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Tom Jones | Study Guide

Henry Fielding

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Tom Jones | Book 1, Chapters 1–5 : Containing as much of the Birth of the Foundling as is necessary or proper to acquaint the Reader with in the Beginning of this History. | Summary

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Summary

Book 1, Chapter 1

The narrator, who describes himself as author, is readily identifiable as Henry Fielding. He begins by announcing a "bill of fare to the feast" of his story. His offering is a "public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money." On the menu is the entirety of "human nature," and the excellence of the meal will be the result of the author's skill in dressing up his "provision."

Book 1, Chapter 2

The setting is Somersetshire in the west of England, and Fielding introduces Mr. Thomas Allworthy, a gentleman favored by both "nature and fortune" whose home is called Paradise Hall. He is an amiable and healthy widower with "a benevolent heart" and has one of the largest estates in the country. His single sister, Miss Bridget Allworthy, a plain woman "somewhat past the age of thirty," lives with him.

Book 1, Chapter 3

Mr. Allworthy is further described as keeping a good house, entertaining neighbors, and giving charity to the poor. He's been gone from home about three months, and upon retiring late one evening on the day of his return he finds a sleeping infant in his bed. He is delighted by the child and calls on the servant, Mrs. Deborah Wilkins, to take the child and ensure he is cared for. She advises him to reject the "misbegotten wretch," but he ignores her as the infant's hand has wrapped itself around one of his fingers, "seeming to implore his assistance."

Book 1, Chapter 4

Bridget Allworthy is introduced to the infant in the morning and approves her brother's decision to keep the child and raise it as his own, much to the surprise of Mrs. Wilkins.

Book 1, Chapter 5

Bridget shows some affection for the child and orders all that is necessary for his nursery, but she also expresses to Mrs. Wilkins that she is simply obeying her brother's commands, which she construes as "an encouragement to vice."

Analysis

Fielding calls his story a history, although the word novel was already in common use. In fact Fielding mentions other "romances, novels, plays and poems" that do a poor job of depicting human nature. The attitude and position of the narrator in the story is entirely consistent with the narrators of Candide (1759, Voltaire), Don Juan (1819, Lord Byron), and The Three Musketeers and Don Quixote (1844 and 1605 and 1615, Miguel de Cervantes). Even the Romance of Tristan und Isolde (12th century, Beroul) has a narrator with a careless attitude and a tongue-in-cheek humility. Thus Fielding makes a bold claim that his "feast" is far superior to others', setting himself up as an authority and a writer of uncommon artistry. He will continue to praise himself as well as condemn his inferiors as the novel unfolds—and he reserves special scorn for the professional critic. He also introduces a food metaphor: Tom Jones explores the sensual passions, so he uses recurrent feast/eating references.

Mr. Allworthy, a primary character in the novel, has a name that reflects his status as a moral example. Yet as the story progresses his morality is shown to be less than stellar. Fielding is a master of dramatic irony, and Mr. Allworthy is referred to in Book 1, Chapter 2 as a "man of sense and constancy"; later he will fall short of these virtues. Nonetheless, his basic goodness is apparent from the outset in his willingness to adopt a bastard child whom Mrs. Wilkins urges be left at the door of the church warden. Mrs. Wilkins's lack of Christian charity is juxtaposed with Mr. Allworthy's kindness, which puts her hypocrisy on display, especially when she says the child "doth not smell like a Christian."

Bridget hides her affection for the child behind a mask of disapproval, saying that she will follow her brother's orders even if they are wrong-headed. Significantly Mr. Allworthy has not seen his sister for three months, which is a good thing: he has not noticed her pregnancy. Bridget is the true mother of the child, although the narrator suppresses that fact until the end of the novel.

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