Courtney's Reviews > The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
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Nov 01, 11

Read in October, 2011

This was one of those thousand page books I had three days to read before moving on to the next masterpiece when I was an undergraduate English major. I remembered almost nothing about it, except for scraps from my professor's lecture, when my hunt for copyright-free classics for my e-book reader led me here. It was the first English-language novel, as we define them today, or one of the first, my professor told us. I'm pretty sure I also read a John Irving book once in which a main character taught this book and was frustrated that his students didn't see the humor in it. So I had some idea of what I was getting into, and a little trepidation.

I'm glad I overcame my fear.

The broad plot outline is simple, despite many twists and turns. Tom Jones, a bastard, is raised by Squire Allworthy, who is very worthy indeed, alongside well-born and baleful Master Blifel. They vie for the attention of wise and beautiful Sophia, who loves Jones and hates Blifel. A convoluted series of obstacles get between Sophia and Tom Jones, including her blundering alcoholic father, the self-serious hilarious tutors Thwackum and Square, Tom's inability to resist a lusty wench, a Latin-loving addled barber named Partridge, a Catholic rebellion, and an endless parade of self-important innkeepers. It's foreordained that this long journey will eventually lead to a happy ending, but it's fascinating to see how the protagonists get there and what becomes of the supporting characters along the way.

Every dozen chapters or so, Fielding pauses the action for a short essay explaining what he's doing. "I'm writing a book here," he seems to say. "Someday, this genre will be called a novel. Let me explain what that's all about." He compares and contrasts a novel with a play, rails against critics for tearing down others without creating anything themselves, apologizes for the behavior of his characters by explaining that he's trying to show how human nature really works. These essays are witty, wry and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Fielding is very good at pretending to take himself seriously while subtly playing buffoon.

I found the language in this book easier to follow than some works written a hundred years later. Fielding's writing is clear, self-aware. He's not a poet, not overly beautiful with his words, but he knows how to spin an engaging yarn.


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