Study Guide

Tom Jones Lies and Deceit

By Henry Fielding

Lies and Deceit

I have thought it somewhat strange, upon reflection, that the housekeeper never acquainted Mrs Blifil with this news [that Mr. Partridge is supposed to have had an affair with Jenny Jones], as women are more inclined to communicate all pieces of intelligence to their own sex, than to ours. The only way, as it appears to me, of solving this difficulty, is, by imputing it to that distance which was now grown between the lady and the housekeeper: whether this arose from a jealousy in Mrs Blifil, that Wilkins showed too great a respect to the foundling; for while she was endeavouring to ruin the little infant, in order to ingratiate herself with the captain, she was every day more and more commending it before Allworthy, as his fondness for it every day increased. This, notwithstanding all the care she took at other times to express the direct contrary to Mrs Blifil, perhaps offended that delicate lady, who certainly now hated Mrs Wilkins; and though she did not, or possibly could not, absolutely remove her from her place, she found, however, the means of making her life very uneasy. This Mrs Wilkins, at length, so resented, that she very openly showed all manner of respect and fondness to little Tommy, in opposition to Mrs Blifil. (2.5.10)

One reason why this book is both darkly funny and kind of depressing is that the narrator rarely suggests that anyone (except maybe Squire Allworthy) has a 100% honest and straightforward reason for anything that he or she does. So, Mrs. Wilkins treats baby Tom with great love—but only when Squire Allworthy is watching, since she wants to suck up to him. She knows that Captain Blifil hates the kid, so she does her best to help Captain Blifil bring him down, but only in secret. Mrs. Wilkins behaves in exactly opposite ways towards Tom depending on whose company she's in. Who knows how she really feels towards Tom, if she even knows herself? Is there any genuine feeling in this book? Who seems to be most honest about their feelings? And how does that honesty affect the other characters in the book?

Here, reader, I beg your patience a moment, while I make a just compliment to the great wisdom and sagacity of our law, which refuses to admit the evidence of a wife for or against her husband. This, says a certain learned author, who, I believe, was never quoted before in any but a law-book, would be the means of creating an eternal dissension between them. It would, indeed, be the means of much perjury, and of much whipping, fining, imprisoning, transporting, and hanging. (2.6.12)

This passage is a sidebar from the narrator on what a good idea it is not to allow a wife to testify either "for or against her husband," because wives are not usually objective when it comes to their life partners. Obviously, the narrator raises this issue because Mrs. Partridge does a horrible job of testifying against her husband, and Squire Allworthy just believes her because he assumes that, as Partridge's wife, she must know him best.

The biggest problem in legal cases that deal only with witness statements is that witnesses have all kinds of reasons to lie. Worst of all, Mrs. Partridge is so intensely jealous that she doesn't even know she's lying when she accuses her husband of cheating on her. Basically, the narrator seems to think that we can't trust anything that anyone says, since we all have biases and self-interests. So what do you guys think? What should be the role of witnesses in legal trials? Not to sound super-cynical or anything, but can we trust people to present really objective evidence? How do we balance out possible witness bias while still taking into account what they have to say?

Towards the gamekeeper the good man [Squire Allworthy] behaved with more severity. He presently summoned that poor fellow before him, and after many bitter remonstrances, paid him his wages, and dismist him from his service; for Mr Allworthy rightly observed, that there was a great difference between being guilty of a falsehood to excuse yourself, and to excuse another. He likewise urged, as the principal motive to his inflexible severity against this man, that he had basely suffered Tom Jones to undergo so heavy a punishment for his sake, whereas he ought to have prevented it by making the discovery himself. (3.5.6)

There's a double standard going on here: Squire Allworthy knows that Tom lied repeatedly about not having a partner in his crime. But in the end, Squire Allworthy doesn't blame Tom for that lie. He admires Tom for lying to protect Black George the gamekeeper from losing his job. Squire Allworthy feels that it's better to lie for someone else than to tell a lie to save yourself. What do you guys think—is that always true?

"Sir," answered the surgeon, "to say whether a wound will prove mortal or not at first dressing, would be very weak and foolish presumption: we are all mortal, and symptoms often occur in a cure which the greatest of our profession could never foresee."—"But do you think him in danger?" says the other.—"In danger! ay, surely," cries the doctor: "who is there among us, who, in the most perfect health, can be said not to be in danger? Can a man, therefore, with so bad a wound as this be said to be out of danger? All I can say at present is, that it is well I was called as I was, and perhaps it would have been better if I had been called sooner. I will see him again early in the morning; and in the meantime let him be kept extremely quiet, and drink liberally of water-gruel." (7.13.8)

A lot of doctors appear in this novel, and they are all basically the same. Their one basic trait is that they talk a lot, but they won't actually say anything. None of them want to be blamed for a patient's injury or death, but all of them want to make some money off other people's illnesses. Clearly, Fielding doesn't think much of the effectiveness and truthfulness of the medical profession. (And considering that he was writing at a time when doctors still thought that hand-washing wasn't necessary before surgery, we can understand his perspective!)

These are no other than invention and judgment; and they are both called by the collective name of genius, as they are of those gifts of nature which we bring with us into the world. Concerning each of which many seem to have fallen into very great errors; for by invention, I believe, is generally understood a creative faculty, which would indeed prove most romance writers to have the highest pretensions to it; whereas by invention is really meant no more (and so the word signifies) than discovery, or finding out; or to explain it at large, a quick and sagacious penetration into the true essence of all the objects of our contemplation. This, I think, can rarely exist without the concomitancy of judgment; for how we can be said to have discovered the true essence of two things, without discerning their difference, seems to me hard to conceive. (9.1.7)

This passage is not so much about the theme of "Lies and Deceit,"but more about its opposite, Truth—but we figured, hey, close enough. The way that Fielding talks about "finding out" the "true essence" of things makes it sound as though there is one eternal, unchanging truth waiting to be uncovered by smart observers. But another way of seeing truth is that it depends on the point of view of the observer. There might be different truths out there for different people, depending on the circumstances. Do you believe that some things in the world have a "true essence"? Or is truth something that we all have to make for ourselves?

"Why there," says Susan, "I hope, madam, your ladyship won't be offended; but pray, madam, is not your ladyship's name Madam Sophia Western?" "How is it possible you should know me?" answered Sophia. "Why that man, that the gentlewoman spoke of, who is in the kitchen, told about you last night. But I hope your ladyship is not angry with me." "Indeed, child," said she, "I am not; pray tell me all, and I promise you I'll reward you." "Why, madam," continued Susan, "that man told us all in the kitchen that Madam Sophia Western—indeed I don't know how to bring it out."—Here she stopt, till, having received encouragement from Sophia, and being vehemently pressed by Mrs Honour, she proceeded thus:—"He told us, madam, though to be sure it is all a lie, that your ladyship was dying for love of the young squire, and that he was going to the wars to get rid of you." (10.5.7)

At every single place where Tom stays, the people nearby start talking over some distorted version of his adventures. Rumor is practically a whole separate character in this book… it has so much influence on the story. Here, Partridge's gossip about Tom supposedly running away from home to escape Sophia gets back to the worst person possible: Sophia herself. What other moments can you think of where rumor directly affects the plot? Who are the main spreaders of rumor in this book, and what do they have in common? What are some of the stranger versions of Tom's story that we hear from these gossips?

At last, after much previous precaution and enjoined concealment, she communicated to me, as a profound secret—that my husband kept a mistress.

You will certainly imagine I heard this news with the utmost insensibility—Upon my word, if you do, your imagination will mislead you. Contempt had not so kept down my anger to my husband, but that hatred rose again on this occasion. What can be the reason of this? Are we so abominably selfish, that we can be concerned at others having possession even of what we despise? Or are we not rather abominably vain, and is not this the greatest injury done to our vanity? (11.7.11-2)

By now, Mrs. Fitzpatrick has already realized that she hates Mr. Fitzpatrick. She thinks her husband is cruel, stupid, and selfish. But even though she despises him, she is still angry to hear that he is having an affair. And Mrs. Fitzpatrick asks some great questions: is it out of selfishness that she cares, that she doesn't want another woman to have what's hers, even if she doesn't want it? Or is it that she doesn't want her husband to desire another woman more than her, even if she doesn't desire him back? Why is it still hurtful to know that someone is cheating on you, even if you aren't into the relationship in the first place?

The elegant Lord Shaftesbury somewhere objects to telling too much truth: by which it may be fairly inferred, that, in some cases, to lie is not only excusable but commendable. […]

We are not, therefore, ashamed to say, that our heroine now pursued the dictates of the above-mentioned right honourable philosopher. As she was perfectly satisfied then, that Lady Bellaston was ignorant of the person of Jones, so she determined to keep her in that ignorance, though at the expense of a little fibbing. (13.12.1-3)

Sophia is generally an honest girl, but she isn't stupid. She decides to lie a bit to cover up Tom's identity to Lady Bellaston. (The narrator jokes that girls in love often lie, and that this is not only "excusable but commendable.") But Sophia is not a good liar, because she doesn't keep in practice. Lady Bellaston, on the other hand, is a really superb liar. We also find out that Mrs. Fitzpatrick is great at covering up the truth. These are two highly morally ambiguous people, so it makes sense that they work hard at their skills at lying. But do you think that it is possible to be both a good person and a good liar? When is it ethically okay to lie? Is Sophia's lie about Tom's identity morally justifiable?

Sophia is generally an honest girl, but she isn't stupid. She decides to lie a bit to cover up Tom's identity to Lady Bellaston. (The narrator jokes that girls in love often lie, and that this is not only "excusable but commendable.") But Sophia is not a good liar, because she doesn't keep in practice. Lady Bellaston, on the other hand, is a really superb liar. We also find out that Mrs. Fitzpatrick is great at covering up the truth. These are two highly morally ambiguous people, so it makes sense that they work hard at their skills at lying. But do you think that it is possible to be both a good person and a good liar? When is it ethically okay to lie? Is Sophia's lie about Tom's identity morally justifiable?

Honestly, we think this passage is one of the darkest parts of this whole novel. In it, Sophia tries to explain to Mrs. Western that she does not want to marry Lord Fellamar because he tried to assault her. And Mrs. Western is so committed to the idea that her niece is going to marry a rich lord that she has trouble believing her. In fact, Mrs. Western tells Sophia that she must be inventing this story "to raise [Mrs. Western's] indignation" against Lord Fellamar. Whoa, that's upsetting.