This novel was first published in 1749; my copy from the library clocked in at 801 pages (before the notes). It follows the life and adventures of Tom Jones from the moment he is found in the bed of Squire Allworthy. Allworthy is as shocked as any of us might be to find a baby we were not previously familiar with when we lay down to sleep and despite believing little Tom to be the illegitimate child of a servant girl and a school teacher, he adopts him and raises him as his own. Allworthy is generous and caring and Tom grows up alongside Allworthy’s nephew, Master Blifil. As a young man, Tom is generous, altruistic, very handsome, and careless. He’s rather naive and very impulsive, driven by his passions, and before we know it Allworthy has been convinced of the worst of Tom and banishes him completely.
Tom has also fallen in love with the beautiful Sophia, daughter of Squire Western. Although he accepts that he is unworthy of her (largely because his unknown parentage) he can’t help expressing his love when he learns that she also cares for him. Banished by Allworthy, Tom heads out for adventure, getting into more and more trouble until he reaches London. In the meantime, Sophia has also fled her home. After her father insists she must marry Blifil, she refuses and flees in the night with her maidservant, also headed for London. Sophia and Tom almost cross paths multiple times in their flights, both ending up in London where a comedy of errors and multiples complicated characters create more difficulties for them until they reach their inevitable happy ending.
It is my personal opinion that any book over 500 pages could be edited down with no great loss and Tom Jones did not change my mind. I particularly struggled in the middle of the book while Tom and Sophia bumbled around England, going from inn to inn and having misunderstandings. The landlords and landladies all started to sound the same and the comic situations Tom got into, along with his erstwhile companion, a man named Partridge, just weren’t that funny to me. Your mileage may vary. This part reminded me a bit of Don Quixote and his travels, which I also thought lagged a great deal.
The book is also, obviously, very much a product of its time and the social norms of the 18th century aren’t always easily understood for this 21st century reader. Tom, for example, has sex with multiple other women, even after professing his love for Sophia, but Sophia is far more upset when she thinks he has spoken her name out loud in a public house. Sophia herself is rather a weak character. While her running away and refusing marriage is certainly a bold act for a woman of her time, on the whole she doesn’t have much depth. She’s beautiful and gentle and well-mannered and at one point the narrator praises her because she would never do anything as awful as enter into a debate or be witty while in conversation with a man.
At the same time, the book is also surprisingly funny at times. In many sections, Fielding is so astute about human nature and clever in what he recognizes about people, it was a delight to realize how little people have changed in their fundamental nature since the 1700s. Yes, the story lagged for me, but overall I found it much more readable than I expected.
I read Tom Jones as the first book in my Virtuous Reading Challenge, inspired by Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well. Swallow Prior chose Tom Jones as the book to highlight the virtue of prudence. She describes prudence as “wisdom in practice.” While I initially thought the character of Tom embodied more of a “what not to do” when it came to prudence, I can see that Tom Jones is actually the story of a young man developing prudence. Tom’s problems, his estrangement from Sophia and Squire Allworthy, come from his lack of prudence. He is good-hearted but he trusts the wrong people. He lacks an ability to judge the right behaviour in the right moment. (And it should not be lost on the reader that his love’s name literally translates to “Western Wisdom”.) Both Tom and Sophia are young people surrounded by others who wish to tell them how to live. It is up to them to decide which voices to listen to and which path to follow. While Sophia seems to have a better innate understanding of wisdom, Tom struggles and it is because he lacks prudence that he comes close to tragedy. As he seeks out better people and more thoughtful actions, he grows closer to being a man worthy of Sophia and discovering who he truly is.