was as experimental in defining its target audience as it was in clarifying form and structure. It is likely that most of his audience would have been female. By 1750, literacy rates for women were well above 50%, particularly in London. Literacy remains a challenging area to define as much emphasis was placed on being able to sign records, and women were encouraged to read far more than they were to write. Hence, it is likely that many women would have been reading the work. This is probably why it uses characters firmly supportive of women's independence and intelligence.
Fielding is unabashedly and explicitly hopeful in his desire for immortality for both himself and his first wife through the text of Tom Jones. When he requests that his dear Charlotte be remembered far into the future through his characterization of Sophia, Fielding cannot have known (though he may have suspected) how firmly his literary legacy would remain with us today.