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Let's say that it's, oh, 1749, and you are author Henry Fielding. You come from a fairly aristocratic family. But sadly, your dad is also a gambler and you have no family money. You've got a great education but not much else going for you. What do you do? You become a professional writer. In fact, you write for the stage, and you have a lot of success. But the government frowns on your spicy satires and shuts you down. Now what?
Well, in the face of all of these obstacles, you don't give up. Instead, you decide to write a novel. A really long novel. And not just any novel: an introduction to a particular mode of funny realism that would influence later writers such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain. You got it: this novel is Tom Jones.
And for any readers who might be worried that they won't be able to follow what Fielding is trying to do artistically with Tom Jones, he helpfully includes chapters of analysis of his own workas part of the novel.
It's not every book that comes with its own study guide—well played, Fielding!
And it's still exciting to read Tom Jones, because you can see Fielding working behind the scenes of the book, trying to figure out what novels should actually do from now on. Fielding wants his novel to be exciting but not too farfetched. He wants to show that novels can be funny, raunchy, truthful, and philosophical at heart. And he wants to prove that you can talk about justice, mercy, and virtue in a book with plenty of random adventures and broad sex jokes.
In other words, Henry Fielding uses Tom Jones to try and get some of the snobbery out of fiction-writing. He hates the condescending idea of "low" (or low-brow) fiction, and totally embraces the concept that books should be both instructive and fun to read. Any novel that wraps up its own commentary about censorship on the stage with a plot twist involving a local maid having sex with a wandering clown probably isn't taking itself too seriously.
Some of his contemporaries found Fielding's mix of deep thoughts and ridiculous hijinks a bit too bizarre to take. They even thought that it was immoral to tell the story of an illegitimate child (the title's Tom Jones) carving out a decent place for himself in the world.
These days, we don't worry too much that reading Tom Jones is going to set off a huge moral earthquake. But this novel might just shake up your world: Fielding creates rounded characters with plenty of serious and not-so-serious flaws. He invites us to laugh at them, as well as at Fielding as the author, and at ourselves as readers of this fast-paced, strange adventure. As Tom Jones mixes high-minded social thought and low-down, dirty action, its twists and turns continue to surprise us even now, over two hundred and fifty years after the novel's publication.
Here's a plot you've never encountered: an orphan boy comes of age with the help of a kindly older teacher-slash-guardian. As he grows up, he has adventures with a funny sidekick, and he eventually gets his happy ending… after a ton of mishaps, of course.
Oh wait. You know this story?
Tom Jones doesn't get points for originality. But Tom Jones (or its author, Henry Fielding) doesn't want your stinkin' points. This novel is interested in telling a classic tale with as much honesty (and sex jokes, wooo) as possible.
Fielding uses one of literature's classic set-ups—the main character who has to leave home and sort out What Life Is All About before coming back to his happy ending—to tell both the story of a man working out (a) what he wants out of life, and (b) how to write a freakin' novel. Wait—what now?
The star of the show in Tom Jones isn't Tom Jones, it's Tom Jones. Let's break that down so it doesn't sound like a tongue twister: within the confines of this novel (which is titled Tom Jones) the human Tom Jones is less important than the idea of the novel itself.
Fielding basically takes a super-classic plot (boy becomes a man, with a little help from his friends) and adds a healthy dose of reality to it: this boy ain't a saint. This makes for a super-entertaining novel, because it combines something old (the plot) with something new (telling it like it is. Shucks, it even uses something borrowed (tons of allusions of classical writers) and something blue (Tom Jones himself when he thinks he won't be able to marry his ladylove… okay, maybe that's a stretch).
And Fielding does all the aspiring writers out there a solid: he introduces each of the eighteen—count 'em, eighteen—books in this doorstop of a novel with a little how-to-write-a-novel guide. Not only is that helpful to all the would-be Faulkners and Austens out there, but it helped inspire an entire school of British writers: the Realists.
So, why should you care about Tom Jones? Well, it helped shape the modern English novel as we know it. It contains a handy-dandy guide for novel writing. It's an awesomesauce example of how certain plots never go out of style. And it's a sex-obsessed adventure through southern England that manages to cram in equal parts smut, politics, and meditations of human nature.
The real question, when faced with a book like Tom Jones is: why shouldn't you care?
Henry Fielding: The Brief Biography
The man behind Tom Jones, in all his glory.
The All-Purpose Intro to Tom Jones
This website provides a great scholarly introduction to the world of Tom Jones.
"Tom Jones": The 1917 Silent Production
We would love to see how the director tried to fit in eight hundred pages of plot into seven reels of silent film. Sadly, we doubt we'll ever see this rare early film adaptation of Tom Jones.
"Tom Jones": The Classic 1963 Film
This movie is still by far the most popular film of Tom Jones, even though it's almost fifty years old. We like it especially because the dad from Mary Poppins plays Partridge.
"The Bawdy Adventures of Tom Jones"
This 1976 production of the novel is clearly trying to make money off its reputation for sexual content, what with the insertion of the word "Bawdy" into the title. We're guessing it doesn't stick too close to the philosophical parts of the source material.
"Tom Jones": The 1997 BBC Miniseries
We can't find any clips from this relatively recent version of Tom Jones, so it doesn't appear to have attracted a big fan base. Still, it looks like it keeps close to the original novel.
Trailer for the 1963 Film Version of Tom Jones
Wow, movie previews used to be a lot slower than they are these days.
Librivox Audio File of Tom Jones (Broken into Chapters)
Multiple digital formats available for your listening pleasure.
Henry Fielding: A Print
Well, it's a little hard to tell through the huge wig and the stylized portrayal, but Henry Fielding doesn't seem like he was much of a looker.
Henry Fielding: Another Print
Still, even if he's not Chris Hemsworth, he does look like a nice guy.