Study Guide

Tom Jones Setting

By Henry Fielding

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Paradise Hall, Somerset; the roads of southern England; London

Tom Jones literally covers a lot of ground. Henry Fielding wants to show us as many aspects as he can of life in England in 1745, from the strong class hierarchies of the countryside to the glittering (but often fake) high society of London. Tom's travels aren't just important because they allow Fielding to develop his character as an individual. They are also essential because they give Fielding an opportunity to portray his view of England's character, as a nation of strong social contrasts between countryfolk and cityfolk and the rich and the poor.

The multiple settings of the book, from country houses to inns to city drawing rooms, gives us the sense that we are seeing a true cross-section of contemporary English life through Fielding's eyes.

We've been keeping a running list of all the inns in Tom Jones: there's the one in Hambrook, on the way to Bristol; there's the one at Upton; there's the Bull and Gate in Holborn; the Bell at Gloucester—and the list goes on. Since Tom spends at least half the book traveling all over southwest England, this book has a ton of settings: stacks of inns, multiple country houses, and a series of city homes and fashionable drawing rooms. What can you say about the general setting of Tom Jones when it includes so many different places?

Well, critic James E. Evans points out that, yeah, there are a lot of individual locations in Tom Jones. But these locations all fall into roughly three categories. And the three categories line up with three separate parts of the novel's plot development. This is a great way of reading the novel's physical spaces because it means you don't have to sweat the small stuff. It's less important to think of differences between the inn at Coventry and the inn at Upton than it is to recognize that they are both inns.

So here are the three categories:

The Country Estate, First Six Books

The two main country houses in Tom Jones belong to Squire Allworthy (specifically, Paradise Hall, in Glastonbury, Somersetshire) and Squire Western. These estates have lots of poor, working-class people living on them. And all of these poorer people rely on the two squires for money and for employment. They even count on the squires for justice: both men are magistrates, which means they are local judges, with the right to punish these poorer people for breaking laws.

(Which, honestly, leads to some really messed up "justice." For more on why these squires shouldn't be allowed to lay down the law, check out our section on "Morality and Ethics" under "Quotes and Thoughts.")

Like everyone else living on these estates—the servants, the villagers, the squires' other family members—Tom totally depends on Squire Allworthy to support him. And when he begins trying to do his own thing, to help the Seagrim family in his own way (with partridges and a sold Bible), Tom gets horribly punished for it. If Tom's ever going to grow into an independent person, he's going to have to physically go somewhere else—which brings us to our next setting.

The Inn, Second Six Books

The country estates in this book are like tiny little kingdoms, with the squires as the kings. The people living there get a place to stay and money in their pockets in exchange for doing exactly what the squires tell them to do. If they don't follow the rules, they get kicked out.

But while Tom is traveling on the road with Partridge, he comes to a really different kind of setting: the inn. These places are much less orderly than the estate. The line between rich and poor gets blurry, and people of different classes come together to gossip and backstab pretty freely. So what makes the difference?

Money. The innkeepers in this book change their behavior dramatically depending on whether or not someone can pay for a good room. Think of the inn at Upton: when the landlady first sees half-naked Mrs. Waters, she tries to shove her out the door with a broom. But as soon as she hears that this woman is Captain Waters's wife, she starts calling her "your ladyship" (9.4.8).

The social order in these spaces is a lot less set or fixed than in the country estate. And that also means that characters (and especially Tom) jump between the kitchen (for poor people) and rooms upstairs (for rich people) all the time. Since Tom is still trying to make his way in the world financially, without any support from Squire Allworthy, it makes sense that his struggles with cash happen in places like these inns, which are all about money.

The Town, Final Six Books

If the country state is about dependence and the inn is about money, the town (which always means London in this book) is about surface appearances. The narrator constantly describes the social interactions in the drawing rooms of London as "brilliant" (13.4.7). But even though the people in London are witty and the houses are grand, there isn't a lot of substance there. Even in Mrs. Miller's friendly house, Mr. Nightingale almost doesn't marry Nancy (even though he loves her) because he worries that it will look bad.

And it's in this section of the book, where we get to meet all of these fashionable people with grand titles, that the marriage plot starts jumping back into the plot. Surrounded by the fakeness of London, Tom starts to get fed up: his weird paid relationship with Lady Bellaston teaches him that people in the city are a lot less serious about love and marriage than he is. Tom regrets the hollowness of his earlier affairs. And he promises to be a better man to Sophia.

So London's shiny high society really just shows Tom how much he wants to go back to the country estate—especially since now, as Squire Allworthy's official heir, Tom is going to get to be boss some day.

On the Road

The road runs between all of these different social spaces of the novel, but it's not really part of any of them. It's on the road that truly random encounters can happen, like when Tom finds the house of the Man of the Hill or when Tom runs into the gypsies and talks to their King.

But even if the road allows for things slightly outside of the usual social order to occur, it still isn't completely separate from the other settings of the book. After all, Tom rescues Mrs. Waters from Northerton while he's traveling, and she turns out to be none other than Jenny Jones, his supposed mother. So even on the road, these chance encounters can still have major plot consequences once the characters return to their usual social worlds.

Wait, So There Really Was An Inn Called the "Hercules Pillars"?

You know how, when someone tries to convince you of an urban legend, they'll often start off by saying, "this happened to a friend of a friend." So, for example: "My friend's friend ate a watermelon seed, and a watermelon grew in his stomach, dude." By attaching this story to "a friend of a friend," it seems (kinda-sorta) more believable.

Well, the place names in Tom Jones seem to work a little bit like "a friend of a friend." By anchoring these (sometimes, really farfetched) plot lines in real-world, recognizable places, Fielding adds believability to the story.

So, yes, the Hercules Pillars actually was a hotel in western London. Maybe as readers, we'll find it easier to believe that Squire Western managed to keep Sophia locked up there for a time now that we know that this inn actually existed.

Tom Jones Setting Study Group

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