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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", although critic Samuel Johnson took exception to Fielding's "robust distinctions between right and wrong". It became a best seller, 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 them 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. Furthermore, he promises 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 hopes 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 prior to 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 kind-hearted youth. Tom tends to be closer friends with the servants and gamekeepers. He is close friends with Black George, who is the gamekeeper. His first love is Molly, gamekeeper Black George's second daughter and a local beauty. She throws herself at Tom; he 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 criticism of class friction in society acted as a 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".
Sophia's father, Squire Western, is intent on making Sophia marry the hypocritical Master Blifil, but she refuses, and tries to escape from her father's influence. Tom, on the other hand, is expelled from Allworthy's estate for his many misdemeanours. Allworthy had become ill and was convinced he was dying. The servants of his estate and family members gather around his bed as he disposes his wealth. He gives a favorable amount of his wealth to Tom Jones which displeases Blifil. Tom doesn't care about what he has been given, his only concern is Allworth'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. Mr. 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 the day he almost died, Tom was out drinking and singing and celebrating his death. This is what leads Tom to be banished. He starts his adventures across Britain, eventually ending up in London. Along his journey, he meets up with a barber, whom we learn is Partridge, who was banished from town because he was thought to be the father of Tom Jones. He becomes Tom's faithful companion in hopes of gaining his name back. 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 Mrs. Waters, a woman Tom rescued along his journey, and Tom Jones 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 is able to tell 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 that Mrs Waters (who is really Jenny Jones) is his birth mother and that he has committed incest. Tom's real mother is Bridget, who conceived him after an affair with a schoolmaster — hence he is the true nephew of Squire Allworthy himself. After finding out about Tom's half-brother Master Blifil's intrigues, Allworthy decides to bestow the majority of his inheritance to Tom. Tom and Sophia Western marry after this revelation of his true parentage, as Squire Western no longer harbours any misgivings over 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 just villainy (for example Mrs. Western, Ensign Northerton), sometimes tempered by repentance (for instance Square, 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, heretical, and implying association of hypocrites, such as the younger Blifil, with it.
The novel takes place against the historical backdrop of the Forty-Five. Characters take different sides in 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. Good-natured characters are often modestly loyalist and Anglican, even Hanoverian, while ill-natured characters (Mrs. Western) or only mistaken ones (Partridge) can be Jacobites or (like Squire Western) just anti-Hanoverians.
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 was also three times used as the basis for an opera, 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 was broadcast in 1997 with Max Beesley in the title role, dramatised by Simon Burke. The book has also been adapted for the stage by playwright 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, insofar as the plots 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 win 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 (i.e., will Elizabeth become the owner of Pemberley?; will Tom inherit Paradise Hall?). Both authors also had authorship anxiety, associated with anxiety about the state of social authority in England, and they cared deeply about their audiences.
Young ladies during the time period referred to their beaus as "Toms" due to Tom Jones. Fielding attracted the upper class of English society with this novel.
It has been noted that the only piece of fiction in the library of Dr. Richard Mead, the physician to George II, was Tom Jones. Mead was a strong and active spokesperson for Fielding's work, which relates to Fielding's keen interest in the Jacobite rising of 1745. This details his influence and reach in English society with Tom Jones.