Study Guide

Tom Jones Literature and Writing

By Henry Fielding

Literature and Writing

For all which I shall not look on myself as accountable to any court of critical jurisdiction whatever: for as I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein. And these laws, my readers, whom I consider as my subjects, are bound to believe in and to obey; with which that they may readily and cheerfully comply, I do hereby assure them that I shall principally regard their ease and advantage in all such institutions: for I do not, like a jure divino tyrant, imagine that they are my slaves, or my commodity. I am, indeed, set over them for their own good only, and was created for their use, and not they for mine. Nor do I doubt, while I make their interest the great rule of my writings, they will unanimously concur in supporting my dignity, and in rendering me all the honour I shall deserve or desire. (2.1.6)

This passage gives us a great example of Fielding's tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. If you read this passage literally, the narrator says: (1) I'm the boss, so I have the right to make up any rules I want about my new style of writing; (2) as readers, you have to follow my rules; (3) but I'm only bossing you around for your own good! (4) So I'm sure that you will all praise me just like I deserve.

And yet, there is a contradiction here: how can a "tyrant"rule over people "for <em>their </em>own good"? The contradiction here lets us know, hey, Fielding is being funny here. He's <em>dripping </em>sarcasm: he doesn't expect us (the readers) to obey him, and he doesn't expect us to praise him as he "shall deserve or desire." So—how much of this passage (if any) do you think we can read as straightforward? Why might Fielding present even his essays in this sly, funny, and above all <em>not </em>literal manner?

As truth distinguishes our writings from those idle romances which are filled with monsters, the productions, not of nature, but of distempered brains; and which have been therefore recommended by an eminent critic to the sole use of the pastry-cook; so, on the other hand, we would avoid any resemblance to that kind of history which a celebrated poet seems to think is no less calculated for the emolument of the brewer, as the reading it should be always attended with a tankard of good ale. (4.1.1)

Tom Jones is a novel, which means (of course) that it's fictional. This is Literary Analysis 101: novels = not true. But Henry Fielding also says that Tom Jones *is* true: "truth distinguishes [his] writings." So how can Tom Jones be both fictional and true? It all depends on how you define "truth." For Fielding (at least in this passage), truth means "of nature." In other words, what makes Tom Jones true is that its plots and characters don't go against what we supposedly know in real life about human nature. Fielding wants us to distinguish Tom Jones from "idle romances which are filled with monsters. The "truth" lies in the novel's closeness to possible lived experience.

But using these standards, what would happen to the Harry Potters and the Hunger Games that make up our current literary landscape? Or would these books still be valuable according to Fielding, since they focus on human nature even against a backdrop of sci-fi and/or fantasy? Do you think that fiction is at its best (or its most serious) when it sidesteps "monsters"?

As a vast herd of cows in a rich farmer's yard, if, while they are milked, they hear their calves at a distance, lamenting the robbery which is then committing, roar and bellow; so roared forth the Somersetshire mob an hallaloo, made up of almost as many squalls, screams, and other different sounds as there were persons, or indeed passions among them: some were inspired by rage, others alarmed by fear, and others had nothing in their heads but the love of fun; but chiefly Envy, the sister of Satan, and his constant companion, rushed among the crowd, and blew up the fury of the women; who no sooner came up to Molly than they pelted her with dirt and rubbish. (4.8.6)

Tom Jones is supposed to be (mostly) realistic. But it's also a comedy, which means that some of the plot twists have to be exaggerated to make the reader laugh. In this passage, we have this ridiculous scene where the village women are so jealous and annoyed at Molly that they actually throw garbage at her. This is obviously a completely unrealistic depiction of the way people normally interact with each other—especially once Molly picks up a skull from a fresh grave nearby to throw at her attackers. Though, we can't say—maybe throwing garbage and skulls was like the eighteenth-century version of texting out an angry-face >:-(

So here's our question: why is this kind of super-exaggerated comedy still supposedly realistic, while werewolves and vampires are not? And how does Fielding's use of fancy language to present this ridiculous fight increase<em> </em>the comedy of the scene?

Who ever demanded the reasons of that nice unity of time or place which is now established to be so essential to dramatic poetry? What critic hath been ever asked, why a play may not contain two days as well as one? Or why the audience (provided they travel, like electors, without any expense) may not be wafted fifty miles as well as five? Hath any commentator well accounted for the limitation which an antient critic hath set to the drama, which he will have contain neither more nor less than five acts? Or hath any one living attempted to explain what the modern judges of our theatres mean by that word low; by which they have happily succeeded in banishing all humour from the stage, and have made the theatre as dull as a drawing-room! Upon all these occasions the world seems to have embraced a maxim of our law, viz., cuicunque in arte sua perito credendum est: for it seems perhaps difficult to conceive that any one should have had enough of impudence to lay down dogmatical rules in any art or science without the least foundation. (5.1.2)

Back when Henry Fielding was writing, there were many more do's-and-don'ts that writers had to obey to be taken seriously. If you wanted to be a respected playwright in the classical tradition, you had to produce drama that (a) has five acts; (b) deals with "serious" themes like Love and Death and Heroism and Gods, etc., etc.; and (c) keeps to the dramatic unities.

But in this passage, the narrator is practically shouting through the page: why do we have to follow these rules? What is the reason for all of this structure? Partly, Fielding is speaking out against critics who might say that Tom Jones is bad just because it deals with funny topics and ordinary, non-heroic people. But he also has a real point to make: critics shouldn't let themselves get so distracted by the form of a work of art that they pay no attention to its substance. Just because Tom Jones is a little more realistic (and more fun) than a classical play doesn't mean that it has no serious value.

Sophia was in her chamber, reading, when her aunt came in. The moment she saw Mrs Western, she shut the book with so much eagerness, that the good lady could not forbear asking her, What book that was which she seemed so much afraid of showing? "Upon my word, madam," answered Sophia, "it is a book which I am neither ashamed nor afraid to own I have read. It is the production of a young lady of fashion, whose good understanding, I think, doth honour to her sex, and whose good heart is an honour to human nature." Mrs Western then took up the book, and immediately after threw it down, saying—"Yes, the author is of a very good family; but she is not much among people one knows. I have never read it; for the best judges say, there is not much in it."—"I dare not, madam, set up my own opinion," says Sophia, "against the best judges, but there appears to me a great deal of human nature in it; and in many parts so much true tenderness and delicacy, that it hath cost me many a tear." (6.5.1)

It's hard to imagine a time when reading novels was barely respectable, but the eighteenth century was, indeed, such a time. The English novel was just getting started, and a lot of people disapproved of the strong emotional content of these new books. They thought that novels were for women (in a bad way), and not worth the attention of serious readers. Ugh.

Now, we are sure that a lot of these early novels were really silly. (After all, lots of novels now are pretty dumb.) But Tom Jones is clearly making the case that, just because a novel can be emotional doesn't mean that it can't also deal with really important topics. Here, Sophia defends the novel she's reading using the same terms that the narrator uses in the first chapter of Tom Jones, that, "there appears […] to be a great deal of human nature in it." How could a book that deals in real emotions and in "human nature" not be worth reading? Why should we not value a book just because it makes its readers cry? Does everything we read have to be high-toned philosophy? Obviously, we're on Fielding's side with this one.

The only supernatural agents which can in any manner be allowed to us moderns, are ghosts; but of these I would advise an author to be extremely sparing. These are indeed, like arsenic, and other dangerous drugs in physic, to be used with the utmost caution; nor would I advise the introduction of them at all in those works, or by those authors, to which, or to whom, a horse-laugh in the reader would be any great prejudice or mortification.

As for elves and fairies, and other such mummery, I purposely omit the mention of them, as I should be very unwilling to confine within any bounds those surprizing imaginations, for whose vast capacity the limits of human nature are too narrow; whose works are to be considered as a new creation; and who have consequently just right to do what they will with their own. (8.1.4-5)

Some parts of Tom Jones read less like a novel and more like a rant about What Literature Should Be Like. This is definitely one of those parts: the narrator stops the novel for a while to talk about ghosts, elves, and fairies and why they should never be in real works of art ever, ever, ever.

We're not surprised at Fielding's anti-elf policy, since he keeps emphasizing that his novel is about "human nature" (emphasis on the "human"). But it does raise another question, which is: what exactly is literature for? Obviously, this question is huge, and we don't want to get too philosophical. It's just that Fielding gives us this list of do's-and-don'ts for novel writing. Having a set of guidelines implies that there is something specific that the novel can achieve or accomplish if it follows these rules. Do you think that there is something in particular that novels should do? Or are they purely entertaining? Are novels supposed to teach us something about life? About other people? What's the end game here?

These authors [Aristotle and Plato], though they instructed me in no science by which men may promise to themselves to acquire the least riches or worldly power, taught me, however, the art of despising the highest acquisitions of both. They elevate the mind, and steel and harden it against the capricious invasions of fortune. They not only instruct in the knowledge of Wisdom, but confirm men in her habits, and demonstrate plainly, that this must be our guide, if we propose ever to arrive at the greatest worldly happiness, or to defend ourselves, with any tolerable security, against the misery which everywhere surrounds and invests us. (8.13.15)

It's funny that the Man of the Hill so admires the minds of Aristotle and Plato when he so hates mankind. Like, why do Aristotle and Plato get a pass from his hatred of other people? Is it just because they've been dead for a really long time? Is it because he doesn't have to meet them face to face? But anyway, we picked out this passage because it outlines why the Man of the Hill thinks literature is important: it guides us to be better, and it supports us against the pressures of the world. In other words, if the Man of the World believes that it is society that makes individuals bad, he also appears to think that literature can protect you from those social evils. According to this guy, literature is like a defense mechanism—a Kevlar vest against evil influences.

The coach which had brought the young lady and her maid, and which, perhaps, the reader may have hitherto concluded was her own, was, indeed, a returned coach belonging to Mr King, of Bath, one of the worthiest and honestest men that ever dealt in horse-flesh, and whose coaches we heartily recommend to all our readers who travel that road. By which means they may, perhaps, have the pleasure of riding in the very coach, and being driven by the very coachman, that is recorded in this history. (10.6.12)

We can't find a real-life person who matches this description of "Mr. King," but that doesn't mean there wasn't one. Still, moments like these, when the narrator stops the plot to give what amounts to a commercial in the middle of the novel, happen pretty often. Think of the narrator's admiration for the Bell at Gloucester (Book 8, Chapter 8). Or his shout-out to "the celebrated Mrs. Hussey" (10.3.25), who makes fashionable gowns for ladies. How do these non-fictional recommendations affect your experience reading Tom Jones? How do these moments influence your sense of Tom Jones's realism? Do they give you any ideas about the reading audience at the time, or about Fielding's intended readership?

Vice hath not, I believe, a more abject slave; society produces not a more odious vermin; nor can the devil receive a guest more worthy of him, nor possibly more welcome to him, than a slanderer. The world, I am afraid, regards not this monster with half the abhorrence which he deserves; and I am more afraid to assign the reason of this criminal lenity shown towards him; yet it is certain that the thief looks innocent in the comparison; nay, the murderer himself can seldom stand in competition with his guilt: for slander is a more cruel weapon than a sword, as the wounds which the former gives are always incurable. (11.1.6)

And here, we say to Fielding: oh, so you can dish it out, but you can't take it? "Slander" means spreading hurtful lies about a person. But Fielding uses "slander" in this passage specifically to refer to unfairly critical judgments of good books. Fielding claims that such criticism is worse than a sword wound, because people can recover from physical injuries, but criticism hurts them forever. (So Fielding is presenting the opposite view of that old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." For Fielding, only words really hurt.)

However, we are sure that Nicholas Rowe (whom Fielding dismisses as an "imitator" (9.1.4) of Shakespeare) would say that Fielding is the harsh one. Fielding is hyper-critical. Fielding may be super-sensitive about his own work, but he's perfectly happy to rip apart other authors he doesn't respect—double standard, much?

Those members of society who are born to furnish the blessings of life now began to light their candles, in order to pursue their daily labours for the use of those who are born to enjoy these blessings. The sturdy hind now attends the levee of his fellow-labourer the ox; the cunning artificer, the diligent mechanic, spring from their hard mattress; and now the bonny housemaid begins to repair the disordered drum-room, while the riotous authors of that disorder, in broken interrupted slumbers, tumble and toss, as if the hardness of down disquieted their repose.

In simple phrase, the clock had no sooner struck seven than the ladies were ready for their journey; and, at their desire, his lordship and his equipage were prepared to attend them. (11.9.1-2)

Fielding really lays on the poetic language at the beginning of this passage. Check out the line, "the sturdy hind now attends the levee of his fellow-labourer the ox." A "hind" in an old-fashioned word for a farm worker. A "levee" is a reception that aristocrats and kings used to hold immediately after getting up for the day. So basically, all Fielding is saying in this line is that it's that time of the day when the farmer goes to deal with his awakening oxen. But Fielding doesn't just say all of this to be poetic. He provides his own snarky translation of all this high-flown language, when he adds, "In simple phrase, the clock had no sooner struck seven." Fielding makes a joke out of his lovely language by bringing everything right back down to earth. Fielding is showing off here: he can be elaborate and stylish and he can be straightforward and easy to follow.

Nay, I absolutely claim a property in all such sentiments [written by ancient writers such as Horace or Virgil] the moment they are transcribed into my writings, and I expect all readers henceforwards to regard them as purely and entirely my own. This claim, however, I desire to be allowed me only on condition that I preserve strict honesty towards my poor brethren, from whom, if ever I borrow any of that little of which they are possessed, I shall never fail to put their mark upon it, that it may be at all times ready to be restored to the right owner. (12.1.6-7)

Fielding basically describes modern copyright law: it's okay for him to copy the ideas of ancient writers without always mentioning them by name because their work is the common property of all modern scholars. But he's not going to borrow the work of anyone writing now without carefully citing that person's name. The problem with taking the work of his "poor brethren" writing now is that it's a matter of money—he doesn't want to deprive them of their financial rights to their own work. The ancients can't profit off their ideas, since they're long dead and don't have to worry about money any longer. It makes sense that this question of plagiarism and copyright would matter a lot to Fielding because (a) he made his living as a writer, and (b) copyright was just becoming a settled part of English law in the eighteenth century, when this novel was published.