Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944

In a relatively short life span, Henry Fielding was a poet, a playwright, a journalist, a jurist, and a pioneer in the development of the modern novel. The early poetry may be disregarded, but his dramatic works gave Fielding the training that later enabled him to handle adeptly the complex plots of his novels. Although he wrote perhaps a half dozen novels (some attributions are disputed), Fielding is best remembered for The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling. This novel contains a strong infusion of autobiographical elements. The character Sophia, for example, was based on Fielding’s wife Charlotte, who was his one great love. They eloped in 1734 and had ten years together before she died in 1744. Squire Allworthy combined traits of a former schoolmate from Eton named George Lyttelton (to whom the novel is dedicated) and a generous benefactor of the Fielding family named James Ralph. Moreover, Fielding’s origins in a career army family and his rejection of that background shaped his portrayal of various incidental military personnel in this and his other novels; he had an antiarmy bias. Fielding’s feelings of revulsion against urban living are reflected in the conclusion of Tom Jones (and in his other novels). The happy ending consists of a retreat to the country. Published a scant five years before Fielding’s death, Tom Jones was a runaway best seller, going through four editions within a twelve-month period.

The structure of the novel is carefully divided into eighteen books in a fashion similar to the epic form that Fielding explicitly praised. Of those eighteen books, the first six are set on the Somersetshire estate of Squire Allworthy. Books 7 through 12 deal with events on the road to London, and the last six books describe events in London. The middle of the novel, books 9 and 10, covers the hilarious hiatus at the inn in Upton. Apparent diversions and digressions are actually intentional exercises in character exposition, and all episodes are deliberately choreographed to advance the plot—sometimes in ways not evident until later. Everything contributes to the overall organic development of the novel.

This kind of coherence was intimately connected with Fielding’s concern about the craft of fiction. Tom Jones is one of the most carefully and meticulously written novels in the history of English literature. It is, in fact, remarkably free of inconsistencies and casual errors. Fielding saw his task as a novelist to be a “historian” of human nature and human events, and he considered himself obligated to emphasize the moral aspect of his work. More important, Fielding introduced each of his eighteen books with a chapter about the craft of prose fiction. Indeed, the entire novel is dotted with chapters on the craft of the novel and on literary criticism. The remainder of the novel applies the principles enunciated in the chapters on proper construction of prose fiction. The chapters on literature in themselves constitute a substantial work of literary criticism. Fielding amplifies these theories with his own demonstration of their application by writing a novel, Tom Jones, according to his own principles. So compelling a union of theory and practice renders Fielding’s hypotheses virtually unassailable.

As Fielding made practical application of his theories of craftsmanship, their validity becomes readily apparent in his handling of characterization. Fielding viewed human nature ambivalently, as a combination of good and bad. Whereas the bad person has almost no hope of redemption, the fundamentally good person is somewhat tinged with bad but is nonetheless worthy for all that, according to Fielding. Therefore, the good person may occasionally be unwise (as Allworthy is) or indiscreet (as Jones often was) but still be an estimable human being, for such a person is more credible as a good person, Fielding thought, than one who is without defect. Consequently, the villain Blifil is unreconstructedly wicked, but the hero Tom Jones is essentially good, although flawed. To succeed, Tom has to improve himself—to cultivate “prudence” and “religion,” as Squire Allworthy recommends. Into this dichotomy between evil and good, and villain and hero, a species of determinism creeps—possibly not a factor consciously recognized by Fielding. Blifil and Tom are born and reared in the same environment, but one is wicked and one is good. Only innate qualities can logically explain the difference. Some minor characters are not so fully psychologized; they are essentially allegorical, representing ideas (Thwackum and Square, for example). Overall, however, Fielding’s command of characterization in general comprises a series of excellent portraits. These portraits, however, are never allowed to dominate the novel, for all of them are designed to contribute to the development of the story. Such a system of priorities provides insight into Fielding’s aesthetic and epistemological predispositions.

Fielding subscribed to a fundamentally classical set of values, ethically and aesthetically. He saw the novel as a mirror of life, not an illumination of life. He valued craftsmanship, he assumed a position of detached objectivity, he esteemed wit, and he followed the classical unity of action. His plot brings Tom full circle from a favored position to disgrace back to the good graces of Squire Allworthy and Sophia. In the course of the novel, Fielding demonstrates his objectivity by commenting critically on the form of the novel. He further reveals his classical commitments by embellishing his novel with historical detail, creating a high degree of verisimilitude. His sense of humor and his sharp wit also testify to his reliance on classical ways of thought. The easygoing development of the plot additionally reveals Fielding’s detachment and objectivity, and the great variety in types of characters whom he presents is another indication of his classical inclinations toward universality.

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Tom Jones