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Tom Jones | Themes

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From Innocence to Experience

Moving from innocence to experience is perhaps the most important theme in the novel. Tom Jones is an innocent who, because of his naiveté and inability to see the forces that are working against him, ends up being thrown out by his benefactor and the only father he knows. His carelessness and lack of prudence lead him to a crisis: he would have done well to learn appearances do matter. Even for a good person who has the best of intentions it is necessary to also appear good to others. Tom's honesty is a great virtue, but at the same time he needs to learn that sometimes it is necessary to withhold information to protect oneself. Moreover, Tom is unaware of other people's power to do him harm.

According to the critic Martin C. Battestin, Tom Jones lacks prudence, which in the classical sense means moral vision and self-discipline. While he loves Sophia and knows she is different from the other women he associates himself with, he is too much the slave of his passions to act on that knowledge. Moreover, Tom's generous heart and good nature get him into trouble with women because he just can't say "no." After Tom leaves home he is more and more victimized by his own faults and refusal to change. At the end of the novel, however, he admits his own culpability. In jail his first instinct is to rail at fortune, but then he says, "Why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the cause of all my misery." He begins to develop some discretion and self-control and even turns down three women—Mrs. Hunt, Mrs. Waters, and Mrs. Fitzpatrick. By learning from his experiences Tom is able to gain some degree of prudence and wisdom.

Dogma versus Virtue

While laws and religious rules may be necessary and good, they do not guarantee a person will act with true virtue. The Rev. Thwackum claims to be giving principles of Christianity to Tom and Blifil, yet he lacks the basic Christian virtues of humility, love, compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. He hates Tom and physically punishes him without mercy, at times beating him to the point of torture, the narrator says. Thwackum whips Tom, for example, when he refuses to reveal the other poacher on Squire Western's land. Thwackum favors Blifil because he can recite doctrine by heart and often repeats his teacher's words and phrases. Tom, however, is "deficient in outward tokens of respect, often forgetting to pull off his hat, or to bow at his master's approach" and does not remember Thwackum's precepts. Thwackum worships the outer appearance of piety and thinks Tom Jones is bad because he lacks the imitated solemnity exhibited by Blifil.

Thwackum is incapable of seeing the true goodness in his wayward pupil—so clearly evident in his loyalty toward Black George and his attempts to help him feed his family. When Mr. Allworthy counsels compassion for Tom, who was acting out of honor in concealing the name of his accomplice, Thwackum calls Tom a liar. Thwackum shows himself to be a hypocrite without real goodness over and over again and is a foil for Mr. Allworthy's true Christian virtue. Mr. Allworthy's behavior is guided by the principles of love and compassion, while Thwackum's is guided by the belief that the world is "a sink of iniquity" and that a man will suffer hellfire and damnation if he does not follow the dogma of the Church of England. Thus his actions are not based on benevolent feelings for fellow creatures but on fear of God and Church. He is incapable of acting out of goodness.

Appearance versus Reality

A strong thread through the novel is how appearances often mask reality and that well-practiced hypocrisy can be used to mask the truth. Bridget and Mrs. Wilkins complain that Mr. Allworthy is taking in a bastard child, who is accused of being bad simply because of his origin, which he had no control over. Meanwhile, Bridget is the mother of this child, and she successfully conceals this fact until the day she dies. Thwackum masquerades as a Christian, yet he exhibits not one Christian virtue. Blifil pretends to be the dutiful, obedient, and virtuous nephew, yet he continually plots his brother's downfall and lies by omission to put the worst light on Tom's actions. Square pretends to be a Platonic philosopher, but his ideas are often nonsensical—and he has built a dogma around his ideas of "the rule of right" and the "eternal fitness of things." He pretends to be above the fray of ordinary mortals' concerns and often comments on the immoral action of Tom, yet he is having illicit sex with Molly and sees no harm in it since, in his mind, Tom has already ruined her. Mr. Allworthy continually fails to see people's true motivations, and so he winds up getting the most important things wrong—the worst being that he disowns his beloved adopted son, Tom Jones, because he pays attention to appearances and cannot see beneath other people's lies and hypocrisy.

Love and Desire

Sexual desire is natural, but when it is divorced from love sex reduces people to the level of animals satisfying their instinctual appetites. Love, on the other hand, is a noble emotion. When sexual desire is combined with regard and admiration for another, the physical act moves to a higher level, taking on the color of the divine. Such a love between two people is a creative act, not just in the sense of resulting in new life (conceiving a baby) but in the fact that they bring out each other's best qualities and facilitate their ability to fully manifest themselves in the material world.

For an 18th-century person sex outside marriage was immoral and exemplified a lack of commitment. And while Fielding subscribes to these views to some degree, he has an easygoing attitude toward sex outside of marriage and even acknowledges women might have as strong a sexual desire as men. Nonetheless, he demonstrates how illicit sex (not "legally" sanctioned by the law or religion) is a destructive force and leads to social chaos. Tom Jones's sexual adventures get him into more and more serious scrapes until he winds up in jail and in danger of losing not only Sophia but also his life.

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