I have finally made my way through “A History of Tom Jones, a Foundling.”
It took a bit longer than I expected. Granted, it is a big book. The language of the mid-1700s requires a bit more attention by today’s readers than the text you find in newspapers and magazines. I’ve had a few diversions in the past few weeks that kept me from a daily reading. Although my completion of the book was delayed, there was nothing deficient in the tale itself that made me lose interest in either the plot or the characters.
Contemporaries of the author Henry Fielding, if not entirely pleased with the scandalous content of the book, considered the plot to be one of the most ingenious ever devised. I must say that I agree. Although the presence of extraordinary coincidences reminded me that the flow of events was manufactured by a human being and was not governed by chance and the motivations of the characters themselves, they also served as tokens of Fielding’s imagination and ingenuity. And since the book is ostensibly a “comedy,” the presence of highly unusual coincidental meetings and relationships really just enhances the comic aspect of the story.
Besides the complex and imaginative plot, several other aspects of the book are truly remarkable. One is Fielding’s representation of human nature. His insights into the motivations of the characters and their psychological impact on others impressed me considerably. Unlike many comedies that rely on slapstick and simple, one dimensional characters, Fielding’s story presents characters that, I believe, could exist without problem in many other tales as credible people.
Another aspect of the book that impressed me is Fielding’s treatment of women and men as representatives of their sexes. Although the book is ostensibly about Tom Jones and his journey through life and through England, Fielding gives us plenty of female characters that have a huge impact on Jones’s journey. Most of the women, whether presented positively or negatively, are strong, smart, and often buck the contemporary markers of acceptable female behavior. Some exhibit extreme forms of behavior, but nearly all of them display some sort of offsetting characteristic that gives them somewhat rounded natures.
Fielding’s treatment of men, I think, is not so generous as his treatment of women. Apart from Tom Jones and his adopted father, Squire Allworthy (who turns out to be Tom’s uncle), most of the major male characters are drunks, boors, crooks, or abusers of women. The ones who are intelligent use their intelligence to gain power and prestige.
Fielding has been accused of his so-called acceptance of the sexuality of men and an inversely corresponding denigration of women who exhibit the same sexuality. I did not find this in the book. Both men and women displayed profuse sexual appetites. Yes, the promiscuous women were given labels for their efforts. The names were applied by other characters in the book, both men and women. The men, though not called names, were not glorified for their sexual exploits. In fact, I was amazed at the relatively even-handed nature of Fielding’s treatment of sexuality across the sexes. Tom was seduced numerous times and never turned down an opportunity. His sexual conquests were due more to his handsome face, pleasing physique, and attractive personality than to his own designs. The sexual motivation of the women who seduced him was a natural response to Tom’s physical and emotional being. That seems to me to be the way sex works.
Although I spent many hours with Tom Jones, his friends, and his enemies, it was time well spent. In fact, I would like to do it again someday. I recommend the book to anyone thinking they might have the bookish fortitude to spend 871 pages with one of the most comical, influential, and remarkable novels in history.