Tom Jones | Study Guide

Henry Fielding

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Tom Jones | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in London in 1749, Henry Fielding's The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling—usually just called Tom Jones—chronicles the hilarious and scandalous adventures of a young Englishman as he searches for true love. It is number five on the Guardian's list of the 100 best English-language novels. Not only is it considered one of the greatest novels ever written, but it was also one of the first novels ever written. The novel contains some 346,000 words, making it about four times longer than the average modern novel. Fielding's weighty tome is divided into 18 smaller books, each of which opens with an introductory chapter addressing the reader.

Despite its length, the novel is well organized and structured: the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented that it has one of the "three most perfect plots ever planned." Tom Jones was an instant best seller and, as one of the first of its kind, profoundly influenced the development of the novel as a literary form.

1. Tom Jones was one of the earliest English novels.

When Tom Jones was published in 1749, novels were only beginning to be recognized as a legitimate literary form that followed and developed alongside the popular drama genre. Strictly speaking, the first English novel was Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded, which was published by Samuel Richardson in 1740. But Richardson presented his stories as moral treatises, a method that Fielding rejected. Furthermore, while Richardson only concentrated "minute attention upon only one or two figures," Fielding was perhaps the first English writer to fill his novels with a cast of "vividly-presented" characters. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, "It may almost be said that until the publication of Tom Jones no novel with a real plot had been conceived in English."

Fielding was not modest about his role in the birth of the novel, declaring, "I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein."

2. Tom Jones had "unheard-of" sales records for the time.

All 2,500 copies of Tom Jones in print were sold by the date announced for the novel's official publication. The official publication date for Tom Jones was February 10, 1749, but Fielding's bookseller began distributing copies a week earlier. One observer called it "an unheard-of" case. Tom Jones became one of the great best sellers of its time, quickly selling 10,000 copies.

3. Four editions were published in Tom Jones's first year alone.

Fielding's bookseller began distributing copies of Tom Jones in early February 1749. He played the role of publisher "in an age when such a profession did not exist." The first edition quickly sold out, and two more editions followed on February 18 and April 12. A fourth edition was published at the end of 1749. Most modern editions are based on the fourth edition.

4. The character Sophia Western was inspired by Fielding's wife.

Fielding's beloved wife, Charlotte, died of a fever in 1744, five years before the publication of Tom Jones. He deeply mourned her and modeled the character Sophia Western on her. In Tom Jones, he wrote that Sophia "most of all ... resembled one whose image never can depart from my breast, and whom, if thou dost remember, thou hast then, my friend, an adequate idea of Sophia."

5. A critic denounced Tom Jones as "a motley history of bastardism, fornication, and adultery."

Another critic, the English writer Samuel Johnson, said that books like Tom Jones were a dangerous distraction "to the young, the ignorant and the idle" and that they merely offered "the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas." Fielding probably did not see this as a negative: in the first chapter of Tom Jones, he wrote that the author of a novel should provide "a mental entertainment" where "all persons are welcome for their money."

6. Tom Jones mimics the style of a classical epic.

Classical epics, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, use a serious, dignified writing style to describe heroic events. Critics have noted that Tom Jones can be considered a mock epic. A mock epic uses the writing style of an epic to describe more mundane events as if they were heroic for comic effect. Fielding makes several allusions to Virgil's Aeneid and John Milton's Paradise Lost in particular. For example the estate of Mr. Allworthy, who raised Tom Jones, is called Paradise Hall—alluding to Paradise Lost—and when Tom is expelled from it, the narrator comments,"The World, as Milton phrases it, lay all before him; and Jones, no more than Adam, had any Man to whom he might resort for Comfort or Assistance."

7. Fielding had a literary rivalry with another best-selling author.

Fielding began writing novels only after another London author, Samuel Richardson, published the best-selling novel Pamela anonymously in 1740. Though Fielding may have admired the novel's success, he caricatured the main character as a "hypocritical prude" in his response to the novel—an anonymous parody, which he called Shamela. His next novel, Joseph Andrews (1742), began as another parody of Pamela but eventually found its own voice.

8. In addition to being one of the first novelists, Fielding helped found London's first police force.

Crime was a big problem in 18th-century London, the streets rife with pickpockets, drunkards, and other petty criminals. But there was no official police force until the 1750s, only ineffective and disconnected systems of watchmen operating in different parts of the city. In 1751 Fielding—who was also a judge—founded London's first professional police force, unofficially nicknamed the Bow Street Runners (Fielding's office was on Bow Street).

9. A film adaptation of Tom Jones won four Academy Awards.

An extremely successful film adaptation of Tom Jones was released in 1963, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Albert Finney as Tom Jones. It won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Substantially Original Score, and "Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium," in addition to being nominated for several more. A reviewer for the New York Times called it "one of the wildest, bawdiest, and funniest comedies that a refreshingly agile filmmaker has ever brought to the screen."

10. A "sanitized" version of Tom Jones was made into an opera.

A comic opera version of Tom Jones premiered at the Theatre Royal in London's Covent Garden in 1769. The opera was not based directly on Fielding's novel but instead on a French libretto that was based on the novel. It has been called a "sanitized" version of the story, with the character Squire Western having been made "less coarse."

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