The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling Study Guide

Fielding began writing Tom Jones in 1746. It was a wildly ambitious book which, in attempting to portray the nuances of real life, angered many but ultimately delighted generations of readers through both its influence and sprawling narrative.

The book's conception owes much to Fielding's personal life. At the time, he was deeply traumatized by the 1744 death of his wife Charlotte Cradock, and his lingering affection is evident in his assertion that the character of Sophia Western is based on her. There are wistful comments from the narrator regarding the immortalization of the writer and his muse, and Sophia’s gentility and resolve makes her a fitting monument to Charlotte. The novel was not completed until 1748, almost a year after Fielding married Mary Daniel, his former wife’s maid. She was pregnant by Fielding, and despite the gossip and social criticism, he stood proudly by his new wife. There are elements of this happy union in the happy marriage of Nightingale and Nancy Miller later in the novel.

Tom Jones, like its eponymous hero, was heavily condemned upon its debut. Fielding's exploration of a new form of writing and entertainment was labeled as corrupt and vicious, even though his purpose was clearly to present human nature for exploration and comment by the reader, rather than to protest against its various weaknesses. Thomas Sherlock, the Bishop of London, protested that the earthquakes which rocked London in February and March of 1750 were divine punishment for the publication of this, and other, immoral texts. References to the episodes of casual sex were frequently cited as inappropriate, despite Fielding's intent (as stated in the Preface) "to recommend goodness and innocence." (37)

Despite its critics, the novel was a success and has retained an eminent place in the literary canon. Its popularity was evident immediately. The first edition - printed in 2,000 copies - was sold out before the actual publication date was reached, and it went on to sell 10,000 copies within its first year.

The novel was innovative in its clear description and characterization, which offered more authentic representations of people and situations than texts of the time. Fielding's ambition in crafting the work was great. He was aware of the depth and breadth of Shakespeare's work, and endeavored to capture such complexity in his own writing. His purpose, to present human nature to the reader, is expertly managed, and those who criticize the novel are perhaps as blind to the realities of human behavior as they are to great literature. Fielding wanted Tom Jones to be a realistic hero – a man with appetites, strengths, failings and feelings whose transition into virtue took time and struggle, rather than being accepted as fact. Tom Jones is a process of character development, a comedy narrative, and an exploration of writing. The endeavor was bold, ambitious, dramatic and ultimately successful in forever changing the course of literature. Tom Jones might not have been responsible for any earthquakes, but it did bring a new freshness and stylistic diversity which was to entertain and challenge readers and writers for decades to come.