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Tom Jones | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is Henry Fielding's view of sex, desire, and love in Tom Jones?

Fielding views sex as a natural human desire in both men and women that needs fulfillment. Sex ought to be coupled with love within the confines of a marital relationship. This was the view of Christianity in Fielding's day. Sex outside of a sanctioned marriage was considered sinful according to Christianity, and the fruit of unions—illegitimate children—was to be avoided. Both the children and their mothers were primarily punished for unsanctioned sex. These values are clearly seen in Bridget Allworthy's refusal to acknowledge her son Tom as well as the social position Tom occupies because of his status as a bastard. Moreover, Tom Jones is punished by fate for his sexual dalliances outside of marriage and almost loses the love of his life because of his inability to control his sexual behavior. That is, his affair with Molly Seagrim is indirectly responsible for Tom's being kicked out of his home. Tom also ends up in jail because Mr. Fitzpatrick thinks he has been sleeping with his wife, and he suffers for a short time with the idea that he has accidentally slept with his mother. On the other hand Fielding did not consider such liaisons outside of marriage to be a "heinous crime," as Mr. Allworthy refers to Jenny Jones's apparent behavior (i.e., getting pregnant with Tom). Fielding's attitude toward sex outside of marriage can be seen in his treatment of both Lady Bellaston and Mrs. Waters. Fielding bows to the sober Protestant view that women must be controlled by men because when they are not, they suffer severe punishment. The view of Protestants was that Catholic women were not properly controlled by their men. These women may have escaped punishment in the traditional sense, but they are subsequently limited in social acceptance and pay for one kind of freedom with the price of another. Such women cannot be trusted or loved. Yet although Tom has a weakness for women he is still portrayed as the hero of the story and must be viewed as a good person who, for the most part, actively practices his Christian faith.

How does Fielding's view of marriage in Tom Jones reflect the Enlightenment philosophy of his era?

An important idea that emerged in the Enlightenment period was that individuals had rights and that they should pursue happiness. European marriage had traditionally been based on the idea that people married to unite families, increase wealth and property, and raise children. Romantic love was not tied to marriage, and in fact such love was often portrayed as occurring outside of marriage. The middle classes began to burgeon in the 18th century, and the freedom and leisure that accompanied economic prosperity also allowed people the luxury of thinking more about happiness and less about survival. This prosperity, along with new philosophical ideas, helped lead to the idea that marriage should increase a person's happiness, which meant a person would marry primarily for love, not for money or to increase social position—although those considerations were not completely disregarded. Tom Jones is a reflection of the Enlightenment idea that couples who marry should love each other. For example, both Tom Jones and Jack Nightingale marry for love, as does Mr. Allworthy. Blifil had been pursuing a union with Sophia merely out of greed for her property, but he loses Sophia, who ends up with the man she loves—Tom—despite his less-than-ideal origin. Luckily Tom ends up inheriting Allworthy's property, which adds sweetness to the union.

Based on the clergymen who appear in Tom Jones, what can the reader infer about Fielding's view of parsons?

While it may seem as if Fielding has no use for the clergy, based on his negative portrayal of Rev. Thwackum, the author does not universally denounce men of the cloth. In fact Parson Adams in his earlier novel, Joseph Andrews, is an exemplary character. But in Tom Jones Fielding pays special attention to the hypocritical clergy, and Thwackum is the worst kind of hypocrite in that he seems unaware of his own hypocrisy and how far he has strayed from the Christian message in conceiving the idea that the human mind is "a sink of iniquity" (Book 3, Chapter 3). Even Parson Supple, a much more benign cleric who takes his supper regularly at Squire Western's, is portrayed as more worldly than spiritual, and he tends to go along with Western so as not to lose his place in his house. But the narrator reminds the reader in Book 3, Chapter 4 that he does not mean to disparage all of virtue or religion. "Both religion and virtue have received more real discredit from hypocrites than the wittiest profligates or infidels could ever cast upon them," he says, to let the reader know he is criticizing a particular kind of cleric and not all of them.

Why does the narrator quarrel with the critics in Tom Jones?

First, the narrator says he believes modern critics have set themselves up as a higher order of professionals than the writers, which he objects to because an author's work comes entirely from his imagination. On the other hand the critic would be out of a job if it were not for the artist or writer; thus critics ought to see themselves as a secondary order dependent on writers. "Critics have been emboldened to assume dictatorial power, and have so far succeeded, that they are now become the masters, and have the assurance to give laws to those authors from whose predecessors they originally received them," he says in Book 5, Chapter 1. Second, the narrator accuses critics of slander, saying that when they unjustly disparage a book they are hurting the author because a creative work is like a child, having sprung from the mind of the author (Book 11, Chapter 1). Moreover, their reviews affect his livelihood, being "injurious to his worldly interest." He objects to hypocritical critics who condemn a work without reading it; hasty critics who do not sufficiently examine a work to understand what the author is trying to accomplish; and stupid critics who cannot grasp the artistry or purpose of the author. In summary Fielding makes a preemptive strike on the critics of his "new province of writing," sensing he will be disparaged and misunderstood and that the critics will not understand the novel is a moral work even though it is comic. In fact this is exactly what happened: although Tom Jones was very popular in Fielding's time it was misunderstood and unfairly criticized by many professional critics.

How does Fielding show in Tom Jones that the poaching laws are unjust?

Fielding demonstrates the poaching laws are unjust by using sarcasm as well as by choosing specific examples that show the insignificance of the crime in relation to the punishment. In Book 3, Chapter 2 for example, the narrator says a person may have mistaken Squire Western for a member of an Indian sect dedicated to protecting certain animals, except that the squire quite ably fulfilled his role in creation by being a consumer of the "beasts of the field" at his table. Moreover, the offense that gets Tom a beating is the poaching of a partridge, a bird that flew from Allworthy's land to the squire's land. A law that assigns a flying bird as the property of the landowner on whose property it happens to alight—when two pieces of land so closely adjoin each other—seems almost farcical. Black George ultimately loses his job with Allworthy because of this incident. The harmlessness of George's poaching offense is also evident in the narrator's tone when he speaks of the hare George took. He sarcastically remarks, in Book 3, Chapter 10, that Black George bagged one hare for "want of bread, either to fill his own mouth or those of his family ... [and] basely and barbarously knocked [it] on the head, against the laws of the land, and no less against the laws of sportsmen." Fielding is satirizing the Black Act of 1723, which could theoretically punish a poacher with death (and sometimes did). For this offense Mr. Allworthy takes away material help he was planning to give back to George.

What is the role of Mr. Partridge in the novel Tom Jones?

Mr. Partridge adds a great deal of comedy to the novel, in his fear of ghosts and other supernatural occurrences, in his cowardly and indiscreet acts while in the company of Tom Jones, and in his continuous, scandalous gossip. For example, he thinks spirits are knocking them off their horses in Book 12, Chapter 11. Partridge runs away when the highwayman attempts to rob Tom in Book 12, Chapter 14, and he literally gets caught with his pants down in the gypsy camp in Book 12, Chapter 12 when the fortune teller and her husband attempt to extort some money out of him. But most of all Partridge is a paragon of the opposite of prudence. Prudence is the lesson Tom must learn by the end of the novel, and Partridge time and again demonstrates imprudent behavior—by falsely spreading rumors about Sophia in Book 10, Chapter 5; by telling people at the inn where they stop after the puppet show that Tom is crazy in Book 12, Chapter 7, and then encouraging one of the patrons to seize Tom and send him home; and finally by telling everyone, including Allworthy in Book 16, Chapter 6, that Tom slept with his mother when in fact he did not, an Oedipal twist that pulls the story out of the range of tragedy.

How might modern readers react to Fielding's use of violence in Tom Jones?

Tom Jones has several instances of comic violence. For example, Mrs. Partridge beats her husband when she believes he is responsible for one of Jenny Jones's children (Book 2, Chapter 4). A pitched battle with an extended description of the action occurs in Book 4, Chapter 8, in which Molly fights off attackers in the graveyard and Tom joins in the fray and rescues her. A third battle with an extended description occurs in Book 9, Chapter 3 when the landlady at Upton begins by attacking Tom and six people end up in a brawl. The tone of the narrator indicates that the reader is supposed to laugh at these shenanigans. For example, he says that after Mr. Partridge merely defended himself from his opponent (who had opened "five streams of blood" down his face from her "number of claws") he finally restrains her arms: "Her cap fell off in the struggle, and her hair being too short to reach her shoulders, erected itself on her head; her stays likewise, which were laced through one single hole at the bottom, burst open; and her breasts, which were much more redundant than her hair, hung down below her middle." This kind of levity in describing violence between spouses is taboo today because spousal abuse is something society wants to end; today's society cannot condone it in any form, not even in comedy. Even the crowd scenes of comic violence might be taboo today. Modern comedy for the most part avoids physical violence involving both sexes. On the other hand violence for comic effect has made the move from the page to visual mediums and is regularly posted and reposted on social media. As a result modern audiences often reflect hypocritical attitudes toward such violence.

Why might some of Fielding's contemporaries have missed that Tom Jones is a moral tale?

The comic treatment of sexual matters in the novel genre was new, as was the realistic treatment of sex—in which Fielding frankly shows how both men and women are driven by their physical desires. The fact that the hero was a bastard—something he had no control over but which Fielding's audience would have found offensive—also contributed to their inability to see the moral message within the comedy. Samuel Richardson accused Fielding of attempting to "whiten a vicious character, and to make morality bend to his practices," for instance, while Samuel Johnson called the novel "vicious" and a "corrupt work." Fielding also addresses several forms of hypocrisy that were prevalent in his society. No doubt some members of those groups being laughed at, including lawyers, magistrates, clergy, landowners, and novelists, would have taken exception and then called the novel immoral.

How is the character Tom Jones an exemplar of chivalry?

Fielding consciously borrowed from the picaresque genre and was well acquainted with the chivalric knight in Don Quixote, with whom Tom shares his sense of chivalry. The chivalric code, as evidenced in both Don Quixote and Tom Jones, emphasizes standing up for the weak, especially women. The chivalrous knight also idolizes women and sees no fault in them. Further the knight travels from place to place to perform good deeds. All three of these conventions are evident in Tom's story and his behavior. First Tom continually stands up for the female characters, beginning with Sophia (attempting to save her bird; rescuing her from a wild horse in Book 4, Chapters 3 and 13) and Molly (saving her from an angry mob in Book 4, Chapter 8) and continuing with Mrs. Waters (saving her from Northerton in Book 9, Chapter 2) and Nancy Miller (saving her from abandonment). Tom never says a bad word about a woman—not even about Lady Bellaston—and it takes a long time before he can turn a woman down, regardless of age or beauty, when she asks for his favors. Despite these affairs he remains implicitly devoted to Sophia, the novel's ideal woman, as evidenced by his attachment to her muff, which he keeps near him after she leaves it on his bed. Finally Tom Jones also rescues men from danger: he saves the Man of the Hill from bandits (Book 8, Chapter 10) and Jack Nightingale from his footman (Book 13, Chapter 5), and he helps Jack finalize his marriage (Book 14, Chapter 9). He also rescues the would-be highwayman, Mr. Anderson, from financial ruin (Book 13, Chapter 10).

How is the heroine of Tom Jones, Sophia, an example of womanly virtues?

Sophia is a paragon of decorum and prudence and the example of 18th-century womanly virtues. She is beautiful both physically and in her character. Sophia defers to men in all things, except where her honor is concerned. Therefore, she obeys her father in attending his table every night, going hunting with him because he wants her company, and plays the harp for him whenever he asks. She even plays the vulgar tunes he prefers rather than force him to listen to the classical music she prefers. Sophia also obeys her aunt and has never fought with her until both she and Squire Western insist she marry Mr. Blifil. Sophia knows Blifil is a despicable man and that she cannot be his wife. Rather than be forced into marriage with him she runs away—but goes to a female relative in the hope that she will avoid further danger. She continues to stand up to her relatives and even rejects Tom when he appears to be a faithless suitor. She fights off the advances of Lord Fellamar and refuses to marry for money or to gain a title. In the end she accepts Tom, who is her choice of husband, and is instrumental in her own happy outcome by never violating her own standards of goodness, decorum, and honor.

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