Study Guide

Tom Jones Foolishness and Folly

By Henry Fielding

Foolishness and Folly

[F]or when [Jenny Jones] was convened before the justice, and it was universally apprehended that the house of correction would have been her fate, though some of the young women cryed out "It was good enough for her," and diverted themselves with the thoughts of her beating hemp in a silk gown; yet there were many others who began to pity her condition: but when it was known in what manner Mr Allworthy had behaved, the tide turned against her. One said, "I'll assure you, madam hath had good luck." A second cryed, "See what it is to be a favourite!" A third, "Ay, this comes of her learning." Every person made some malicious comment or other on the occasion, and reflected on the partiality of the justice.

The behaviour of these people may appear impolitic and ungrateful to the reader, who considers the power and benevolence of Mr Allworthy. But as to his power, he never used it; and as to his benevolence, he exerted so much, that he had thereby disobliged all his neighbours; for it is a secret well known to great men, that, by conferring an obligation, they do not always procure a friend, but are certain of creating many enemies. (1.9.2-3)

The narrator insists that Tom Jones is a novel about human nature. Well, from this passage at least, it seems like the narrator's view of human nature is pretty bleak. When the villagers think Jenny Jones is headed to prison, some of them start to feel bad for her. But when they find out she's not going to prison, everyone turns against her—and against Squire Allworthy. They all assume that Squire Allworthy must have some special interest (probably sexual) in Jenny's case to be so kind to her. Even worse, Squire Allworthy becomes a target for gossip because he does so much good in his neighborhood that a lot of the villagers resent and envy him. So this episode suggests that human nature is really stupid and contrary: when you're down on your luck, people will pity (and condescend to) you. But when you are doing well, and when you are trying to help other people, there will be lots of fools who get jealous and nasty.

Nothing was wanting to enable him to enter upon the immediate execution of this plan, but the death of Mr Allworthy; in calculating which he had employed much of his own algebra, besides purchasing every book extant that treats of the value of lives, reversions, &c. From all which he satisfied himself, that as he had every day a chance of this happening, so had he more than an even chance of its happening within a few years.

But while the captain was one day busied in deep contemplations of this kind, one of the most unlucky as well as unseasonable accidents happened to him. The utmost malice of Fortune could, indeed, have contrived nothing so cruel, so mal-a-propos, so absolutely destructive to all his schemes. In short, not to keep the reader in long suspense, just at the very instant when his heart was exulting in meditations on the happiness which would accrue to him by Mr Allworthy's death, he himself—died of an apoplexy. (2.8.3-4)

Okay, so this bit of Tom Jones is definitely darkly funny. Captain Blifil hates his wife, and he hates his brother-in-law. He's at his happiest when he's walking by himself, contemplating Squire Allworthy's death. He has already made a bunch of assumptions: (a) that Squire Allworthy will die soon; (b) that Captain Blifil will inherit his cash (since his wife is a woman and his son is too young); and (c) that Squire Allworthy's fortune is beyond huge. But! Instead, Captain Blifil is the one who dies first, in the middle of one of these fantasy sessions about Squire Allworthy's money. Captain Blifil's death shows a bunch of things: (a) that you can never 100% count on anything in this life, since luck is always a factor, and (b) you shouldn't waste your time fantasizing endlessly about the distant future because it may never happen. Seize the day! Live in the moment! And all of those other clichés you always see in sports drink ads.

Wine now had totally subdued this power [of reason] in Jones. He was, indeed, in a condition, in which, if reason had interposed, though only to advise, she might have received the answer which one Cleostratus gave many years ago to a silly fellow, who asked him, if he was not ashamed to be drunk? "Are not you," said Cleostratus, "ashamed to admonish a drunken man?"—To say the truth, in a court of justice drunkenness must not be an excuse, yet in a court of conscience it is greatly so; and therefore Aristotle, who commends the laws of Pittacus, by which drunken men received double punishment for their crimes, allows there is more of policy than justice in that law. Now, if there are any transgressions pardonable from drunkenness, they are certainly such as Mr Jones was at present guilty of; on which head I could pour forth a vast profusion of learning, if I imagined it would either entertain my reader, or teach him anything more than he knows already. (5.10.6)

As usual, this narrator loves the humor of taking something very stupid and presenting it as very serious. The ridiculous contrast here is pretty obvious: Tom is drunk out of his mind and ready to sleep with Molly in spite of his feelings for Sophia. The narrator addresses Tom's dumb behavior by using extremely formal language and the example of Aristotle (only one of the most highly renowned Greek philosophers ever). This moment is like the novel equivalent of editing together a high-toned video parody of black-and-white French film using fluffy cats. We guess humor hasn't changed that much in two hundred and fifty years—it'll always be funny to take something totally idiotic and treat it like it's The Most Important Thing Ever.

To say the truth, in discovering the deceit of others, it matters much that our own art be wound up, if I may use the expression, in the same key with theirs: for very artful men sometimes miscarry by fancying others wiser, or, in other words, greater knaves, than they really are. As this observation is pretty deep, I will illustrate it by the following short story. Three countrymen were pursuing a Wiltshire thief through Brentford. The simplest of them seeing "The Wiltshire House," written under a sign, advised his companions to enter it, for there most probably they would find their countryman. The second, who was wiser, laughed at this simplicity; but the third, who was wiser still, answered, "Let us go in, however, for he may think we should not suspect him of going amongst his own countrymen." They accordingly went in and searched the house, and by that means missed overtaking the thief, who was at that time but a little way before them; and who, as they all knew, but had never once reflected, could not read. (6.3.7)

For Fielding, the problem with trying to be clever is that you often wind up outsmarting yourself. He gives this long example of three guys looking for a thief from Wiltshire. They come up with a variety of super-smart reasons for why they should look for him at an inn called "The Wiltshire House." But what they all overlook—even though they are aware of the fact—is that the thief can't read. So why would he choose an inn with a particular name written on the sign to hide in? They assume that the thief thinks in the exact same way that they do, and that's their biggest mistake. The worst kind of foolishness is when you make the mistake of assuming that everyone else has your own motivations; that'll blind you to anything you don't expect or understand in another person's behavior.

The bill being made and discharged, Jones set forward with Partridge, carrying his knapsack; nor did the landlady condescend to wish him a good journey; for this was, it seems, an inn frequented by people of fashion; and I know not whence it is, but all those who get their livelihood by people of fashion, contract as much insolence to the rest of mankind, as if they really belonged to that rank themselves. (8.7.7)

The funny thing about this landlady—who is not rich herself—is that she is a huge snob. She looks down her nose at Tom, even though he has been raised by a gentleman. Another example of this kind of snobbery among working class people is Mrs. Western's maid, who lords it over Mrs. Honour because her employer is more fashionable than Mrs. Honour's. But of course, this kind of snobbery is obviously idiotic. As the narrator points out, the landlady is only fooling herself into thinking that she "really belonged to that rank" herself. In the class system that the landlady supports with her snobbery, she is near the bottom. Why do you think that the landlady cares about "people of fashion"? How does she benefit from being a snob when she is, herself, working class?

"Not much of schollards neither," answered the serjeant; "they have not half your learning, sir, I believe; and, to be sure, I thought there must be a devil, notwithstanding what they said, though one of them was a captain; for methought, thinks I to myself, if there be no devil, how can wicked people be sent to him? and I have read all that upon a book."—"Some of your officers," quoth the landlord, "will find there is a devil, to their shame, I believe. I don't question but he'll pay off some old scores upon my account. Here was one quartered upon me half a year, who had the conscience to take up one of my best beds, though he hardly spent a shilling a day in the house, and suffered his men to roast cabbages at the kitchen fire, because I would not give them a dinner on a Sunday. Every good Christian must desire there should be a devil for the punishment of such wretches." (9.6.4)

When the sergeant and the landlord at Upton get together to discuss the devil, they aren't having some kind of late-night, abstract, philosophical jam session about the nature of Evil. They both agree that there has to be a devil because bad people must suffer at some point for their wrongs. In this passage, the devil comes across almost like a tool for these working class guys to imagine some power over people otherwise outside their control. The landlord can't force that cheap officer to pay more money for his room. So he finds the idea of a devil sort of reassuring, because at least the devil can do what he can't: the devil can force people to suffer for what they have done wrong. The devil allows the landlord to fantasize about having some authority, as he imagines that the devil will "pay off some old scores on [the landlord's] account."

"But, what may seem astonishing, my aunt never saw, nor in the least seemed to suspect, that which was visible enough, I believe, from both our behaviours. One would indeed think that love quite puts out the eyes of an old woman. In fact, they so greedily swallow the addresses which are made to them, that, like an outrageous glutton, they are not at leisure to observe what passes amongst others at the same table. This I have observed in more cases than my own; and this was so strongly verified by my aunt, that, though she often found us together at her return from the pump, the least canting word of his, pretending impatience at her absence, effectually smothered all suspicion." (11.4.13)

In telling the story of her own terrible marriage, Mrs. Fitzpatrick keeps pointing out how weirdly blind Mrs. Western is to the relationship developing between Mr. Fitzpatrick and Harriet, the future Mrs. Fitzpatrick. She decides that Mrs. Western is so vain about Mr. Fitzpatrick's supposed attraction to her that she literally can't see the obvious signs of his flirtation with someone else. And Harriet is also blind to all of the warning signs that Mr. Fitzpatrick is not the great man she believes he is before they get married. This idea of blindness and sight is a major part of Tom Jones. The narrator says that it is his job to see better than most people, to, "strip off the thin disguise of wisdom from self-conceit, of plenty from avarice, of glory from ambition" (13.1.4). This novel is supposed to show people as they are, rather than just as they appear. Which characters in this book seem most clear-sighted about other people's flaws? How have they gained their sharp vision? Are there any characters without blind spots?

"It is ill jesting," cries Partridge, "with people who have power to do these things; for [witches] are often very malicious. I remember a farrier, who provoked one of them, by asking her when the time she had bargained with the devil for would be out; and within three months from that very day one of his best cows was drowned. Nor was she satisfied with that; for a little time afterwards he lost a barrel of best-drink: for the old witch pulled out the spigot, and let it run all over the cellar, the very first evening he had tapped it to make merry with some of his neighbours. In short, nothing ever thrived with him afterwards; for she worried the poor man so, that he took to drinking; and in a year or two his stock was seized, and he and his family are now come to the parish." (12.11.7-8)

Partridge tries to prove to Tom beyond a doubt that witches exist by giving this example of a farrier (which is a blacksmith) he once knew. But the things that he takes as proof that the farrier was cursed by a local witch—a drowned cow and a barrel of wasted beer—could also just be a matter of chance (and drunken carelessness, since the guy was making "merry with some of his neighbours" the night that the keg spigot was inexplicably left open). Fielding uses Partridge's superstition to show that you can "prove" anything you want, if you decide ahead of time what you want the evidence to show.

Thus at an age when the [wits] above mentioned employ their time in toasting the charms of a woman, or in making sonnets in her praise; in giving their opinion of a play at the theatre, or of a poem at Will's or Button's; these gentlemen are considering the methods to bribe a corporation, or meditating speeches for the House of Commons, or rather for the magazines. But the science of gaming is that which above all others employs their thoughts. These are the studies of their graver hours, while for their amusements they have the vast circle of connoisseurship, painting, music, statuary, and natural philosophy, or rather unnatural, which deals in the wonderful, and knows nothing of Nature, except her monsters and imperfections. (13.5.8)

Fielding compares the writers of a previous generation, who spent all of their wit describing beautiful women and thinking about art, to the commercial writers of his day. Now, Fielding complains, all the writers working for money are writing about business or politics or gambling. They think about everything except human nature (unless it's "her monsters and imperfections"). These writers have all become such smooth experts in their craft that they never really thinkabout anything serious. Fielding is basically giving the 18th Century author equvalent of "kids these days, eh?"

Little more worth remembering occurred during the play, at the end of which Jones asked him, "Which of the players he had liked best?" To this he answered, with some appearance of indignation at the question, "The king, without doubt." "Indeed, Mr Partridge," says Mrs Miller, "you are not of the same opinion with the town; for they are all agreed, that Hamlet is acted by the best player who ever was on the stage." "He the best player!" cries Partridge, with a contemptuous sneer, "why, I could act as well as he myself. I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did." (16.5.14)

Partridge is pretty funny during this whole sequence, when he keeps commenting loudly on a performance of Shakespeare's play Hamlet. But by the end, Partridge's comments about what makes a good actor actually speak to what Fielding is trying to do with his larger project in Tom Jones. Partridge thinks that the actor who plays Hamlet is an idiot because if he had seen that ghost, he would have "looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did." Partridge believes that Hamlet is a bad actor because he looks too natural and too realistic—he reacts just like any real person would react! Partridge wants his actors to ham it up, so he knows that they are performing.

Now, Partridge is obviously not a reliable judge of acting. But his objection to this performance of habit is kind of self-mocking on Fielding's part. After all, Fielding has said over and over again that he wants Tom Jones to appear natural and realistic. However, people reading his book may find it a little too bare of stylish flourishes and marks that show that it is Literature-with-a-capital-L. Like this poor actor, Fielding runs the risk that readers won't understand the skill and technique that goes into writing a novel about the everyday lives of regular folk.