Karl H.'s Reviews > The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling by Henry Fielding
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May 24, 12

Read in July, 2012

It is virtually impossible to spoil the theme of Tom Jones, seeing as how the author decides to lay it out for us explicitly in the first chapter of the book. This theme, we are told, is “HUMAN NATURE.” However, as it is hard to imagine a book that does not have human nature as its theme, this does not tell us very much. Therefore, I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Fielding about the theme of his book, or at least specify that Tom Jones is primarily concerned with reputation, representation, falsehood, and rumor. The book can run a bit long and dull at times but mostly this is a good work filled with clever narration, strong irony and occasional sentimentality.

Our eponymous hero is left as an infant on the pillow of a good man named Allworthy, and through the generosity of Allworthy’s heart, is raised up as if he were Allworthy’s son. This, of course, inspires rumor that Jones really is Allworthy’s son. The facts of the case are irrelevant to the townspeople- Tom Jones is a bastard, Allworthy is raising him, why would this be unless Allworthy is the father? Allworthy is about as close to a saint as you can get, but even he is subject to rumor and slander. As Tom Jones grows up, he demonstrates he has a good heart, but commits a number of youthful indiscretions that in themselves are not terrible, but combined with rumor and slander, gain him a poor reputation. One example is when Tom poaches a single pheasant on their neighbor’s property. Rumor magically transforms this single bird into ten, and the single incident into a regular habit. And in this way, a small incident gets turned into a felony in public opinion. He is roundly condemned for daring to do such a thing, and whipped by his tutors accordingly. Later, it is discovered that the pheasant started on the Allworthy estate and flew over to the neighbor’s lawn, and that Allworthy’s groundskeeper told him to retrieve it. Once they were caught, Jones took the fall instead so the groundskeeper would not be fired. This is a relatively small incident, but it is an instance of the overwhelming pattern in the novel. I would even go so far as to venture that there is not a single problem Tom Jones faces throughout the book that is not either created or at least severely exacerbated by either misinterpretation, rumor or lies.

Since misinformation and misunderstanding plays such a huge role, I think what Fielding does with his narrator to be incredibly interesting as well. Typically we think of the pre-modern third person narrator as being an omniscient commentator on events who peeks into characters heads, gives us their motivations, directs us where we need to go and keeps us apprised of everything we need to know. In some senses this holds true for the narrator in Tom Jones as well, but not always. True, the narrator does state “we have good authority for all our characters, no less indeed than the vast authentic doomsday-book of nature,” which seems to grant him god-like knowledge. But the narrator in Tom Jones is also something of a character, and his running commentary provides many of the funniest moments in the book. The narrator’s authority is not completely trustworthy or comprehensive. The most extreme example of this is when our narrator says in response to an improbable occurrence: “I do not … deliver the following as a certain truth; for, indeed, I can scarce credit it myself: but the fidelity of an historian obliges me to relate what hath been confidently asserted.” There are other instances where the narrator insinuates what is going on in a character’s head but does not assert it as fact, even after finishing a paragraph detailing a character’s innermost thoughts. The authority of our narrator is also undercut by ironic passages, sometimes directed at the narrator himself. For example, he writes a prologue on how boring prologues are, and how most prologues often say the same things anyway- this after having written ten of them already. There also is a funny passage where the narrator claims he will no longer interject with his insights unless they are exceptional. He immediately writes a cliché, and then breaks his solemn promise made not three sentences earlier so he can provide a horribly banal insight explaining what the cliché means.

Tom Jones is not without its drawbacks, which bear mention. One is the extreme length of the book, which drags quite a bit in the middle. During a journey Tom Jones must stop in about a million inns, all of whom have practically the same innkeeper. Even our narrator points out how similar these characters are, as though this would preempt any criticism. I would also say the book suffers from under-characterization. There are a lot of characters in the book who serve incidental plot purposes that are not really memorable, but come back to play big roles. These throwaway characters are meant to be critical pieces to the ending of the story. I did not remember a good number of them, so when they made their suspenseful reappearance, instead of saying “Wow! Henry Fielding has pulled off a stellar twist!” I said, “What? Who the heck is this supposed to be?” And this problem is compounded by putting everything off until the last book before resolving the plot so characters who have not shown up for a dozen books are suddenly making reappearances left and right. The ending as a whole is kind of rushed as well.

Let me conclude by coming back to the stated theme from the opening of the book. If Tom Jones is supposed to be about “Human Nature” then it does not speak highly of the regard Fielding has for human nature. After all, a great deal of this book is about hypocrisy, rumor, lies, and undesirable behavior. But all of these things can also provide a great source for comedy, and ultimately for its faults, it’s the intimate understanding and skewering these aspects of human nature that makes Tom Jones worthwhile.
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