The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling

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The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling

by Henry Fielding


A novel set in England in 1745 during the Jacobite rebellion; published in 1749.


Tom Jones, purportedly illegitimate, overcomes the evil machinations of his half brother, Master Blifil, in order finally to attain his birthright and the hand of Sophia Western.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Rise and Fall of the House of Stuart

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Henry Fielding was born in 1707 into a family with aristocratic connections. His father, Edmund, had ancestors who were earls, and his mother, Sarah, was daughter of the judge Sir Henry Gould. Their son Henry attended the elite Eton College, but then found himself forced to earn a living in his early twenties when a disputed inheritance claim left him without support. At this point, the young Fielding turned to playwriting and political journalism. In all, he would write some 25 plays, many satirizing the political corruption of the times. So scathing was his ridicule of corrupt government ministers, particularly of the powerful prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, that Parliament passed the 1737 Licensing Act, by which all new plays had to be approved and licensed by the lord chamberlain before production. This exercise in government censorship effectively ended Fielding’s career as a dramatist, so he turned to political journalism, writing in the service of Whig opposition leaders Lord John Russell (fourth duke of Bedford) and Lord George Lyttleton (to whom Tom Jones is dedicated). After an abortive 1728 elopement with an heiress, Fielding courted and married Charlotte Cradock in 1734. She died 10 years later, and in 1747 he married Mary Daniel, who had been his wife’s maid. He embarked during his first marriage on his career as a novelist, publishing first An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews(1741), a spoof on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Next came The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742). In 1748 Fielding was appointed magistrate for Westminster and Middle sex, in which capacity he established a reputation for justice in the suppression of crime. The following year he published his third novel, Tom Jones, which uses gentle satire to expose the follies, vanities, and vices of virtually every social class in mid-eighteenth century England.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Women’s place in English society

Fielding’s literary career, from his first published plays in 1727 until his death in 1754, coincided with an era when social and economic changes were causing profound upheaval in English life. The gradual emergence of a powerful middle class, which paralleled the first stirrings of centralized factory production, led to an intense scrutiny and reform of many long-accepted standards of morality. Not least among these changes was the status of women in society. In particular the role of marriage raised debatable questions: Should marriage be based on love or on purely economic considerations? Do parents have the right to choose marriage partners for their children? Since the mid-seventeenth century, there had been a trend toward greater autonomy for children in choosing marriage partners, except for the wealthiest classes, among whom considerations of property continued to determine alliances. But by Fielding’s day, middle-and lower-class marriage candidates, and even a few among the wealthier, landed classes, normally made their own choices, with parents exercising no more than the right of veto over candidates deemed too poor or ill-bred. “At the root of these changes in the power to make decisions about marriage … there lie … a new recognition of the need for personal autonomy, and a new respect for the individual pursuit of happiness” (Stone, pp. 183-84). This change has been attributed to a more indulgent regard for individual emotional integrity.

Related to the new emphasis on personal happiness is the critique in Tom Jones of the equation in eighteenth-century society between chastity and virtue. A sexual double standard of the time demanded strict chastity in women, particularly women of the middle and upper classes, but allowed men considerable latitude for dalliance prior to marriage and even within marriage. This is reflected in Tom Jones, whose hero appears to essentially have no sexual restraint. Yet he is the hero. The novel, in other words, argues against a morality that is defined solely or primarily in sexual terms, as it appears to have been in Richardson’s novel Pamela.

Fielding’s opinions on the issue of marriage were similarly progressive for his day. Tom Jones provides a gallery of unsatisfactory marriages plagued by a variety of moral ills: mercenary motives, avarice, jealousy, vanity, and poverty. In particular, the custom of forced marriage—still practiced, as noted, among the moneyed classes, who judged the desirability of a marriage solely on considerations of wealth and property—receives some of Fielding’s most savage satire. Fielding considered such forced marriages little more than legalized rape.

Social class in eighteenth-century England

While Fielding was a forceful opponent of marriages arranged for mercenary reasons of property or title, and Tom Jones clearly contrasts the old and new views of marriage, the novel’s social conservatism is equally unmistakable. Fielding, who identified with the interests of the aristocratic ruling class, was less concerned than some of his contemporaries with social mobility; events, particularly in his novels but also in his plays, tend to work themselves out in the direction of preserving the hierarchical class structure of his day. Eighteenth-century England was a rigidly stratified class-based society, with the royalty and aristocracy at the top of the social hierarchy, the landed gentry or squirearchy below them, followed by an increasingly prosperous and powerful urban middle class of lawyers, bankers, merchants, and manufacturers. Underneath them came small tradesmen and artisans, small freeholders of farms, and, at the bottom, landless farmhands, factory workers, and assorted urban laborers.

Fielding’s novels do not explicitly challenge this social structure or its associated inequalities. His heroes, whatever their personal status and class might seem to be, always arrive at wealth and gentility by the end of the novel, and Tom Jones is no exception. The protagonist, Tom, becomes an acceptable mate for the upper-class Sophia only when his authentic well-born status is revealed. If he had remained a penniless bastard, his ending would no doubt have been far less happy. The novel appears to endorse England’s stratified society as the most desirable pattern, but the novel does find fault with particular injustices in the interest of ridding that pattern of its offenses. As a novelist, and also in his role as a magistrate, Fielding was zealous in his aim of reforming the manners of his age, particularly the vices of petty theft, prostitution, and especially the domestic violence characteristic of many forced marriages. As one social historian explains, “Mistreatment of women by their husbands was commonplace. Severe beatings, often routinely administered on whim, were outside the pale of the law. Only when they ended in murder was the brutality deemed to be criminal” (McLynn, p. 102).

Fielding’s latitudinarian ethics

Tom Jones, however humorous, was written by Fielding as Christian censor of the manners and morals of his age. The novel’s moral message is directly related to seventeenth-and eighteenth-century latitudinarian Christianity. This was a branch of the Anglican Church known as the “Broad Church,” in contrast to the “High Church” (which emphasized tradition, ceremony, and hierarchy) and the “Low Church” (which emphasized the centrality of biblical faith, piety, and personal conversion). In its own emphasis on good nature and charity, latitudinarian Christianity derives from the teachings of such Low Church divines as Isaac Barrow, John Tillotson, Samuel Clarke, and Benjamin Hoadly. Basic to the latitudinarian position was a belief in the essential goodness of human nature and in the importance of charity as the cardinal virtue. Good nature became the core of latitudinarian Christianity, which had as its goal the practical betterment of society, as well as the salvation of individual souls. The latitudinarians emphasized the human potential for perfection, if only the pressures of corrupt customs and biased education could be removed. This conviction served as the rationale that under-girded Fielding’s social satire.

Latitudinarian Christianity was strongly influenced in England by the development of natural religion. The earliest representative of natural religion in England was early seventeenth-century Deism; in Fielding’s time, its leading spokespersons were Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), and Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751). These men believed that religious knowledge is innate to human beings and can be acquired through reason alone. They denied all supernatural revelation and the authority of the Bible and of specific church teachings as genuine sources of religious truth. Fielding himself was not a Deist; he remained a staunch Broad-Church Anglican, but he was influenced, like most intellectuals of his age, by the efforts of natural religion to unite the best of Christian ethics, classical philosophy, and the new scientific knowledge. The influence of natural religion resulted in a growing emphasis on works rather than faith. Christians were those who behaved like Christians, and charity was the most obvious expression of religious devotion.

The theological doctrines of all the main churches were affected by latitudinarian tendencies in the eighteenth century. Mainstream dissent from the Anglican Church, once the driving force behind the Puritan revolution, visibly declined in English popular life and retreated, at least for the moment, to its traditional support among the urban middle class. The branch of Anglicanism known as the High Church continued its somewhat erratic work in the rural areas, dependent as ever on the residence and personal commitment of a portion of its clergy. In the towns and smaller cities, the High Church contingent was all too prone to withdraw, or to appeal—as its competitors, the Dissenters did—to polite middle-class congregations who could afford to supplement the income of churchmen in poorer parishes, and to beautify or rebuild churches.

In Tom Jones, Fielding opposes his latitudinarian ethics to other doctrines then prevalent among religious controversialists, particularly the doctrine of total depravity found both in the ethics of self-interest espoused by Thomas Hobbes and the Calvinist theology then gaining renewed strength with the rise of Methodism in England. Both Hobbes and the Calvinists asserted


In the age when Fielding wrote Tom Jones, advances in science were threatening the traditional authority of the Bible and the Church, Characters in the novel embody particular religious and philosophical positions that reflect schisms of the age:

Conservative Christian: This stance includes Calvinists, Methodists, most Nonconformists, and some Anglicans (followers of the mainstream Church of England). According to its beliefs, people are saved solely by faith in Christ. They are basically immoral, and faith is more important than reason. In Tom Jones, Thwackum (whose name means “hit them”) represents this stance.

Deist: Included in this category are religious skeptics. The stance is a philosophy and so does not concern itself with salvation. Its followers do not believe in the Bible, but claim that God can be known by reason. In Tom Jones, Square (whose name means a “rationally constructed geometric form”) represents this stance.

Liberal Christian: This stance includes latitudinarians, a branch of the Anglican Church that rejected miracles and expressed confidence in human nature and its ability to improve society. Also including some other Anglicans, this stance achieves a mean between the extremes of Conservative Christian and Deist, and exercises great license in regard to who can be saved. A pagan with a good heart has a better chance than a vicious Christian, according to Fielding, who falls into this category.

Serted the essential selfishness and depravity of human nature, and this attitude is reproduced in Tom Jones, particularly in the characters of the Man of the Hill and the chaplain Thwackum. The Man of the Hill has retreated from human society because of its wickedness and greed, but when Tom happens to save him from thieves, he agrees to tell his story. The novel leaves him isolated in his misanthropy. Thwackum illustrates the callous streak in strict Calvinist notions of innate depravity, and the novel leaves him preaching his hard-hearted gospel in an obscure vicarage.


Jacobite: A loyal supporter of the Catholic king James II and his claim as the legitimate heir to the throne of England. Many Roman Catholics and High-Church Tories were Jacobites or sympathized with the Stuarts (James’s lineage). Support for the Jacobite cause posed a more or less serious threat of a Stuart restoration from 1688 until 1745, and thereafter survived in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Whigs: Members of a political group identified with some powerful aristocratic families and the financial interests of the wealthy middle classes. Whig membership was largely drawn from Low Churchmen and Dissenters, and they monopolized parliamentary politics for most of the century. Whig policies were strongly anti-Catholic, anti-Jacobite, and anti-French.

Tories: Members of a political group that supported the hereditary right of James II, despite his Roman Catholic faith. Tory membership was often identified with High-Church Anglicanism, the aristocracy, and the squirearchy (or country gentry). Although powerless in Parliament after the ascension of George I in 1714, Tories continued to dominate local borough politics and administration well into the nineteenth century.

Squirearchy: The class of landed gentry that comprised the backbone of Tory and Jacobite conservatism. The squirearchy was often satirized by the urban Whigs in the stock figure of the “Country Tory” or “Booby Squire,” stereotyped as a backwoods country gentleman of rough manners and an excessive fondness for fox hunting and ale drinking.

(Cleary, pp. 264-72)

The “Forty-Five.”

The historical setting for Tom Jones is the era of the last Jacobite rebellion in 1745, commonly known in English history as the “Forty-Five.” Its background begins with the House of Stuart, which had ruled England since the ascension of James I in 1603.

The Rise and Fall of the House of Stuart

1603 James I (James VI of Scotland) inaugurates rule of the House of Stuart on the English throne.

1642 Civil war erupts, leads to execution of Charles I in 1649.

1649-60 Era of Puritan rule consists of two periods: 1) the Commonwealth (1649-53), in which Parliament retained nominal control, though Oliver Cromwell wielded ultimate power; 2) the Protectorate, in which Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector, advised by a council of state.

1660-85 England restores the monarchy. Charles II, a Stuart, assumes the throne.

1685-88 James II, a Stuart and a Roman Catholic, rules England, fathers a son.

1688 English Protestants, rejecting the prospect of a Catholic successor, depose James II and award reign to William III of Orange and his wife Mary (James II’s Protestant daughter).

The deposed James II fled to France, where he was supported in exile by France’s Louis XIV. When James II died in 1701, his son James Edward Stuart, known as the Old Pretender, was proclaimed James III by Louis XIV and treated as the legitimate king of England. Supported by French forces, the Old Pretender made several halfhearted attempts to gain the English throne. Succeeding William and Mary on the throne was Queen Anne, Mary’s younger sister. Anne ruled England from 1702 to 1714, leaving no heir. At this point, the English Parliament took the crown from the House of Stuart and gave it to George I, monarch of the German electorate of Hanover and great-grandson of James I through his mother’s line. In response to what he considered the House of Hanover’s usurpation of the crown, the Old Pretender invaded Scotland in 1715, but this attempt was abortive.

By the 1740s, George II was king of England, and his armies—allied with Austrian, Hanoverian, and Hessian forces—were fighting on the Continent in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48). Charles Edward Stuart, who was the son of James Edward Stuart and was known as the Young Pretender or Bonnie Prince Charlie, landed in Scotland in July 1745 with a handful of followers, intending to reclaim the English throne for his father. This attempt is featured in Tom Jones. The Young Pretender first gathered support among the Highlanders of Scotland, then scattered a loyalist army at Prestonpans and occupied Edinburgh. In the autumn, he raised his standard in England, reaching Derby by December. Here, only a few days’ march from London, his luck turned and his losses mounted. Compounding the problem were the facts that his small army had been increased by only a few English recruits, and that he had left much opposition behind him. In the end, the Young Pretender reluctantly abandoned the idea of a dash upon London and returned to Scotland. Though he was able to win one more victory at Falkirk, he suffered a crushing defeat at Culloden in April 1746. This defeat ended the Jacobite threat for all time.

While Tom Jones is not an overtly political novel, the events of the “Forty-Five” provide a colorful background for Tom’s picaresque adventures on the road. The protagonist, Tom, is himself a loyal subject of George II and even briefly joins a troop of soldiers marching north in order to repel the Stuart invader, though several other important characters in the novel are Jacobites or at least sympathetic to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s cause. Squire Western, father of Tom’s beloved Sophia, is a thoroughgoing Tory, the political party from which the Stuarts drew most of their support, and details about him expose his Jacobite leanings.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The wealthy and benevolent Squire Allworthy, a widower, lives in Somerset with his ill-humored and ill-favored unmarried sister Bridget. Returning home late one evening after a business trip to London, Squire Allworthy finds a baby in his bed. He is charmed with the mysterious boy, names him Tom, and becomes his guardian and provider, eventually adding the surname Jones on the assumption that the mother is Jenny Jones, a maidservant to the local schoolmaster Partridge. Soon after, both Jenny and Partridge vanish from the town, Bridget marries the devious and brutal Captain Blifil, and they have a son, Master Blifil, who is raised alongside Tom. The boys are taught by the punishing chaplain Thwackum and the philosopher Square. Squire Allworthy’s household consists also of the maid Deborah Wilkins, the gamekeeper Black George Seagrim, and the gamekeeper’s wife and daughters. Among the household’s neighbors are the bluff and bumptious Squire Western, his sister Mrs. Western, and his daughter Sophia.

The continuous narrative of the novel begins when the hero is 19, with several preceding childhood episodes establishing him as a generous, good-natured, and high-spirited lad, in contrast to the selfish, devious, and villainous Blifil. Tom at this point recognizes that his childhood affection for his beautiful, sweet-natured neighbor Sophia (whose portrait Fielding based upon his own wife Charlotte) has grown into adult love. But Sophia is destined by her father to marry Master Blifil, whom she detests, and Tom, dejected by his imminent loss of Sophia, allows himself to be distracted by the charms of Molly Seagrim. When Molly declares that she is pregnant, Tom is prepared to do the honorable thing in the face of Squire Allworthy’s displeasure, but he is released from this obligation when he learns that Molly has been very free with her favors, which she has extended even to the tutor Square.

By clever misrepresentation, the scheming young Blifil converts his uncle Squire Allworthy’s affection for Tom into anger, and with the help of Thwackum and Square, he succeeds in having Tom expelled from the house. Filled with despair because he has alienated his beloved foster-father and is leaving all he cares for, Tom sets off for Bristol intending to go to sea. Meanwhile Sophia, disgusted by Blifil’s courtship, escapes her father’s close confinement and runs away to London with her maid, Mrs. Honour, intending to seek shelter there with her kinswoman Lady Bellaston.

Amid many colorful adventures on the road, including falling in with a troop of redcoats marching north to oppose the Stuart rebellion, Tom encounters Partridge, the former schoolmaster thought to be his father, now traveling the country as a barber-surgeon. Tom’s generosity is rewarded when the alms he gives a beggar lead to his discovery of Sophia’s pocketbook, a sign that she has journeyed to London, which renews Tom’s hope of winning her. Unknown to Tom, he and Sophia are lodging at the same inn, but because of Partridge’s loose tongue, Sophia believes that Tom (now in bed with a certain Mrs. Waters) no longer loves her, and she flees towards London. Tom follows, and in London is ensnared by the rich and amorous Lady Bellaston, who supports him as a kept lover. She and her friend Lord Fellamar, who is in lustful pursuit of Sophia, conspire to keep Tom away from his beloved, with Lord Fellamar nearly raping and abducting Sophia before the timely arrival of Squire Western.


In Tom Jones, Lady Bellaston and Lord Fellamar plot to have Tom press-ganged, but the hero is jailed on suspicion of murder before their plan is executed. Impressment, also known as “crimping,” involved the forcible abduction and enlistment into the military or naval service of able-bodied but unwilling men. England manned many of its warships by means of these crude and violent methods during much of the eighteenth century, and the practice flourished in port towns throughout the world until the early nineteenth century. The “recruiters” preyed to a great extent upon men from the lower classes, who were, more often than not, vagabonds or even prisoners. Usual sources of manpower were waterfront boardinghouses, brothels, and taverns whose owners often victimized their own clientele.

Partridge now reveals that Mrs. Waters is none other than Jenny Jones, supposed by many to be Tom’s mother, and for a brief period Tom fears he has committed incest. Jenny reveals, however, that Tom’s mother was really Bridget Allworthy (later Mrs. Blifil), who has confessed all to her brother on her deathbed, and that his father was a young gentleman long since dead. Lady Bellaston and Lord Fellamar conspire to have Tom press-ganged into the navy, but instead he is arrested and imprisoned after a fight in which it first appears he has killed his assailant.

Sophia cannot forgive Tom’s entanglement with Lady Bellaston, and his fortunes are at their nadir. Blifil arranges for the sailors who witnessed the fight to give evidence against Tom, but, with the help of a long letter from Square to Squire Allworthy, Blifil’s envious machinations, dating from their earliest boyhood, are finally revealed, and Tom is reinstated in his repentant uncle’s affection. Tom meets Sophia again at last, learns that she loves him and forgives his infidelities, and receives the hearty blessing of her father. According to the dictates of his generous heart, Tom forgives all who have wronged him, including the detestable Blifil.

The foundling: nexus of English social and sexual morality

Tom Jones begins with Squire Allworthy’s discovery of an abandoned baby who has been slipped into his bed. His natural generosity and humanity lead Squire Allworthy to care for the child and raise him as a son, but actually foundling infants often met a far different fate. In fact, by means of introducing this one little baby, Fielding deftly illuminates many of the prevailing social and sexual relations of eighteenth-century England: between males and females, parents and children, servants and masters, and gentry and commoners. The novel draws its satirical implications from the different characters’ attitudes toward the infant Tom: the search for Tom’s mother shows the inquisitorial climate of village life; Bridget Allworthy’s behavior reflects the cagey dissembling done to maintain an image of respectability; and the maid Deborah Wilkins’s hard-hearted attitude toward the foundling satirizes the hypocrisy and smug sanctimony of a self-professed Christian who can cheerfully damn both a mother and child to miserable poverty.

As indicated, economic changes in the eighteenth century were upsetting traditional social patterns. Progressive enclosure of common fields was destroying cooperative village farming in various areas, driving previously self-sufficient farm families into the ranks of landless rural laborers. Rather than starve in the country, many of these newly poor took work in factory towns or moved to London, swelling its urban underclass. This rapid population growth exacerbated poverty, which adversely affected illegitimate children:

One consequence of the rise in the proportion of the propertyless in the society was a rise in the rates of illegitimate to legitimate births.… The rise in bastardy inevitably stimulated some deliberate infanticide and a great deal of abandonment, for the plight of an unmarried mother without means of support was bad enough to encourage a few desperate women to murder their newly born infants and many more to leave them in the streets either to die or to be looked after by a charitable passer-by, the parish workhouse, or a foundling hospital.
(Stone, pp. 296-97)

Illegitimacy was rapidly rising in eighteenth-century England, even though the social ramifications for the parents were disastrous. Communities traditionally supported illegitimate children through the parish poor rate—that is, the local charity tax—but they also pressured the father to marry the mother. Legislation passed in 1733 added legal pressures to those of the community, making any man whom the mother identified as the father of her illegitimate child liable for child-support payments. Meanwhile, women who bore children out of wedlock were ostracized by the community and left to fend for themselves as best they could. In his role as local magistrate, Squire Allworthy predicts that this fate will befall Jenny Jones, Tom’s presumed mother, when he tells her that by her “crime” she will be “rendered infamous, and driven, like Lepers of old, out of Society; at least from the Society of all but wicked and reprobate Persons; for no others will associate with you” (Fielding, Tom Jones, vol. 1, p. 52). The typical fate of a “fallen woman” was to be driven into prostitution, as Squire Allworthy obliquely insinuates in the novel, and she bore the greatest part of the guilt involved: “For by the Laws of Custom the whole Shame, with all its dreadful Consequences, falls entirely upon her” (Tom Jones, vol. 1, p. 52).

The voice of community censure is embodied in the person of Mrs. Deborah Wilkins, Squire Allworthy’s “elderly Woman Servant,” whose “pure Eyes” size up the infant Tom’s situation immediately: “I hope your Worship will send out your Warrant to take up the Hussy its Mother (for she must be one of the neighborhood) and I should be glad to see her committed to Bridewel, and whipt at the Cart’s Tail. Indeed, such wicked Sluts cannot be too severely punished” (Tom Jones, vol. 1, p. 40). Located in London, Bridewell was a women’s reformatory, and by English law, the mother of a bastard child chargeable to the parish could be committed by order of two justices to this prison (or house of correction), there to be corporally punished and set to work for the term of one year. The “proper” Mrs. Wilkins advises Squire Allworthy to dispose of the child in this way:

Faugh, how it stinks! It doth not smell like a Christian. If I might be so bold to give my Advice, I would have it put in a Basket, and sent out and laid at the Church-Warden’s Door. It is a good Night, only a little rainy and windy; and if it was well wrapt up, and put in a warm Basket, it is two to one but it lives till it is found in the Morning. But if it should not, we have discharged our Duty in taking proper care of it; and it is, perhaps, better for such Creatures to die in a state of Innocence, than to grow up and imitate their Mothers; for nothing better can be expected of them.
(Tom Jones, vol. 1, p. 41)

This is the voice of Christian charity and duty, the object of Fielding’s relentless satire.

In London, the rate of child abandonment led in 1741 to the establishment of the London Foundling Hospital. The hospital’s resources were limited, and when it began to accept children from anywhere in England in 1756, it was overwhelmed with more than 15,000 foundlings in the first four years, 10,000 of whom died. “Although many of this growing mass of abandoned children were illegitimate, a majority seem to have been legitimate children of couples who were financially unable to support them. Abandonment of infants was thus a product partly of rising rates of bastardy, but still more of a deepening economic crisis for the very poor” (Stone, pp. 298-99). Accounts of the abuse and exploitation suffered by abandoned children in the eighteenth century make some of the most harrowing reading in the chronicles of English social history. The typical fate of foundlings “lucky” enough to survive infancy was dark indeed:

For the few who survived, the prospect was a grim one. The older females were frequently handed over to “a master who is either vicious or cruel: in the one case they fall victim to his irregular passions; and in the other are subjected, with unreasonable severity, to tasks too hard to be performed.” These were the lucky ones, others being virtually enslaved by criminals and trained for a life of prostitution if female or of robbery and pick-pocketing if male. Some had their teeth torn out to serve as artificial teeth for the rich; others were deliberately maimed by beggars to arouse compassion and extract alms. Even this latter crime was one upon which the law looked with a remarkably tolerant eye. In 1761 a beggar woman, convicted of deliberately “putting out the eyes of children with whom she went about the country” in order to attract pity and alms, was sentenced to no more than two years imprisonment. (Stone, p. 298)

Fielding was well aware of the horrors faced by foundling children, and reacted with a moral outrage that helped inspire the writing of Tom Jones.

Sources and literary context

Fielding drew on the picaresque tradition of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605) as a primary model for Tom Jones. As in the Spanish classic, many of the comic events in Tom Jones occur in wayside inns, where a variety of characters are juxtaposed for satiric effect. Not only are the landlords and landladies of these inns and alehouses lampooned for their petty avarice and nosiness, but chambermaids and stewards, coachmen and postilions, constables and thieves, clergymen and peddlers, doctors and lawyers, soldiers and sailors, and, of course, upper-class ladies and beaux all receive satiric lashings for their follies and vices, particularly for hypocrisy, greed, and calculating self-interest.

Fielding had perfected his technique as a comic dramatist through the 1730s, writing popularly successful plays such as Tom Thumb (1730) and Pasquin (1736). The witty dialogue in Tom Jones reflects his genius as a dramatist, as do the novel’s many memorable characters and the artfully contrived comic situations. Fielding’s characters show a debt to the classical Greco-Roman dramatic tradition, particularly the stock characters invented by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus and the conventional plots of Roman comedy, which feature “humorous” characters—individuals ruled by a dominant “humor,” such as the lecherous man, the avaricious man, or the superstitious man. The influence of the English satirical tradition is also apparent in occasional allusions to Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (1663), Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub (1703), and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock (1714) (also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). For example, Fielding recommends always reading Tom Jones with “a Tankard of good Ale,” citing as his authority Butler’s opinion that not the muses but ale is the true source of inspiration for both authors and readers (Tom Jones, Vol. 1, pp. 150-51).

Among Fielding’s contemporaries were writers who contributed to the newly emerging genre of the novel, including Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson (see Moll Flanders and Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded , also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). The circumstantial manner in which Defoe’s and Richardson’s novels imitate reality was essential to the new, empirical approach to the world invoked by scientists of the Royal Society. (The Royal Society’s approach to truth was through the amassing, weighing, and measuring of particulars.)

Fielding, while embracing the empirical approach to some extent, in other respects diverged from the style of Defoe and Richardson. To a certain degree, Fielding remained loyal to the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, who taught that the highest reality transcends the realm of shadowy particulars in which daily life is lived. This highest reality is found in the essential forms of things and in generalized representative types; the artist must penetrate through particulars to the general, through what is accidental to what is universal. Thus, Fielding’s characters, though they have a life and integrity of their own, can also be read as tokens of a reality larger than themselves, and his novels can be seen as highly schematic paradigms of the human condition. As the novel itself says, the subject of Tom Jones “is no other than HUMAN NATURE” (Tom Jones, vol. 1, p. 77).


Tom Jones was an immediate popular success and has long retained its preeminent place in the canon of English literature. According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (see Lyrical Ballads , also in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), Tom Jones had one of “the three most perfect plots ever planned” (Coleridge in Blanchard, p. 321). The opinion of an anonymous reviewer in the April 1751 issue of The Magazine of Magazines is typical:

Whosoever is acquainted with his [Fielding’s] writings must confess that there is no body so … capable of representing virtue in its own amiable dress, or vice in its native deformity, that has such a thorough insight into the causes and effects of things, is such a master of character, and so able to draw the picture of an author, and a reader of every kind. (Blanchard, pp. 77-78)

Some contemporary critics, such as Samuel Johnson and Samuel Richardson, criticized the “low” characters in the novel, but their opinions merely reflect the critical dogmatism of the eighteenth century, when standards of decorum held that the deeds of innkeepers and servants—to say nothing of impoverished bastards—could never make suitable reading for modest and pious ladies. In spite of relentless disparagement by moralizing critics, Tom Jones nevertheless earned its author the highest praises from, among others, the English historian Edward Gibbon, who pronounced Tom Jones to be an “exquisite picture of human manners” that would endure (Gibbon in Blanchard, p. 234).

—Jim Caufield

For More Information

Battestin, Martin C. A Henry Fielding Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000.

______. Henry Fielding: A Life. London: Routledge, 1989.

Blanchard, Frederic T. Fielding the Novelist: A Study in Historical Criticism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1926.

Cleary, Thomas R. Henry Fielding: Political Writer. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1984.

Fielding, Henry. The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling. 2 vols. Ed. Fredson Bowers. Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1974.

Harrison, Bernard. Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones: The Novelist as Moral Philosopher. London: University of Sussex Press, 1975.

McLynn, Frank. Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth-Century England. London: Routledge, 1989.

Paulson, Ronald. The Life of Henry Fielding. London: Blackwell, 2000.

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