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Virtue and Vice
The overarching theme of Tom Jones is virtue and vice. The highlighted virtue is prudence, and the featured vices are hypocrisy and vanity.

Prudence, one of the time-honored cardinal virtues of Western culture, essentially means thinking ahead, considering the likely consequences of one’s actions, and acting accordingly. The failure to do this is Tom’s downfall over and over, until the very end of the story. Although Tom has many virtues—he is kind, good-hearted, generous, brave, loyal, and forgiving—his lack of prudence gives his adversaries opportunities to harm him and drives away his beloved Sophia, nearly for good.

Tom’s imprudence often manifests in his behavior with women. In spite of his love for Sophia, he falls into one dalliance after another with unsavory women. He continues this pattern of behavior even though he knows that it is hurtful to Sophia and counterproductive to what he really wants, which is to be with her.

The standard-bearers of hypocrisy and vanity are Captain Blifil and his son, Master Blifil, but they lead a large army of followers. Bridget Allworthy, Squire and Mrs. Western, the tutors Thwackum and Square, Black George, Lady Bellaston, Mr. Fitzpatrick, Lord Fellamar, and others portray the twin vices in many different forms. They all engage in misrepresentation, outright lies, disloyalty, slander, and more in attempting to get what they want, which is money and social status. By displaying these vices in so many characters, Fielding makes clear that he imputes them to the entire society he depicts; they are the rule, not the exception.

Fielding also deals with the relative seriousness of various vices. His hero is far from perfect. Tom is blatantly promiscuous and lets his enthusiasm for fun lead him beyond the borders of good behavior and even beyond the law, as when he talks Black George into joining him in poaching on a neighbor’s land. At intervals throughout the novel, Squire Allworthy is often distressed by Tom’s behavior and talks to him about the need for prudence and morality. Yet, until the end, Tom goes away from these talks and returns to his old ways.

In spite of the fact that Allworthy knows Tom’s faults very well, he concludes at the end of the novel that Tom is a good man, whereas Blifil is a hopelessly bad one. The kinds of obvious, public vices Tom has—the very ones that society often judges most harshly—are really less serious than the hidden vices of vanity, hypocrisy, selfishness, and greed that lie at the core of Blifil’s character.

Proceeding from Allworthy’s judgment that Tom’s vices are less damning than Blifil’s is the idea that Tom is redeemable, whereas Blifil is not. In fact, Tom is redeemed at the end of the novel. He finally sees the error of his ways and changes them. As a result, his “sins” are forgiven, and Tom is granted Allworthy’s fortune and the love of both Allworthy and Sophia. Blifil, on the other hand, is cast out of the family.

The idea that Fielding is making a point about redemption that applies beyond the scope of his story is bolstered by the fact that Allworthy’s character is God-like. He is a father figure to both Tom and Blifil. He is also a magistrate and therefore is in a position to pass judgment on people and their failings. Throughout the book, he exercises this authority with compassion and restraint. He shows mercy to the powerless (such as Jenny Jones) and forgiveness to the repentant. It is easy to conclude that through Allworthy, Tom, and Blifil, Fielding is declaring that those who are good at heart will be forgiven normal human weaknesses if they are willing to learn from their mistakes.

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