“You now see, Tom, to what dangers imprudence alone may subject virtue (for virtue, I am now convinced, you love in a great degree). Prudence is indeed the duty which we owe to ourselves; and if we will be so much our own enemies as to neglect it, we are not to wonder if the world is deficient in discharging their duty to us; for when a man lays the foundation of his own ruin, others will, I am afraid, be too apt to build upon it (863).”
Tom Jones is the eponymous novel about a foundling boy adopted by the rich and virtuous squire Mr. Allworthy and raised up as his own son. Over time his cousin, the sophistical and cunning, Blifil, and heir to Mr. Allworthy’s fortune, conspires to paint Jones in an evil light, managing to get Jones disinherited, and banished from the household. The two are not only rivals for Allworthy’s fortune, although Jones had never thought of inheriting anything, they also are rivals for the hand of their lovely neighbor, Sophia Western. After being banished from Allworthy’s household, Jones goes out into the larger world of Hanoverian Britain: briefly joining the army, fighting duels, staying at many different inns, flirting and sometimes sleeping with many different women, visiting London, and interacting with the upper-class nobility. Along the way, despite his own lack of fortune, he demonstrates his virtue in helping others with their problems in the many side episodes that make up the bulk of the novel.
Even though many of its parts are episodic like earlier picaresque novels (i. e. Don Quixote), as the description above suggests there is a larger overarching plot. Many of the minor episodes involve different characters struggling with poor marriages they’ve made (such as Mr. and Mrs. Fitzpatrick) or marrying the person they love despite the threat of being disinherited (such as Mr. Nightingale). These episodes serve as a parallel and contrast to Tom Jones’s inability to marry Sophia due to his bastard origins, disinheritance, relative poverty, and own mistakes. They also parallel and contrast Sophia’s situation in which her father and aunt are trying to force her to marry Blifil whom she detests and knows will make her unhappy. Mr. Nightingale, for example, must deal with his own merchant father and his beloved uncle who do their best to try to dissuade him from his marriage to a poor girl that he loves and impregnates during a night of passion.
The novel can best be called a comic epic. Its scope is epic, while the tone is mostly comical. By having Jones go out into the world, Fielding is able to explore the many facets of British society, often with comical flair. Some of the funniest episodes are the back-and-forth disagreements between Mr. Square and Mr. Thwackum, two tutors hired by Mr. Allworthy to teach Jones and Blifil, but who often debate each other about the virtues of philosophy versus the Christian religion, which each represents respectively. Both are shown at various times in the novel to be hypocritical to their own ideas, willing to look the other way from their philosophical systems when it suits their material or physical needs. Another hilarious character is Sophia’s aunt, Mrs. Western, who prides herself on being knowledgeable about the world and being well educated. Fielding often displays her cluelessness by having her frequently misquoting famous authors and showing terrible insight into others, despite priding herself on her supposed ability in this area. Indeed, she recognizes the symptoms of love in Sophia, but misattributes them to feelings for Blifil instead of them being for Jones, which is what starts the whole disastrous marriage arrangement that leads Sophia to run away from home.
Each chapter begins with a Preface that is a discussion of literary criticism: what is the purpose of art, what is the role of a critic, what is the role of the reader, etc., presented in metaphorical terms of plays, stage-coaches, and dinner menus. Fielding is responding to the artistic standards of his time, particularly in the character of Tom Jones himself who is both shown to be extremely virtuous, despite being a foundling, and a flawed character in many ways due to his wild nature, imprudence (lack of concern for himself and wise management of his own affairs), and willingness to flirt and sometimes sleep around with various ladies who take a fancy to him. Fielding is challenging the idea that characters, and by extension real people, are ever truly one hundred percent perfect and virtuous all the time. In a way, Jones ends up causing many of his own problems. His imprudent decisions end up being poor choices that almost cost him his adopted father, the love of his life (Sophia), and even his life. On the other hand, the novel shows in many ways that Mr. Jones is a virtuous young man and willing to go to great lengths to help another person, which at times can be genuinely inspiring. His extreme good looks are almost a curse in that every five seconds a new woman becomes infatuated with him, even when he is not trying to gain their interest. The novel implies that even virtuous behavior can work against us without prudence to be our guide. Mr. Allworthy’s willingness to see the goodness in even bad-natured people blinds him to Blifil’s evil nature and is precisely what allows Blifil, with the help of Jones’s own imprudent actions, to paint his rival in a bad light and get him disinherited. Sometimes we can have so much of a virtue (good looks, willingness to see the good in others, generosity with our money) that it actually can work against us and our interests, hence the need for prudence.
Another point the novel shows is that Sophia and Mr. Allworthy help Jones improve himself to overcome his major flaws (his imprudence and philandering). Here the novel seems to be borrowing from Aristotle’s idea of Perfect Friendship in which those closest to us and their goodness are able to improve us for the better. Being around other good people can improve us.
This novel is a forerunner of so many great novels that come after. In Tom Jones the character, we see elements of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. In Sophia and her refusal to marry for the sake money, we see hints of Jane Austen’s work. In the rivalry between Blifil and Jones for Sophia, we see hints of the rivalry between Edgar and Heathcliff for Catherine in Wuthering Heights. Even in the amusing semi-allegorical name choices, such as Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Allworthy, we see hints of Dicken’s tendency to use names that describe the personalities of his characters.