Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Tom Jones was an immediate success with readers. Periodicals and, therefore, published critics, were far fewer in number then than they are now, but most who wrote about the novel, for publication or in private letters, received it with some enthusiasm. One exception was Samuel Richardson, author of the recent best-seller Pamela, which Fielding had twice parodied. In a letter to the daughters of a friend, Richardson panned Tom Jones while admitting that he had not read it. Claiming that he had been warned by “judicious friends” not to do so, Richardson continued:

I had reason to think that the author intended . . . to whiten a vicious character and to make morality bend to his practices. What reason has he to make this Tom illegitimate? Why did he make him . . . the lowest of all fellows? Why did he draw his heroine so fond, so foolish, and so insipid? But perhaps I think the worse of the piece because I know the writer and dislike his principles, both public and private.

The recipients of the letter, Astraea and Minerva Hill, disagreed with their correspondent. “We went through the whole six volumes,” they wrote, “and found much merit in ‘em all: a double merit, both of head and heart.” The sisters were impressed at the way Fielding tied up all the loose ends of the plot “in an extremely moving close, where lines that seem’d to wander and run in different ways meet, all in an instructive center.” Contradicting Samuelson’s presumption that the novel must elevate immorality, the sisters wrote, “Its events reward sincerity and punish and expose hypocrisy; show pity and benevolence in amiable lights, and avarice and brutality in very despicable ones.”

Although some critics (notably William Forsyth, writing in 1871) have continued to object to Tom Jones on moral grounds, few have found fault with it on literary ones. Later opinion has been more with the sisters and less with Richardson. In 1836, the author Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:

What a master of composition Fielding was! Upon my word, I think The Oedipus Tyrannus, The Alchemist, and Tom Jones the three most perfect plots every planned. And how charming, how wholesome, Fielding always is! To take him up after Richardson is like emerging from a sickroom . . . into an open lawn on a breezy day in May.

In his preface to the Norton Critical Edition of Tom Jones, Sheridan Baker wrote of the novel, “It makes the English novel thoroughly literate for the first time. It marries comedy and romance, by the grace of the classics, to produce a peculiarly fresh and ironic wisdom.”wisdom."

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