Read an Excerpt
From Ross Hamilton's Introduction to Tom Jones
In the plot of Tom Jones, accidents or human failings pull the lives of the individual characters into disorder and then provide the means to restore them to their proper position. Everyone in the novel is subject to randomizing forces at work in the universe, but their basic natures do not change when their fortunes change. Tom's travels through England are a domestic equivalent of the continental journey designed to give a final polish to the education of a young aristocrat, but his experience does not touch his essential qualities. Fielding sees people's lives determined by the manners or speech they adopt, which—inevitably—others will interpret (or misinterpret). Therefore, in order to succeed within this tissue of social interactions, individuals must exercise prudent control over what they say and do.
This sounds like a simple principle. However, Fielding uses prudence as both an ideal and a pejorative term. In the 1740s the word was evolving from its original meaning as the supreme rational virtue of the Christian humanist tradition (prudentia) into its near opposite—the worldly wisdom of middle-class morality or even a villainous hypocrisy. Prudence was beginning to signify self-discipline, discretion, and foresight in the service of mercenary gain rather than a means to achieve self-knowledge and virtuous conduct. By deliberately complicating the meaning of this concept through his ambiguous use of it, Fielding points to the difficulty of distinguishing the high ideal of wisdom from mere cunning and deceit.
He was not the only author of the period who was preoccupied with prudentia. A direct source of Fielding's concern was the enormous praise and popularity accorded to Pamela, the work of his great rival, Samuel Richardson. Richardson's ostentatiously chaste heroine defends herself from rape, turns the rapist into her besotted lover, and ultimately marries into a much higher social class than her own. Fielding mocked Richardson's premise that artful perfection is the secret to earthly reward. He parodied the novel first in Shamela, by showing a devious and less than virtuous heroine conniving with her lover to manipulate her aristocratic admirer. Then, in Joseph Andrews, he reversed the sexes, offering Pamela's brother as his hero. Richardson's achievements in Pamela and his masterwork, Clarissa, helped goad Fielding to develop his richly comic analysis of moral behavior in Tom Jones.
In the novel, the imprudent Tom is matched against his half brother Blifil, who exhibits precocious prudence as a matter of policy. Blifil performs to meet the standards of virtue held by his audience. Since a pretense must work on a specific target in order to succeed, Blifil must understand the person he intends to deceive and adjust his behavior to conform to their point of view. He cannot correct failings in his performance by self-examination any more than he can recalibrate his false premises. Unable to grasp a point of view far outside his own, he completely misunderstands Tom; as a result, although he deceives even the sagacious Squire Allworthy, to Tom his motives are transparent.
Richardson shows the "inside" of his heroine's mind in a stream-of-consciousness description of her experience, but Fielding believes introspection cannot tell much about the real source of a person's motives. He prefers to show his characters in action and presents them in ironically matched pairs to accentuate their differences for the reader. The contrasts between Blifil and Tom, Squire Allworthy and Squire Western, or Sophia and her cousin Harriet convey knowledge that is perceptible only when different points of view confront each other.
In book VI, the narrator tells the reader that no one can explain the genuine meaning of love to a person incapable of experiencing it. "If good by nature," he says, in effect, "you can imagine other people's feelings so directly that you have an impulse to act on them as if they were your own; and this is the source of your greatest pleasures as well as of your only genuinely unselfish actions." In the moral world of Tom Jones, love is the capacity to conceive (and act on) what is best for the beloved person. Fielding is constantly aware of the difficulty of distinguishing this kind of love from appetites like sexual desire, the need to be envied for a romantic conquest, or the yearning to be comforted by an affectionate relationship.
Fielding calls goodness of heart the capacity to value another person's good not only as equal to one's own happiness but as the deepest source of that happiness. Although a good-hearted person has an intuitive regard for others, to act in accordance with this sensitivity requires a prior effort of will. To go beyond merely responding to the impulses of a good heart and to act appropriately involves a sophisticated level of ethical maturity. Tom possesses abundant warmth and high spirits, but Fielding demonstrates that his innate goodness of heart is not sufficient as a guide to conduct.
In theory, prudence is a quality that is available to both Blifil and Tom, but Fielding is careful to show the complexity of using this virtue well. Blifil, who is the most single-minded character in the novel, employs prudence as a tool for realizing his destructive intentions; Tom regularly sacrifices prudence to perform an action urged by his good heart. But neither prudence nor a good heart can guarantee happiness in isolation; they must be blended. The mixture of virtues and failings exhibited by all of Fielding's characters demonstrates the great difficulty of determining how to achieve the proper mix and also emphasizes the need to forgive all-too-human frailties when judging others.