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Tom Jones | Discussion Questions 11 - 20

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Why does the narrator shy away from calling Tom Jones a novel and instead say it is a history?

Henry Fielding boldly announces in Book 2, Chapter 1 that he is the founder of a new province of writing and clearly identifies himself as the narrator. He uses the introductory chapters of each book to write in depth about how a novel should be written, who is qualified to write novels, why critics are mostly to be scorned, and a host of other topics related to writing. To distinguish himself from other fiction writers (whom he heavily criticizes), he calls his novel a history. He speaks to readers as the historian when he is in character as the narrator, and he uses a narrative trick, which would be followed by later authors (for example, Victor Hugo) of having personal and intimate knowledge of the people in his novel, as if they were real people. He also uses the backdrop of historical events (as does Hugo and other writers who came after Fielding) to lend realism to his novel. He puts the word history in the title of the novel for the same purpose. He would like the readers of his novel to think of Tom Jones as a history, but in fictional format. One of the main ways a storyteller gets the audience to believe in the story enough to engage is to claim it as "true to life," and in a sense it is. However, the point is Fielding is pulling the reader's leg. He knew that Greek and Roman historians recorded the "truth" and editorialized on it with entirely false conclusions and assumptions that lasted centuries later.

How are Squire Western and his sister, Mrs. Western, similar and different in Tom Jones?

While Squire Western and Mrs. Western may seem very different at first glance, they are actually more alike than different. While the squire is a "country mouse" who knows nothing of the city and prefers country ways, Mrs. Western is more sophisticated in the sense that she is better traveled than he is and knows persons of rank, but her sophistication is only a façade. They are also different in that the squire supports the Catholic faction and is in favor of the Catholics reclaiming the throne while Mrs. Western supports the Hanover kings, distant relations of the Protestants who were for the most part on the throne after Henry VIII. Nonetheless, they are more similar: both are single and hate marriage. The squire married but hated his wife, while Mrs. Western chose to remain single or perhaps didn't get any proposals. They are both extremely narcissistic and authoritarian, as evidenced in their need to control Sophia and their disregard for her personhood. Both are greedy and materialistic, which is why they insist Sophia should marry: that the lands of the Westerns and Mr. Allworthy will be joined. Both are poor judges of character and seem to have no basic moral structure, as evidenced in their horrendous behavior toward Sophia, Harriet Fitzgerald, and Tom Jones. Both exemplify people with a lack of real prudence (knowing what is the right thing to do and then acting on it), but they do exemplify the hypocritical type of prudence in which people are intent only on what will best advance their interests. Both Westerns are willing to pursue what is good for them regardless of what it might cost others.

In what ways do Mr. Allworthy, Tom Jones, and Sophia serve as moral centers?

Three characters may qualify as the moral center of the novel. First Mr. Allworthy is the ideal Christian and is meant to be perceived as such by the reader. His name reflects his basic goodness. He is shown to both practice the dogma of his faith (going to church; following the moral rules of Christianity) as well as practice his faith's essence, which is to love others and act with compassion and mercy. However, Allworthy is blind to the vices of others and thus falls short as the moral center since he does not see clearly. Tom Jones may also qualify as the moral center of the novel because he is honest all the time, often to his detriment; open-hearted and generous, perhaps to a fault; and always willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. He has a great deal of empathy for other people and will risk even his life for others. On the other hand Tom lacks prudence, which is of paramount importance in the moral universe of the Christian humanist. He knows he shouldn't be sleeping around, for example, but he can't seem to stop until the end of the novel. Finally, Sophia can be called the moral center of the novel. She possesses the Christian virtues of love, mercy, and compassion. At the same time she sees people clearly for what they are and loves them anyway. She is also an example of prudence in always knowing the right thing to do and then doing it. She is almost perfect, so perhaps she should be considered the novel's true moral center.

What is the narrator's relationship with his readers in Tom Jones?

The narrator starts the novel as an acquaintance and ends as a friend. In Book 18, Chapter 1 he invokes the image of arriving with readers "at the last stage of our long journey," in which fellow travelers have become friends and must part. In other places Fielding sets himself above readers as a kind despot—having put before them a bill of fare for their pleasure but at the same time having to instruct them in the meaning of the text. Fielding anticipates, in his "dialogue" with the reader in the introductory chapters to each book, the modern critical notion that the text is constructed through the participation of readers. He also pokes fun at the lecture convention of overexplaining ideas, by which the lecturer presents himself as the authority on what the audience is to believe. This can be covert or overt, with varying degrees of skill, but it's all manipulation. Common sense and belief are stretched to the limit. The point is, don't believe everything that is said; don't believe everything that is written. Thus the narrator often lectures readers so they fall into line with his point of view. For example, the narrator expresses caution in Book 10, Chapter 1 that he has no way of knowing "what sort of person thou wilt be"—perhaps as learned as Shakespeare, but perhaps "no wiser than some of his editors." After accusing readers of being as stupid as critics, he then pleads with them, asking them "not too hastily to condemn any of the incidents in this our history as impertinent and foreign to our main design" if they do not immediately see how the parts fit into the whole. He is more than a little concerned that they should understand that his is a moral tale—an issue he addresses in the dedication. Thus the narrator uses readers as an audience and sounding board for his new ideas about writing; at the same time he enters into a conscious relationship with his readers to persuade them to read the text in the way he wants them to.

How is the manly courage of Tom Jones instrumental in saving him?

While Tom Jones has many stellar qualities—and particularly many of the moral virtues as understood in a Christian context—perhaps his best quality is his manly courage. From when he is a youngster, Tom is fearless in helping his friend Black George. In Book 4, Chapter 3 he tries to retrieve the bird Tommy for Sophia, risking himself by climbing a tree and then falling when the branch breaks. This is the first act that makes an impression on Sophia's heart. Tom rescues Sophia a few more times, and rescues Molly twice—once from a crowd of hecklers and once from Thwackum and Blifil. He also rescues Mrs. Waters from the murderous Northerton in Book 9, Chapter 2 and jumps in to rescue his friend Jack Nightingale from the violent footman in Book 13, Chapter 5. Tom not only has physical courage but also moral courage. He almost never lies for selfish purposes; he willingly helps his friends at great risk to himself and reputation; and at the end of the novel he has the courage to face up to his moral failings, which allows him the room to repent and to change his behavior. Thus his physical and moral courage is the foundation for his other virtues.

How does Fielding use dramatic techniques in shaping Tom Jones?

Tom Jones has been called a novel with a "perfect plot," and in this way it resembles a play: one way to look at the structure is to say the story occurs in three acts. The first six books take place in the country and recount the early history of the hero. The next six books, "Act 2," take Tom through the world and a series of adventures in which he faces many trials. In "Act 3" Books 13–18 the hero gets into additional scrapes in the city, and the action reaches a climax when Tom is finally jailed and faces the possibility of being hanged, as was predicted as a possibility for him in "Act 1." The hero is rescued with the help of his friends in the final act, when he also learns the lesson of prudence and is reunited with his soul mate and his benefactor. Another way in which the novel resembles a play is that the narrator will often set up the action of a scene with description and narration before bringing the characters "on stage" and allowing the action to begin. For example in Book 9, Chapter 2 the narrator borrows from classical epics to describe the dawn, but he also uses this description to preface the action of the hero, almost as if he were writing stage directions. The narrator then switches his focus to the hero, who is transfixed upon the view at the top of the hill. This follows his call to action, in which he exits upon hearing the screams of Mrs. Waters and rescuing her from the evil Northerton.

How is Tom Jones like Mr. Allworthy in his inability to see the faults of others clearly?

Tom Jones is raised by Mr. Allworthy and has his Christian values of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. But both Allworthy and Tom have a similar problem in that they look at the world through their own idealism and fail to detect when others have bad character. This unconscious refusal to face up to facts creates problems for them as well as for others. For example, Tom is misled by Black George as a child, but even after he is old enough to know better he continues to think George is his good friend and forgives him too easily—first for allowing him to take a beating and later for robbing him of £500. Tom also misjudges Lady Bellaston and Mr. Partridge, not realizing how much damage Partridge has done to his reputation until Sophia repeats to him in London what she was told by the maid Susan (Book 13, Chapter 11). Mr. Allworthy early on makes an intellectual decision to favor Blifil because his mother doesn't like him; later he refuses to see the continued evidence that Blifil is a liar and manipulator who pushes Tom out of Allworthy's life. Blifil makes Allworthy promise secrecy when he tells him about George's poaching so George cannot defend himself (Book 3, Chapter 10); Allworthy continues to believe Blifil has good intentions with regard to Sophia despite the mounting evidence he doesn't care for her and is simply trying to force her to marry him out of greed. These failures to see the truth about others nearly cost Tom Jones his relationships with Allworthy and Sophia and could have ended in a miserable marriage for Sophia. Fortunately Allworthy's and Tom's eyes are opened in time.

For what purpose does Fielding use the foils of Mr. Blifil, Squire Western, and Harriet Fitzpatrick in Tom Jones?

Fielding uses foils to contrast the good and bad aspects of heroes and villains (or near-villains) and to demonstrate moral lessons. Blifil is the foil of Tom Jones: they are half brothers of the same mother, raised in the same home by the same parental figures, and are close in age. Yet they are opposite in character, perhaps somewhat like Cain and Abel. Tom is loved by Allworthy and Bridget, and for that reason Blifil develops resentment and envy toward his brother. But Blifil is by nature hypocritical and greedy, while Tom is honest and generous. Mr. Allworthy's foil is Squire Western. Both are landowners and gentlemen, and both are raising children without wives. But while Allworthy is a paragon of Christian virtue—honest, generous, kind, and temperate—Squire Western is hot-tempered, egotistical, and greedy, and he is also a drunk. While Allworthy wishes to do what will make the young people in his care happy, Western wishes to use his daughter to satisfy his own need to extend his family's wealth and influence. Sophia's foil is her cousin, Harriet Fitzpatrick. While Sophia is "Miss Graveairs," Harriet is "Miss Giddy": Sophia always acts with prudence, even when she has to disobey her tyrannical father, whereas Harriet acts rashly by running away with a fortune hunter at least partly because she wishes to best her Aunt Western. Both are escaping the tyranny of a man when they meet on the road, but because of her bad choices Harriet ends up having to become the paramour of an Irish lord to escape her husband while Sophia finally is able to marry the man she loves and is reunited with her father.

For what purpose does the narrator stress Tom Jones's physical beauty?

The narrator stresses Tom's physical beauty for two reasons. First, Fielding highlights the importance of sexual love as part of the love between couples; sexual attraction to the physical form of the beloved goes hand in hand with gratitude and regard for a partner's psychological and spiritual qualities. Second, Tom Jones is the target of predatory women because of his good looks, much as beautiful heroines in the novels of the 18th century are targets of predatory males. To turn the tables on the convention and to make women's pursuit of Tom Jones believable, the author creates him as an exceptionally beautiful man, and the narrator stresses his beauty to remind the reader why he is often the victim of women's attention.

How does Tom Jones reference the heroines and villains in Clarissa and then undermine them as stereotypes?

While Fielding parodied Richardson's novel Pamela and thought it sent the wrong moral message, he greatly admired Clarissa, and he both uses Richardson's plot to construct his own while also reversing the major conflict in Clarissa and continuing his project to undermine the stereotype of the helpless female at the mercy of a predatory male. In Clarissa the heroine is tricked into eloping with a lord who eventually rapes her. She does this so she will not be forced into marriage with a man she dislikes because her family wants to enlarge their own property through marriage to a land-rich suitor. In Tom Jones Sophia runs away from her father but judiciously puts herself under the protection of a female relative and gives herself time and room to negotiate so she is not forced to marry a man she hates merely to increase her family's property. Meanwhile Tom Jones is pursued by predatory women, as opposed to the Richardson model in which a woman is oppressed and pursued. Tom also happily gives in to the females who pursue him, unlike the female heroines of Richardson's novels and others like them. In addition Fielding shows women with the capacity to have sexual appetites that equal a man's.

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