Tom Jones What's Up With the Ending?
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What's Up With the Ending?
In the very last chapter of Tom Jones (Book 18, Chapter 13), Mr. Nightingale makes up with his dad. Tom and Sophia get married and return to the countryside. Mr. Blifil gets sent off to the north of England to live on a small-ish allowance from Squire Allworthy and Tom. Squire Western retires and Tom takes over his estate. Mr. Square dies; Mrs. Fitzpatrick settles happily in London; Lady Bellaston treats TomSoph like strangers when they meet again; Mr. Nightingale and his family move in to a small piece of property near Tom; Mrs. Western reconciles with Sophia; Black George disappears, never to be seen again; Partridge considers marriage to Molly Seagrim; Mrs. Waters marries Mr. Supple; and Tom and Sophia have two delightful children.
Phew, that's a ton of plot!
What we find interesting about the way the narrator finishes off this novel is that he carefully lays out the cash value of a happy ending. Like, we don't just find out that Partridge is content and about to settle down with Molly Seagrim. The narrator also takes care to specify that Tom gives Partridge fifty pounds (about $10,000 in today's cash) a year as an income. Or when we hear that Mrs. Fitzpatrick separated successfully from her husband, we also discover that she "retains the little remains of her fortune" (18.13.15)—enough to set up a household on her own (with some help, the novel implies, from Mrs. Fitzpatrick's boyfriends).
Of course, we all know that money does not buy happiness. But the narrator subtly reminds us that it can give security and stability to people. All of these wandering characters like Mrs. Waters and Partridge—and Tom himself—have been moving from place to place in part because they do not have steady fortunes to guarantee their futures. It is an important part of the happy ending of Tom Jones that all of the good guys wind up with money to support themselves into the future.
So we feel like Fielding would offer a revision of that old saying: money may not buy you happiness, but it allows you to stay in one place to enjoy your happiness once you have found it. (We will admit, our revised saying is not as catchy as the original. But we think Fielding would approve of the sentiment!)
Wait, There Is a Lot Going On Here…
The page length of the chapters swells insanely in Book 18. This is because Fielding really jams in a lot of plot into that final section of the novel. The whole point of the classic comedy as a genre (go read our section on "Genre" for more on this topic) is that it ties up all the loose ends at the conclusion of the story. And Fielding takes his job as a comic writer and wrapper-upper of plot points very seriously.
So in Book 18, we suddenly hear about people like Jenny Jones and Molly Seagrim again—characters we haven't heard from in hundreds of pages. And the narrator directly addresses every last open question in specific detail, from who gets Tom out of jail (Lord Fellamar and the Irish nobleman) to how Lady Bellaston reacts to Tom and Sophia's wedding (coldly).
By tying up not only big problems (like Tom's identity and Mr. Blifil's crimes) but also small ones (like how Mr. Nightingale makes up with his father, Nightingale Senior) in the last book, Fielding impresses us with his sense of continuity and his memory for all of the little details of this hugely complicated and involved novel.
Are We Supposed to Buy All of This Stuff? Really?
While we are amazed at Fielding's attention to detail, doesn't Book 18 seem a little, well, unlikely? It seems weird for a book that keeps emphasizing its own believability that all of the characters arrive at just the right time to add the necessary clues to expose Mr. Blifil's evil and Tom's basic goodness before the novel ends.
Just think about it—if Mrs. Waters hadn't gotten to Mrs. Miller's right at the end of Book 18, Chapter 6 to assure Squire Allworthy that she is not Tom's mother, than Squire Allworthy would have gone on his way thinking that Tom had committed incest with his mom. And Squire Allworthy doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would forgive and forget that kind of thing: it's super-creepy.
But while we may find these final plot points a little fake or even contrived, the narrator stops to defend them. When Squire Allworthy gets to Nightingale Senior's house at just the right time to spot Black George with his stolen money, the narrator comments:
Here an accident happened of a very extraordinary kind; one indeed of those strange chances whence very good and grave men have concluded that Providence often interposes in the discovery of the most secret villainy. (18.3.2)
The narrator admits that the sudden arrival of Squire Allworthy at Nightingale Senior's house the split second when he can learn something useful to the larger plot is "an accident" of a "very extraordinary kind" that some people could assign to "Providence." (Providence means divine fate, but of course, the only divine fate at work in Tom Jones is the author trying to finish up a complicated, sprawling plot line.) Still, the fact that the narrator points out that weird things do happen in the real world seems like a defense of the believability of this equally weird thing that suddenly happens in his fictional world.
After all, the narrator points out, historians often tell us truths that are stranger than fiction (or, as the narrator says in a much longer-winded fashion, history includes facts "of so extraordinary a nature as will require no small degree of historical faith to swallow them" [8.1.6]). Is Tom Jones really weirder than a lot of amazing true stories out there? Like that guy who floated above Los Angeles in his lawn chair? Maybe not.
So we'll admit that we see Fielding's point of view: lots of weird things happen in life, and it's not fair to say a novel is unrealistic because it includes amazing coincidences and bizarre chances.
At the same time, the last book does seem a little too tidy. The final paragraph includes the line, "To conclude, as there are not to be found a worthier man and woman, than this fond couple, so neither can any be imagined more happy" (18.13.24). This seems like Henry-Fielding-speak for that most fairy-tale-like ending: "And they lived happily ever after." And there is nothing that seems quite so fictional and made-up as a neat happy ending for everyone who deserves one.
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