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The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, often known simply as Tom Jones, is a comic novel by English playwright and novelist Henry Fielding. It is both a Bildungsroman and a picaresque novel. It was first published on 28 February 1749 in London, and is among the earliest English prose works to be classified as a novel. It is the earliest novel mentioned by W. Somerset Maugham in his 1948 book Great Novelists and Their Novels among the ten best novels of the world. It totals 346,747 words divided into 18 smaller books, each preceded by a discursive chapter, often on topics unrelated to the book itself. It is dedicated to George Lyttleton.
The novel is highly organized, despite its length. Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued that it has one of the "three most perfect plots ever planned." It became a bestseller, with four editions being published in its first year alone.
Tom Jones is generally regarded as Fielding's greatest book and as a very influential English novel.
The novel's events occupy eighteen books.
The book opens with the narrator stating that the purpose of the novel will be to explore "human nature."
The kindly and wealthy Squire Allworthy and his sister Bridget are introduced in their wealthy estate in Somerset. Allworthy returns from London after an extended business trip and finds an abandoned baby sleeping in his bed. He summons his housekeeper, Mrs Deborah Wilkins, to take care of the child. After searching the nearby village Mrs Wilkins is told about a young woman called Jenny Jones, servant of a schoolmaster and his wife, as the most likely person to have committed the deed. Jenny is brought before the Allworthys and admits being the baby's mother, but refuses to reveal the father's identity. Mr Allworthy mercifully removes Jenny to a place where her reputation will be unknown and tells his sister to raise the boy, whom he names Thomas, in his household.
Two brothers, Dr Blifil and Captain Blifil, regularly visit the Allworthy estate. The doctor introduces the captain to Bridget in the hope of marrying into Allworthy's wealth. The couple soon marry. After the marriage Captain Blifil begins to show a coldness to his brother, who eventually feels obliged to leave the house for London, where he soon dies "of a broken heart". Captain Blifil and his wife start to grow cool towards one another, and the former is found dead from apoplexy one evening after taking his customary evening stroll before dinner. By then he has fathered a boy, who grows up with the bastard Tom. Captain Blifil's son, known as Master Blifil, is a miserable and jealous boy who conspires against Tom.
Tom grows into a vigorous and lusty yet honest and kindhearted youth. He tends to be closer friends with the servants and gamekeepers than with members of the gentry. He is close friends with Black George, who is the gamekeeper. His first love is Molly, Black George's second daughter and a local beauty. She throws herself at Tom, who gets her pregnant and then feels obliged to offer her his protection. After some time, however, Tom finds out that Molly is somewhat promiscuous. He then falls in love with a neighbouring squire's lovely daughter, Sophia Western. Tom and Sophia confess their love for each other after Tom breaks his arm rescuing Sophia. Tom's status as a bastard causes Sophia's father and Allworthy to oppose their love. This aspect of class friction gives Fielding an opportunity for biting social commentary. The inclusion of prostitution and sexual promiscuity in the plot was also original for its time, and the foundation for criticism of the book's "lowness".
Squire Allworthy falls ill and is convinced that he is dying. His family and servants gather around his bed as he disposes his wealth. He gives a favourable amount of his wealth to Tom Jones, which displeases Master Blifil. Tom doesn't care about what he has been given, since his only concern is Allworthy's health. Allworthy's health improves and we learn that he will live. Tom Jones is so excited that he begins to get drunk and gets into a fight with Blifil. Sophia wants to conceal her love for Tom so she gives a majority of her attention to Blifil when the three of them are together. This leads to Sophia's aunt, Mrs Western, believing that Sophia and Blifil are in love. Squire Western wants Sophia to marry Blifil in order to gain property from the Allworthy estate. Blifil learns of Sophia's true affection for Tom Jones and is angry. Blifil tells Allworthy that on the day he almost died Tom was out drinking and singing and celebrating his coming death. This leads Tom to be banished.
Tom is expelled from Allworthy's estate and begins his adventures across Britain, eventually ending up in London. On the way he meets a barber, Partridge, who was banished from town because he was thought to be the father of Tom Jones. He becomes Tom's faithful companion in the hope of restoring his reputation. During their journey they end up at an inn where a lady and her maid arrive. An angry man arrives and the chambermaid points him in the direction she thinks he needs to go. He bursts in on Tom and Mrs Waters, a woman whom Tom rescued, in bed together. The man, however, was looking for Mrs Fitzpatrick and leaves. Sophia and her maid arrive at the same inn, and Partridge unknowingly reveals the relationship between Tom and Mrs Waters. Sophia leaves with Mrs Fitzpatrick, who is her cousin, and heads for London. They arrive at the home of Lady Bellaston, followed by Tom and Partridge. Eventually Tom tells Sophia that his true love is for her and no one else. Tom ends up getting into a duel with Mr Fitzpatrick, which leads to his imprisonment.
Eventually the secret of Tom's birth is revealed after a brief scare involving Mrs Waters. Mrs Waters is really Jenny Jones, Tom's supposed mother, and Tom fears that he has committed incest. However, this is not the case, as Tom's mother is in fact Bridget Allworthy, who conceived him after an affair with a schoolmaster. Tom is thus Squire Allworthy's nephew. After finding out about the intrigues of Blifil, who is Tom's half-brother, Allworthy decides to bestow most of his inheritance on Tom. After Tom's true parentage is revealed he and Sophia marry, as Squire Western no longer harbours any misgivings about Tom marrying his daughter. Sophia bears Tom a son and a daughter, and the couple live on happily with the blessings of Squire Western and Squire Allworthy.
The main theme of the novel is the contrast between Tom Jones's good nature, flawed but eventually corrected by his love for virtuous Sophia Western, and his half-brother Blifil's hypocrisy. Secondary themes include several other examples of virtue (especially that of Squire Allworthy), hypocrisy (especially that of Thwackum) and villainy (for example, that of Mrs Western and Ensign Northerton), sometimes tempered by repentance (for instance Square and Mrs Waters née Jones).
Both introductory chapters to each book and interspersed commentary introduce a long line of further themes. For instance, introductory chapters dwell extensively on bad writers and critics, quite unrelated to the plot but apologetic to the author and the novel itself; and authorial commentary on several characters shows strong opposition to Methodism, calling it fanatical and heretical, and implying an association between Methodism and hypocrites such as the younger Blifil.
The novel takes place against the backdrop of the Jacobite rising of 1745. Characters take different sides over the rebellion, which was an attempt to restore Roman Catholicism as the established religion of England and to undo the Glorious Revolution. At one point Sophia Western is even mistaken for Jenny Cameron, the supposed lover of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Goodnatured characters are often moderately loyalist and Anglican, or even supporters of the House of Hanover, while ill-natured characters (Mrs Western) or mistaken ones (Partridge) can be Jacobites, or (like Squire Western) anti-Hanoverian.
List of characters
Adaptations and influences
1963 saw the release of Tom Jones, a film written by John Osborne, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Albert Finney as Tom. It inspired the 1976 film The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones. The book has also been the basis of three operas: by François-André Philidor in 1765 (see Philidor's opera); by Edward German in 1907 (see German's opera); and by Stephen Oliver in 1975. A BBC adaptation, dramatised by Simon Burke, was broadcast in 1997 with Max Beesley in the title role. The book has also been adapted for the stage by Joan Macalpine.
In the fantasy novel Silverlock by John Myers Myers the character Lucius Gil Jones is a composite of Lucius in The Golden Ass by Apuleius, Gil Blas in Gil Blas by Alain-René Lesage and Tom Jones.
Tom Jones has been compared to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in that both deal with the disputed inheritance of estates. This plot allows them to examine who possesses the right to wield authority. Both novels have virtuous men and women winning an inheritance despite coming from mixed social backgrounds, showing that they believe there is a compromise between authority stemming from birth and the emphasis on merit. Both authors also had anxiety about the state of social authority in England and cared deeply about their audiences.
Young ladies during this period referred to their beaus as "Toms" because of Tom Jones.
It has been noted that the only piece of fiction in the library of Dr Richard Mead, physician to George II, was Tom Jones. Mead was a strong and active advocate for Fielding's work, which relates to Fielding's keen interest in the Jacobite rising of 1745.