Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Fielding’s best-plotted novel, his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, probably was begun in 1746. When the novel finally appeared, it was “enthusiastically received” by the general public, though not by two groups, the Tory journalists, who strongly disliked Fielding for supporting the House of Hanover, and Richardson and his group, who saw Fielding as a “filthy and immoral writer,” even to the point of slandering Fielding himself, particularly for “marrying his cook.”
This novel can be labeled pseudoautobiographical: Tom Jones, the main character and hero, is to a large degree a fictionalized version of his creator’s own boyhood experiences, as well as Fielding’s own psychological responses to those experiences. The narrative structure moves, through the journey to London that Tom makes, from innocence to experience. Fielding, in this novel, used a central plot interspersed with seemingly peripheral incidents or subplots, all of which helped the central plot to move steadily toward a desired terminal objective. These peripheral episodes thus fit into the main plot—seeming detours, but all part of the route that Tom must take on his road to knowledge. Using the tight construction of a well-made play, Fielding produced in Tom Jones one of the best-plotted novels in English.
Fielding himself called Tom Jones a “comic epic poem in prose,” though others say it is “essentially a comic romance.” Yet Fielding does include some parts that parody the effects of heroic poetry, particularly the digressions. Like other eighteenth century writers, Fielding felt it was his duty to try to change his society. Thus, he headed each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones with an introductory essay, each of which elaborates on an idea that he wished to promote, much like the Greek chorus in a tragedy. The digressions that he interjected only briefly divert the plot, which continues inexorably on to its conclusion.
The structure of Tom Jones shows three major parts, each six books in length. The first third of the novel is set in the Paradise Hall of Squire Allworthy in Somersetshire. Here, Tom’s infancy and early years to age twenty need only the first three books to be told; the beginning of his twenty-first year and his break with the squire highlight the next three books. The second third, books 7 through 12, take but weeks to complete, recounting Tom’s adventures on the road to London. The third part, books 13 through 18, is set in London, taking only days to complete. Yet the tone is grimmer, not the comical rowdy, farcical adventures Tom has hitherto met on the road but ugly involvements: prostitution, incest, and the like, similar to what Fielding had seen of London himself.
Tom, as a seeming orphan, is an antihero (part of the picaresque tradition)....
(The entire section is 1173 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Squire Allworthy lives in retirement in the country with his sister Bridget. Returning from a visit to London, he is surprised upon entering his room to find an infant lying on his bed. His discovery causes astonishment and consternation in the household. The squire is a childless widower. The next day, Bridget and the squire inquire in the community to discover the baby’s mother. Their suspicions are shortly fixed upon Jenny Jones, who spent many hours in the squire’s home while nursing Bridget through a long illness. The worthy squire sends for the girl and in his gentle manner reprimands her for her wicked behavior, assuring her, however, that the baby will remain in his home under the best of care. Fearing malicious gossip in the neighborhood, Squire Allworthy sends Jenny away.
Jenny was a servant in the house of a schoolmaster, Mr. Partridge, who educated the young woman during her four years in his house. Jenny’s comely face made Mrs. Partridge jealous of her. Neighborhood gossip soon convinced Mrs. Partridge that her husband is the father of Jenny’s son, whereupon Squire Allworthy calls the schoolmaster before him and talks to him at great length concerning morality. Mr. Partridge, deprived of his school, his income, and his wife, also leaves the country.
Shortly afterward, Captain Blifil wins the heart of Bridget. Eight months after their marriage, Bridget has a son. The squire thinks it would be advisable to rear the baby and his sister’s child together. The boy is named Jones, for his mother.
Squire Allworthy becomes exceedingly fond of the foundling. Captain Blifil dies during his son’s infancy, and Master Blifil grows up as Squire Allworthy’s acknowledged heir. Otherwise, he remains on even terms with the foundling, so far as opportunities for advancement are concerned. Tom, however, is such a mischievous lad that he has only one friend among the servants, the gamekeeper, Black George, an indolent man with a large family. Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square, who consider Tom a wicked soul, are hired to instruct the lads. Tom’s many deceptions are always discovered through the combined efforts of Mr. Thwackum, Mr. Square, and Master Blifil, who dislikes Tom more and more as he grows older. It is assumed by all that Mrs. Blifil would dislike Tom, but at times she seems to show greater affection for him than for her own son. In turn, the compassionate squire takes Master Blifil to his heart and becomes censorious of Tom.
Mr. Western, who lives on a neighboring estate, has a daughter whom he loves more than anyone else in the world. Sophia has a tender fondness for Tom because of a deed of kindness he performed for her when they were still children. At the age of twenty, Master Blifil becomes a favorite with the young ladies, while Tom is considered a ruffian by all but Mr. Western, who admires his ability to hunt. Tom spends many evenings at the Western home, with every opportunity to see Sophia, for whom his affections are increasing daily. One afternoon, Tom has the good fortune to be nearby when Sophia’s horse runs away. When Tom attempts to rescue her, he breaks his arm. He is removed to Mr. Western’s house, where he receives medical care and remains to recover from his hurt. One day, he and Sophia have occasion to be alone in the garden, where they exchange confessions of love.
Squire Allworthy becomes mortally ill. The doctor assumes that he is dying and sends for the squire’s relatives. With his servants and family gathered around him, the squire announces the disposal of his wealth, giving generously to Tom. Tom is the only one satisfied with his portion; his only concern is the impending death of his foster father and benefactor. On the way home from London to see the squire, Mrs. Blifil dies suddenly. When the squire is pronounced out of danger, Tom’s joy is so great that he becomes drunk through toasting the squire’s health, and he quarrels with young Blifil.
Sophia’s aunt, Mrs. Western, perceives the interest her niece shows in Blifil. Wishing to conceal her affection for Tom, Sophia gives Blifil the greater part of her attention when she is with the two young men. Informed by his sister of Sophia’s conduct, Mr. Western suggests to Squire Allworthy that a match be arranged between Blifil and Sophia. When Mrs. Western tells the young woman of the proposed match, Sophia thinks that Mrs. Western is referring to Tom, and she immediately discloses her passion for the foundling. It is unthinkable, however, that Mr. Western, much as he likes Tom, would ever allow his daughter to marry a man without a family and a fortune, and Mrs. Western forces Sophia to receive Blifil under the threat...
(The entire section is 1915 words.)