The narrator explains to the reader in the opening chapter that human nature is “the main provision on offer” (51). He does not intend to make any judgments on human nature, but instead wants to present it as a dish would be offered on a menu. Much of the criticism of Tom Jones was in response to the licentious behavior of characters such as Molly Seagrim, Mrs. Waters and Lady Bellaston, not to mention Tom Jones himself. However, Fielding did not want to create a necessarily moral text that ignored the truth of how people are. He believed human nature has capacity for good and evil, and wanted to explore those contradictions. Further, it is important to note that Fielding was not advocating or defending any of the immoral behaviors of his characters, but merely presenting their actions as steps on the road to greater wisdom. Indeed, each of the major characters already mentioned undergoes a learning process, and redemption is offered to anyone who seeks it.
Molly Seagrim is a passionate and lusty young woman. She bewitches Tom into his first sexual experiences and attempts to ensnare him as protector by having his child. Tom laughs when he discovers she is having an affair with Square, and when he learns he is not the father of her child. Molly finally settles with Partridge at the end of the novel, and so ends up with someone to love and support her.
Mrs Waters, or Jenny Jones, is accused of being Tom’s mother, after which time she leaves the area and ultimately ends up living unmarried with Captain Waters. She not only carries on a further affair with Northerton, but also quickly strikes up a dalliance with Tom. However, she does have a capacity for honesty and gratitude, and so we are to be happy when she finally settles into a legal marriage with Parson Supple.
Lady Bellaston, the demirep, preys on younger men and has an unsavory reputation about town. Nightingale is quickly able to ascertain that she does not want to be saved from this life of vice, so recommends that Tom proposes to her to break her ties to him. Shocked at his proposal and unwilling to make the compromises that marriage would require, Lady Bellaston dismisses Tom as a villain. She receives no reward in the narrative.
Tom makes numerous impetuous decisions and moral errors in the course of the story, but he also exhibits many positive qualities which balance out his vices. Fielding’s purpose in the development of his characters, Tom in particular, is illustrated by a comment from the dedication: “I believe, it is much easier to make good men wise, than to make bad men good” (37). In other words, through Tom he expresses his belief that even good men falter, but from folly, not necessarily from evil.
Of all of the weaknesses of mankind, Fielding viewed hypocrisy as the most pernicious and damaging. When referring to Master Blifil in book 3, the narrator makes a thoughtful observation on the menace of his duplicitous ways:
“A treacherous friend is the most dangerous enemy…both religion and virtue have received more real discredit from hypocrites, than the wittiest profligates or infidels could ever cast upon them” (130).
The novel seeks to highlight hypocrisy across the social spectrum through the lens of humor. Goody Seagrim condemns Molly for falling pregnant, yet it is revealed that she gave birth within a week of her own marriage. Further, we discover later that she “shared in the profits of iniquity with her daughter” after Molly’s relationship with Mr. Square is exposed (217). The hypocrisy of the lower class is further illustrated when fair Molly is viciously attacked in the church yard after attending church in a fine dress. They are driven by envy, but disguise it in moral tones to justify their ire.
Fielding also explores the double standards of the medical profession. Doctors frequently misdiagnose conditions as fatal – it happens to Tom, Allworthy and Mr. Fitzpatrick – in order to increase their earnings. The most ridiculous of these situations occurs when Captain Blifil is found dead of an apoplexy. Two physicians have been called, but the patient is already dead. The physicians then both attend on Mrs. Blifil: “The case of the lady was in the other extreme from that of her husband; for, as he was past all the assistance of physic, so in reality she required none” (118).
The arrangement suits both (remaining) parties, however, as the physicians are earning a fee, and Mrs. Blifil is seen to be mourning her husband with the appropriate level of grief.
Squire Western changes his attitude to Tom depending upon how he perceives the young man's circumstances. Initially, Tom is a great friend of the Squire, and is frequently welcomed in the Western household. As a young man, Tom’s valiant efforts to save Sophia's bird endear him to the squire, who proclaims: “I shall love the boy…the longest day I have to live” (161). However, this sentiment soon changes when he discovers that Sophia’s love for Tom is an obstacle towards her making a profitable match with Blifil. The squire roundly condemns Tom and resolves to keep them apart. He keeps this resolve until Tom’s parentage – and therefore his rightful inheritance – is revealed. The squire is then keen for the wedding between Tom and Sophia to happen immediately, and crudely suggests that a grandchild should be born nine months to the day. Overall, the man professes true sentiment but is driven solely by greed in the development of his opinions.
Fielding illustrates the dangers of double standards through even the best of characters. Allworthy resolves to favor Blifil not because he has faith in the young man’s character, but because he is not favored by others: “Henceforward, he saw every appearance of virtue in the youth through the magnifying end, and viewed all his faults with the glass inverted” (141). We finally learn that Blifil had been deceiving Allworthy for most of the man's life, but Allworthy facilitates this deceit through his own actions.
Fielding was an advocate of a balanced and happy marriage. He began the novel shortly after the death of his first wife, Charlotte Cradock, and his deep affection for her is embodied in the character of Sophia. He hopes to immortalize the memory of Charlotte through Sophia, as he unabashedly states at the beginning of book 13: “Foretel me that some tender maid, whose grandmother is yet unborn, hereafter, when, under the fictitious name of Sophia, she reads the real worth which once existed in my Charlotte, shall, from her sympathetic breast, send forth the heaving sigh” (607).
The institution of marriage is, like the book's other issues, explored through each strata of society. We see Mrs. Partridge and the “envenomed wrath” with which she attacks her husband after hearing the speculation that he has made Jenny Jones pregnant (97). This reflects the anger Mr. Fitzpatrick feels for the lieutenant who is more engaged by his wife’s wit than by his own. Jealousy and unsuitability abound, and their destructive effects almost force the story to an untimely end. Fielding employs an allusion to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Sophia’s threat to stab herself in the heart rather than marry Blifil, and the squire’s own threat to cast her out if she does not. The reader can see the irony here, in that the story is brought dangerously close to tragedy over this issue. It is only resolved when the lovers are allowed to be together, and this is only enabled by a change in their circumstances, not their affections. The potential for marriage to engender tragedy remains, even if our heroes escape it through fortunate revelations.
Before the novel was completed, Fielding had married Mary Daniel, his housekeeper. She was pregnant by him, and Fielding braved a public scandal to stand by her. Through the relationship of Nightingale and Nancy Miller, the novel reflects the potential for happiness despite a match outside social expectation.
Mrs Western’s several treatise on marriage exhibit the socially accepted norm of marriage, particularly for the higher classes. She variously describes marriage as being considered “…as men do offices of public trust, only as the means of making their fortunes, and of advancing themselves in the world” (292). This philosophy is evident in her promotion of Lord Fellamar as a suitable husband for Sophia, even though he has been physically aggressive to her. She sees only the financial and social implications, as does Lady Bellaston. She is happy to court Tom (and several other men, we are led to believe) and to assist him financially, but is not prepared to subjugate herself socially or materially, which it what marriage would require.
Fielding celebrates the contrast evident in English pantomime, and employs this effectively through the novel. This is manifest both through the opposing settings of the country and the city, and through characters and action. The first characters we see in opposition to one another are Thwackum and Square. Their outlooks and philosophies are at best complementary, at worst, diametrically opposed: “Square held human nature to be the perfection of all virtue, and that vice was a deviation from our nature in the same manner as deformity of body is. Thwackum, on the contrary, maintained that the human mind, since the Fall, was nothing but a sink of iniquity, till purified and redeemed by grace” (128).
Squire Western and Mrs. Western are direct contrasts in their approach towards convincing Sophia to marry as they wish. He insists on confining his daughter whereas Mrs. Western favors more civilized means.
Molly and Sophia are both objects of Tom’s affection (though not, of course, simultaneously), and yet have very different qualities. Molly is passionate, forthright and appeals to Tom’s physical yearnings, but Sophia rules both his heart and head.
Even within the tone of the text, it is possible to distinguish contrast. Tom is at his most wretched as he languishes in prison, condemned for murder and guilty of incest. His fortunes are rapidly reversed as he is revealed to be not guilty on all counts, and he is ultimately respected by those he was earlier charged with offending.
Fielding himself was a Protestant Latitudinarian. This largely means that he believed humanity was able to demonstrate both good and evil, and was free to choose their own direction. His use of contrast in the novel reflects this philosophy as Tom discovers, through his successes and mistakes, the path to happiness.
The narrator often directs the reader to some event or reaction which is prompted by Fortune. Fortune is personified in the text as if it is a physical entity or active constituent of the plot. It is not viewed as a supernatural force; Fielding goes to great pains to condemn the use of supernatural devices as a simple solution to challenges of plot or characterization. Instead, Fortune describes how a character’s own qualities are projected into events and situations. Allworthy is described as “the favorite of both Nature and Fortune” (53). It is apparent that the favor he has is as much propagated by his own benevolent actions as by any mysterious force. Tom in particular feels that Fortune acts against him, and it is only towards the end of the novel that he realizes that his fortune – or lack of it – is his own creation: “But why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the cause of all my misery” (815).
He has been subject to good fortune as well as bad. When ill, Allworthy tells the boy that he has “much goodness, generosity and honour” (228). He is offered Sophia’s lost pocketbook because he helps the beggar, and his greatest ally - Mrs. Miller - takes his side because of this and other selfless kindnesses.
Wisdom is Tom's ultimate goal, even if he does not initially realize it. Once he attains wisdom, he reaches the end of his journey and the path is open towards Sophia. In particular, his wisdom lies in accepting that he, not Fortune, determines his path.
Tom’s adventures allow him to amass wisdom. His relationship with Molly teaches him that women may not be constant. His devotion to Black George, and the theft of his bank notes by the same, show him that the desire to rise from poverty can be stronger than friendship. Blifil’s cruel attempts to destroy his half brother indicate that greed can be stronger than family loyalty.
There are also positive lessons that facilitate Tom’s ultimate wisdom. Simple kindnesses, such as he shows to the beggar and the highwayman, can bring rich rewards. Love can remain constant despite adversity; he wins his Sophia in the end.
The chapters where the Man of the Hill tells his story help Tom acquire wisdom, even though he only hears of another's experience. From the Man of the Hill, Tom learns the profitless path of gambling, and various truths offered by foreign travel.
Tom’s experiences in London impart further wisdom. He learns of the predatory nature of ladies such as Lady Bellaston. Nightingale teaches Tom how to navigate polite society, and he is rescued from penury by the intervention of friends he had loyally supported.
Perhaps Tom’s greatest lesson is to respect himself and those around him. The end of the novel reveals the root of Tom and Sophia’s successful and enduring union:
“They preserve the purest and tenderest affection for each other, an affection daily increased and confirmed by mutual endearments, and mutual esteem” (874).
Fielding certainly wants us to remember, though, that even the wisest of men is prone to lapses in wisdom. Allworthy is revered for his kindness and wisdom, and yet, “no man is wise at all hours" (131). Indeed, through his terrible mistake in trusting Blifil over Tom, many people experienced much heartbreak in the story.
Money, Wealth and Greed
Money - and the temptations it offers - affects most of the story. Part of Tom's virtue is that he is blissfully ignorant of the greed and negativity which the desire for money can inspire. When he leaves Paradise Hall, he is given money by Allworthy, but barely realizes it; at a result, he loses it. He scrapes by, but refuses to cash the banknote in Sophia’s pocketbook, even when prompted by Sophia to do so. His personal poverty prompts him to accept the advances of Lady Bellaston, but he almost immediately gives that money to Mrs. Miller to help her cousin.
Most other characters show more weakness in this area. The Man of the Hill began his downward spiral by stealing, and then by being drawn into gambling. Further, Ensign Northerton is willing to rape Mrs. Waters, who had been his loyal companion, for her jewelry and money. We see that Mrs. Harriet Fitzgerald lost favor with her aunt and gained a philandering husband all because he wanted her wealth to pay off his debts. He imprisons her because of her protests, but her release is equally facilitated by money. As she tells her cousin, “…gold, the key to all padlocks, opened my door and set me at liberty” (536).
Of course, the most pernicious example of greed comes through Blifil. Both he and his father are undone by their greed. Captain Blifil dies of an apoplexy as he lusts over his brother-in-law’s lands. Because of his greed, he dismissed his brother following the match with Bridget, and his brother died of a broken heart over it. Of course, one could argue that what kills Dr. Blifil is actually that he has lost his link to the inheritance represented by Bridget. Finally, the young Blifil exhibits incessant cruelty towards his uncle and towards Tom solely so he can keep the Allworthy inheritance for himself.
Part of Tom's ultimate wisdom is in realizing that men are flawed, and must be forgiven for their weaknesses. He shows a great understanding of greed when he forgives Black George and Blifil for their trespasses at the end of the novel.
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.