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Tom Jones | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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In what ways does Tom Jones make or not make a classical hero's journey?

The journey Tom Jones undertakes is a hero's journey in the vein of Homer's Odyssey or Dante's Divine Comedy, but since the novel is a comedy it reverses some of the hero's journey conventions. Tom begins as an ordinary person and receives a calling when he is thrown out of his ancestral home and forced to make his way in the world without help from anyone (after he loses the money Mr. Allworthy gave him) in Book 6, Chapter 11. He meets his guide on the road as Dante meets Virgil, but Mr. Partridge hurts more than helps Tom, and the hero learns from him through negative example rather than wise guidance. Tom encounters additional tests with women—specifically his affairs with Mrs. Waters and Lady Bellaston—and he fails these tests. His ordeal or crisis arrives when he stabs Mr. Fitzpatrick in a fight and ends up in jail in Book 16, Chapter 10, falsely accused of starting the confrontation. He is beset by enemies on all sides who deliberately or inadvertently lie about him (Blifil, Fitzpatrick, Partridge, Bellaston) and separate him from his goal or grail—Sophia (wisdom)—in both the literal and figurative sense. Tom proves his worthiness when he finds the strength to turn down Mrs. Waters, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and Mrs. Hunt. He is reunited with his foster father in Book 18, Chapter 10, which begins his journey home and his acceptance by Sophia. He returns to the place of his birth as a purified character who has learned prudence. His enemies (Blifil, Black George) are punished, he obtains his birthright, and he contributes to the community by starting his own family.

What does Tom Jones learn during his journey from innocence to experience?

Tom Jones learns the necessity and virtue of prudence. Prudence in the Christian humanist tradition is practical wisdom. This means, first, being able to discriminate between right and wrong, and second having the fortitude to act upon that knowledge. Prudence also has a secular meaning; it is the ability to imagine how what one says and does appears to others and to act in such a way that puts the prudent person in the best light. As the narrator notes in Book 3, Chapter 7 no man, no matter how good he is, can do well in life if he does not have the outward appearance of "decency and decorum." Tom lacks the first type of prudence in his willingness to go to bed with a woman whenever she asks him; he knows he shouldn't but he lacks the discipline and self-control to resist. He also doesn't pay attention to the way things look to other people and neglects to tell Mr. Allworthy his side of the story; for example, when he is thrown out of the house in Book 6, Chapter 11. Tom finally begins to learn prudence when he gets rid of Lady Bellaston and then turns down Arabella Hunt in Book 15, Chapter 11. Tom's lessons about prudence are internalized when he is in jail (Book 18, Chapter 2) and admits he shouldn't blame fate for his predicament because he has brought his troubles on himself.

What is the author's attitude toward marriage in Tom Jones?

The author believes marriage must be based on a mutual love and respect and that it is the bedrock of happiness. While Fielding does not ignore the importance of class and rank in marriage—for example, although Tom Jones is illegitimate he has been brought up as a gentleman—Fielding clearly comes down on the side of love as the first requirement in choosing a partner. This can be seen in Sophia's refusal to marry Mr. Blifil, a man she despises, or her dislike of Lord Fellamar (even before he tries to rape her); he has looks, a title, and a fortune but she remains attached to Tom Jones, who is a pauper. Sophia is the heroine of the novel and an example of prudence, so her choices about marriage reflect the beliefs of the author. The single women in the story—such as Lady Bellaston and Mrs. Western—are unhappy and frustrated: Bellaston is sexually frustrated, and Mrs. Western has an unhealthy need to assert power. Squire Western was unhappy in his marriage, the result of his flawed and stunted character. Mr. Allworthy, on the other hand, was in love with his wife and happy in his marriage, which is a reflection of his generous character. Thus Fielding presents marriage as a natural state for men and women and the one most likely to bring them happiness.

In what ways do the events of Tom Jones validate the view the Man of the Hill has of mankind?

The Man of the Hill tells Tom Jones in Book 8, Chapter 15 that man is dishonest, cruel, treacherous, and ungrateful, and his vile behavior calls God's goodness into question. The Man's story illustrates his belief that he explains in Book 8, Chapters 11–15: he himself meets unsavory characters who are eager to corrupt him, and he then embarks on a life of vice. Later when the Man turns his life around, he is betrayed by both his brother and a friend whose life he had saved. Similarly the cast of characters in the novel, with few exceptions, is full of exemplars of vice: Mr. Blifil is a villain who tries to destroy his brother out of greed and envy; Mr. Square and Rev. Thwackum live a life of hypocrisy and do not follow their own belief systems; Squire Western is a tyrant willing to ruin his daughter's life out of greed and stubbornness; Lady Bellaston tries to destroy Tom and Sophia; Mrs. Western is vile and vindictive in her treatment of both of her nieces; and Mr. Partridge uses Tom Jones for his own agenda and makes his life difficult by lying about him behind his back. Practically all the characters either partially or entirely lack the basic Christian virtues of humility, love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. However, the ultimate message of the author is that, while people are flawed, they are not altogether bad and have the possibility of being redeemed.

In what ways does Tom Jones promote Christian values?

The novel promotes Christian values both by holding certain characters up as moral exemplars and by making fun of those who are immoral in the light of Christian teachings. Mr. Allworthy is the primary exemplar of the Christian virtues of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and he follows the rules of Christianity as a member in the Church of England. Allworthy is seen going to church, for example, and preaching to Tom about Christian values. When Allworthy thinks he is dying in Book 5, Chapter 7, he tells Tom he possesses all he needs to be happy if he can add prudence and religion to his morals. Allworthy is likely thinking about Tom's sexual indiscretion; despite Squire Western's assertions that Allworthy was sexually active before his marriage, this is untrue, and he has self-control both before marriage and after he loses his wife. Tom himself has internalized Christian values, as seen in Book 12, Chapter 4 when he scolds Mr. Partridge for his lack of charity and unwillingness to give money to a beggar. At the same time the novel treats Christian hypocrites, such as Rev. Thwackum, with particular scorn. Although Thwackum is a member of the clergy he seems incapable of practicing Christian values, as seen in his constant physical punishment of Tom as a young boy, his egotism as a teacher, his rivalry with the philosopher Square, and his attempts to win the affections of Bridget by punishing the boy he thinks she hates and by scheming behind Allworthy's back.

What lesson does Tom Jones learn during his interactions with Mr. Partridge?

The primary lesson Tom learns by traveling with Mr. Partridge is the importance of discretion and maintaining one's reputation. When he is introduced as the barber at the inn in Book 8, Chapter 4, he says Partridge had annoyed many people with his joking and had even been beaten for it. Thus he is characterized at the start as a man of great indiscretion. Once he begins shadowing Tom Jones, he tells anyone he meets about Tom's history, often adding details that are completely untrue. He creates a rift between Tom and Sophia in Book 10, Chapter 5, when Mrs. Honour learns from Partridge that Tom is in bed with a "wench" and Sophia learns from Susan the rumors Partridge has been spreading about her—that she is chasing Tom and he ran away from her. This causes even greater damage to Sophia's regard for Tom. Because of Partridge the highwayman (Mr. Anderson) tries to rob Tom in Book 12, Chapter 14 when Partridge tells him he is carrying £100. Partridge keeps tripping Tom up, and at the end of the novel (Book 18, Chapter 2) he tells Tom that Tom has slept with his mother, which causes him severe emotional distress. He also carries that rumor to Mrs. Miller and Mr. Allworthy, further staining Tom's reputation until this rumor is proved to be a lie. While Tom has always been discrete about other people's reputations (for example, with Sophia's or even Lady Bellaston's reputation), he has been careless of his own, and by the end of the novel he realizes such carelessness comes with a high price and almost lost him his happiness.

In what ways is Tom Jones right or wrong in wanting to forgive Black George for his wrongdoings?

The narrator sides with Mr. Allworthy, who tells Tom in Book 18, Chapter 11 that "mistaken mercy is not only weakness, but borders on injustice." While Mr. Allworthy is said to embody justice and mercy he clearly has made more than one error in meting out punishment (for example, in unduly punishing Partridge and Tom). Nonetheless he mostly errs on the side of mercy. In Black George's case he feels strongly that George ought to be punished for stealing Tom's money and allowing him to go penniless into the world. Moreover, this is not the first time George has hurt Tom: he allows him to take a severe beating for his sake, and he is partially responsible for Tom's earlier thefts of food to help him feed his family. Tom has been his ardent supporter, even against his own foster father, and George's treatment of Tom seems the worst sort of ingratitude. Tom argues that George showed weakness rather than ingratitude since the sum of £500, which would have put his family "beyond any possibility of suffering," was too tempting for the gamekeeper. But gratitude is a virtue that is valued in the novel, and Allworthy says he cannot pardon George because his dishonesty is coupled with ingratitude, which makes him a villain.

For what purpose does Fielding make Squire Western such a vulgar character in Tom Jones?

Fielding includes vulgar characters such as Squire Western as part of his observation that there are men very like the squire in the English society of his time. However, the character—as are all the characters and their words and actions—is exaggerated for comic effect. This was true to the satire of British pamphlets (1600 to present day Punch) of which Fielding had to have been well aware given his political beliefs. In using Squire Western in this way he also follows in the tradition of William Shakespeare, who even in his tragedies includes vulgar characters who curse, swear, and make sexual jokes. These characters lighten the mood and provide belly laughs for the audience. Especially comic are the scenes in which Squire Western is respectful to his sister, Mrs. Western, to her face and then speaks disrespectfully behind her back, as he does in Book 16, Chapter 4 when Mrs. Western takes Sophia out of her locked room in London. The narrator notes the squire "ejaculated twenty bitches, and as many hearty curses against her" after his sister left the room. Fielding also uses the squire's vulgarity to comic effect by using verbal irony at the literal meaning of kicking or kissing someone's posterior in Book 6, Chapter 9: "Allusions to this part are likewise often made for the sake of jest ... In reality, it lies in desiring another to kiss your a— for having just before threatened to kick his; for I have observed very accurately, that no one ever desires you to kick that which belongs to himself, nor offers to kiss this part in another."

In what ways does Fielding follow or not follow his own rules about fiction and keep Tom Jones within the bounds of probability and possibility?

Within the context of the times Fielding lived in and the conventions of realism more than 250 years ago, the reader can say he keeps himself within the bounds of the probable and the possible. The narrator does not introduce supernatural forces, as was popular in operas of the time, for example, to keep the plot moving, nor do his characters act out of character. But for the modern reader the number of coincidences that are used to move the plot along are not believable but serve to poke fun at the dramatic elements of popular entertainments of the day, which are a convention of the Italian commedia del arte (Partridge, for example, is a zany, a trickster). Such coincidences include the meeting of the cousins Mrs. Fitzpatrick and Sophia; Tom's lucky find of Sophia's pocketbook; Partridge's coincidental meeting with Tom Jones; the meeting and coupling of Mrs. Waters and Tom Jones; and the Man of the Hill's coincidental meeting with Watson just as Watson is about to commit suicide, to name a few. Fielding seems to have simply replaced divine intervention with the author's intervention. As such it is a story highly manipulated by the storyteller and based on realistic and recognizable characters and events, but it can't be expected to present realistic narrative.

How are the city and country variously portrayed in Tom Jones, and what does each represent?

The country and the city represent, to some degree, innocence and experience, a common trope of the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Although both innocent and experienced and jaded characters can be found in both realms, the country for Tom Jones is home and the place where he is in the bosom of his family and sheltered by the love of Mr. Allworthy. Tom Jones travels from innocence to experience on the road from Somerset to London, and when he gets to the city he has his final crisis, in which he is imprisoned and briefly believes he has, through his indiscreet behavior, wound up sleeping with his mother. He also realizes in London how much damage other people have done him—particularly Black George and Mr. Partridge. From another perspective the country represents the unsophisticated and unpolished ways of speaking and acting—as is seen in Squire Western for example, or the ordinary hypocrisy of characters like Thwackum and Square. In the city however, the people are more refined, and so is their villainy. Thus a character like Lady Bellaston attempts to have her rival, Sophia, raped, while a character like Lord Fellamar tries to impress Tom Jones for naval service to get rid of him, and Tom ends up in jail because of the false accusations of Mr. Fitzpatrick.

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