Tom Jones, a foundling, is reared by Allworthy, a wealthy Somersetshire squire. He has all the good qualities possible except prudence (which Fielding considers the supreme rational virtue) and suffers as a result; his desire to experience all that life has to offer constantly gets him into trouble, making him seem inferior to the falsely pious Blifil, Allworthy’s nephew. When Jones becomes drunk celebrating Allworthy’s recovery from an illness, Blifil conspires to have him expelled from the estate. Jones is thus separated from his beloved, Sophia Western, who is promised to the hated Blifil.
Setting out on the road to London, Jones is immediately robbed by Black George, whose poor family Jones has helped. This is the first of many such incidents which lead Jones, believing he has committed incest and murder, to prison to await hanging.
The novel’s plot is one of the most complex ever contrived, with all the many characters and events being connected. This structure reflects Fielding’s belief in the ultimate design and order of the universe. The novel’s lively characters, its inventive plot, and Fielding’s self-mocking digressions, however prevent the underlying moral seriousness from dominating.
The most entertaining and aesthetically pleasing of 18th century English novels, the book has had a profound influence on the development of the novel because of Fielding’s ability to combine vividly drawn characters, narrative technique, and explorations of almost all areas of human interest.
Dircks, Richard J. Henry Fielding. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Offers a detailed reading of the novel and its moral structures. Examines plot and structure, themes, realism, digressions, the sentimental tradition, and the novel’s characterizations.
Irwin, Michael. Henry Fielding: The Tentative Realist. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1967. Sees Fielding as a moralist who was intent on creating a new literature. In an analysis of the structure of Tom Jones, notes the didactic content of the novel’s themes. Discusses the limitations of Fielding’s characterizations.
Price, Martin. “The Subversion of Form.” In Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Sees the joining of the naïve hero and the sophisticated narrator as a source of Fielding’s humor. The result is an ironic stance that pleasantly confuses the reader’s expectations.
Reilly, Patrick. “Tom Jones”: Adventure and Providence. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Most of this book is devoted to a reading of Tom Jones. Examines the work’s Christian comedy and its use of satire. Draws some contrasts with the work of Samuel Richardson and Jonathan Swift.
Watt, Ian. “Fielding as Novelist: Tom Jones.” In Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Draws contrasts between Tom Jones and Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Notes Fielding’s comparatively superficial characterizations and his somewhat greater interest in plot.