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). As such, he is in a sense isolated from his society, which does not know what a truly good person is; as such, he does not fit in. Fielding shows this in numerous scenes. Tom is the essentially good person, though he does sometimes do things that result in harmful outcomes. After Tom’s foolishness results in Black George being fired, Tom tries, typically, to atone by giving financial assistance to Black George’s family and obtaining another job for him. Nothing Tom does deeply harms another person—more often, Tom harms himself. He is even able to forgive Thwackum’s vicious beatings. Throughout the novel, Tom’s adventures illustrate his good impulses, his desire to do the right thing each time. Fielding does not see virtue without fault—one has to achieve it by experience, taking it as one goes, the good with the bad. The good-natured will survive, as Tom does.
Blifil, Tom’s foil, is quite evidently Tom’s mirror side. Fielding shows the reader Blifil’s toadying in the presence of the tutors, his freeing Sophia’s bird and giving a glib, rationalized excuse to Squire Allworthy—“the bird wanted to be free”—and his remembering Tom’s trespasses...
(The entire section is 4,355 words.)