Tom Jones is a picaresque story that chronicles the humorous escapades, romances and redemption of its roguish protagonist.
Like most of Henry Fielding’s writing, the novel is both comedic and satirical. What particularly distinguishes Tom Jones is its adaptation of the conventions of the picaresque, a genre whose early modern origins are usually traced back to Spanish works such as Lazarillo de Tormes (1554), in which a series of interconnected episodes and a parade of different social types reveal the foibles and hypocrisies of society. Fielding was admired for his intricate plots and his knowing, satiric narrators, but in Tom Jones he also scandalised some readers with the moral elasticity of his memorable main character.
Tom Jones overview
Tom Jones is a child of uncertain birth. The good Squire Allworthy returns to his estate one day to find a baby abandoned in his bed. He and his sister Bridgetsuspect that the baby belongs to Jenny Jones, a servant of the local schoolmaster, Mr Partridge. Jenny admits that she placed the baby in the Allworthys’ home, but refuses to name Tom’s father. Soon thereafter, Bridget is wooed and wed by the suspect Captain Blifil, with whom she has a child who is referred to throughout the novel as Master Blifil. The unlikeable Captain Blifil dies an untimely death, but his son inherits his ungenerous character and anxiety about social status. Master Blifil finds equally unlikeable sidekicks in Mr Thwackum and Mr Square.
Tom, by contrast, is a high-spirited and exuberant youth, friendly with people of the lower classes and especially with the gamekeeper Black George. Tom grows up to love Sophia, the daughter of the neighbouring Squire Western, but he also carries on an affair with Mollie Seagrem, Black George’s daughter. Squire Western does not look kindly on the illegitimate Tom as a potential son-in-law, and, though she returns his feelings, Sophia is sceptical that Tom is a reliable lover. Throughout the novel, Sophia weathers significant pressure from her family to marry Blifil, whom she despises. Eventually, Sophia takes her freedom into her own hands and escapes with her maid to a relative’s house in London. Sophia’s adventures on the road parallel Tom’s.
Tom’s fortunes change suddenly when Squire Allworthy falls seriously ill and then suddenly recovers, only to have Bridget unexpectedly die. Tom expresses his relief at the Squire’s recovery with an ill-fated bout of drunken celebration, which culminates in being provoked into a fist fight by Blifil and Thwackam. Blifil tells Allworthy that Tom’s rowdy behaviour and sexual escapades are evidence of his heartlessness, and Allworthy kicks Tom out of the house.
Taking to the road, Tom meets Mr Partridge, who swears he is not Tom’s father but becomes Tom’s travelling companion. Tom rescues a woman named Mrs Waters and then sleeps with her, but unfortunately, Sophia has stopped at the same inn and learns about the affair. She rushes off to London and the protection of her relative, Lady Bellaston. Tom follows and decides to seduce Lady Bellaston in the hope of getting close to Sophia. Lady Bellaston decides though that she would rather keep Tom for herself and tries to get rid of Sophia by suggesting to Lord Fellamar that he assault her young relative and then marry her afterwards. Squire Western arrives in time to thwart Fellamar and Bellaston’s schemes, but Sophia is nevertheless pressured to marry either Fellamar or Blifil. Fellamar’s lackeys connive to get Tom arrested and thrown in jail. There, Tom re-encounters Mrs Waters, whom Partridge informs him is actually Jenny Jones. Tom is horrified to learn that his licentiousness has led him to accidentally sleep with his own mother.
Just when Tom’s redemption and romantic success seem impossible, Fielding deftly brings the intricate plot to a tidy conclusion. Mrs Waters reveals that Tom is in fact the older child of Bridget Allworthy. She also reports that Blifil had intercepted a letter from Bridget to Squire Allworthy that explained Tom’s parentage. Squire Allworthy disinherits Blifil and adopts Tom as his legal heir, while Tom convinces the long-suffering Sophia to forgive and marry him.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Rise of the novel, Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism
John Mullan explains how the novel took shape in the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and the ways in which the book industry both shaped and responded to the new genre.