Study Guide

Tom Jones Morality and Ethics

By Henry Fielding

Morality and Ethics

The captain could not so easily bring himself to bear what he condemned as a fault in Mr Allworthy. He gave him frequent hints, that to adopt the fruits of sin, was to give countenance to it. He quoted several texts (for he was well read in Scripture), such as, He visits the sins of the fathers upon the children; and the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge,&c. Whence he argued the legality of punishing the crime of the parent on the bastard. He said, "Though the law did not positively allow the destroying such base-born children, yet it held them to be the children of nobody; that the Church considered them as the children of nobody; and that at the best, they ought to be brought up to the lowest and vilest offices of the commonwealth." (2.2.4)

Back in the day, life for a kid born outside of a traditional marriage in old-fashioned, strict societies could be really rough. But why, really? Why should it somehow be the kid's fault that his mother and father got it on in a way that people around them consider sinful? Whatever you may think of sex before marriage, it seems totally unfair to hold the child responsible for the parents' mistakes.

And yet, that is precisely what Tom Jones has to struggle against throughout this book: he is a bastard, and that puts him at the edges of polite and stable society from the moment that he is born. This absolute jerk Captain Blifil quotes the Bible to show that babies actively should be punished for their parents' wrongdoing. If it's illegal to kill such babies (!!!!), then at least they should be treated like nobodies and left to the worst jobs and lives that are available to them. Captain Blifil is using the Bible supposedlyas evidence for the worst kind of unfair treatment of a whole class of people, those who are born outside of traditional marriages.

How do you think views of the morality of marriage and family life have changed in the last two hundred and fifty-odd years? Do you see any overlap between the moral concerns of today and the moral concerns that Fielding portrays in Tom Jones?

Mr Jones had somewhat about him, which, though I think writers are not thoroughly agreed in its name, doth certainly inhabit some human breasts; whose use is not so properly to distinguish right from wrong, as to prompt and incite them to the former, and to restrain and withhold them from the latter. (4.6.3)

For a really smart guy, Henry Fielding seems to have surprising Issues with Too Much Thinking. Obviously he's not a fan of Misters Thwackum and Square and their constant, abstract debating about morality. And he is also pretty sarcastic about Master Blifil, whose rigid ideas about morality somehow all wind up benefiting Master Blifil himself. What Fielding seems to like more than these intellectual discussions of ethics is Tom's natural instincts towards doing good. Tom may not "distinguish right from wrong" using his brain, but his heart somehow leads him in the right direction anyway. It seems like Fielding is saying that it's not enough to do the right thing because you know it's the right thing to do. You also have to feel and intend to do right.

Black George was, in the main, a peaceable kind of fellow, and nothing choleric nor rash; yet did he bear about him something of what the antients called the irascible, and which his wife, if she had been endowed with much wisdom, would have feared. He had long experienced, that when the storm grew very high, arguments were but wind, which served rather to increase, than to abate it. He was therefore seldom unprovided with a small switch, a remedy of wonderful force, as he had often essayed, and which the word villain served as a hint for his applying.

No sooner, therefore, had this symptom appeared, than he had immediate recourse to the said remedy, which though, as it is usual in all very efficacious medicines, it at first seemed to heighten and inflame the disease, soon produced a total calm, and restored the patient to perfect ease and tranquillity.

This is, however, a kind of horse-medicine, which requires a very robust constitution to digest, and is therefore proper only for the vulgar, unless in one single instance, viz., where superiority of birth breaks out; in which case, we should not think it very improperly applied by any husband whatever, if the application was not in itself so base, that, like certain applications of the physical kind which need not be mentioned, it so much degrades and contaminates the hand employed in it, that no gentleman should endure the thought of anything so low and detestable. (4.9.7-9)

Reading this passage, we stand back and think, wow—this novel was obviously written in a very different time and place from our own. The narrator talks through the pros and cons of spousal abuse as though this is something he has to argue, because there might be readers out there who believe that hitting your wife is not a crime. Spousal abuse = ungentlemanly, which appears to be the worst thing the narrator can say about it.

But the use of the term "gentleman" introduces strong class-based language into the mix. Does this mean that, among the poor (such as Black George's family), wife-beating is supposed to be less bad? While the narrator clearly thinks that spousal abuse is "low" and wrong, he also seems to have a double standard in place for "gentlemen" and average men.

A man may have as much wisdom in the possession of an affluent fortune, as any beggar in the streets; or may enjoy a handsome wife or a hearty friend, and still remain as wise as any sour Popish recluse, who buries all his social faculties, and starves his belly while he well lashes his back.

To say truth, the wisest man is the likeliest to possess all worldly blessings in an eminent degree; for as that moderation which wisdom prescribes is the surest way to useful wealth, so can it alone qualify us to taste many pleasures. The wise man gratifies every appetite and every passion, while the fool sacrifices all the rest to pall and satiate one. (6.3.15-6)

Fielding obviously disagrees with the idea that, to be a wise man, you have to live like a hermit or a monk. It's not necessary (says Fielding) to give up on pleasure to follow a moral life. In fact, the patience and moderation you learn by being a wise man can actively help you to achieve worldly wealth.

"'Ay!" answered the judge, "thou art a lucky fellow: I have travelled the circuit these forty years, and never found a horse in my life: but I'll tell thee what, friend, thou wast more lucky than thou didst know of; for thou didst not only find a horse, but a halter too, I promise thee." To be sure, I shall never forget the word. Upon which everybody fell a laughing, as how could they help it? […] It is indeed charming sport to hear trials upon life and death. One thing I own I thought a little hard, that the prisoner's counsel was not suffered to speak for him, though he desired only to be heard one very short word, but my lord would not hearken to him, though he suffered a counsellor to talk against him for above half-an-hour. I thought it hard, I own, that there should be so many of them; my lord, and the court, and the jury, and the counsellors, and the witnesses, all upon one poor man, and he too in chains. Well, the fellow was hanged, as to be sure it could be no otherwise, and poor Frank could never be easy about it. (8.11.26)

This passage is clearly critical of biased, overbearing judges. Partridge's mild observation that he "thought [it] a little hard" that the judge in this case totally refuses to listen to the arguments of the defense counsel emphasizes how awful this bullying judge truly is. He has all the power, and he treats the prisoner like a condemned man before the trial has even ended. Indeed, Tom Jones is filled with examples of judges who abuse their power (though usually in smaller ways than this guy). Both Squire Allworthy and Squire Western try to send women to Bridewell, the House of Correction, without actually being legally allowed to do so (see 4.11.3 and 7.9.3 for specific passages when the narrator stops and says these guys are acting outside their legal authority). Squire Allworthy may truly think he's doing what's best for Molly. But the fact remains that both he and Squire Western believethat, as magistrates, they can and should decide the fates of the people who live on their lands—even if those people have not actually broken any laws.

Jones […] asked Partridge, "if he was not ashamed, with so much charity in his mouth, to have no charity in his heart. Your religion," says he, "serves you only for an excuse for your faults, but is no incentive to your virtue. Can any man who is really a Christian abstain from relieving one of his brethren in such a miserable condition?" (12.4.1)

Tom scolds Partridge for his religious double standards. Partridge talks big about the importance of Christian kindness when he's trying to avoid fighting in war, but when a beggar asks him for spare change, Partridge refuses to be charitable (which is a classic Christian virtue). Tom laughs at Partridge's hypocrisy, but actually, there are a lot of characters in this book who hide their own selfishness behind religion—think Mr. Blifil and Mr. Thwackum. These are all people who literally refuse to practice what they preach. Fielding appears to be making an argument for a more active kind of religion, where a person has to back up faith with deeds.

I remember when puppet-shows were made of good scripture stories, as Jephthah's Rash Vow, and such good things, and when wicked people were carried away by the devil. There was some sense in those matters; but as the parson told us last Sunday, nobody believes in the devil now-a-days; and here you bring about a parcel of puppets drest up like lords and ladies, only to turn the heads of poor country wenches; and when their heads are once turned topsy-turvy, no wonder everything else is so. (12.6.3)

When Tom and Partridge happen on a puppet-show, Tom is disappointed: the puppet-man has censored everything that he finds too violent or sexual out of his chosen play, so the whole performance just seems flat and humorless. But even though Tom isn't happy with this censored product, it's not censored enough for some people. In this passage, the landlady complains that this immoral puppet show (what were these puppets up to?) has encouraged her maid to run off and have sex with a clown (shudder).

We find this passage interesting for a bunch of reasons: first, the narrator seems to be saying that, as an artist, you can never win. If you try to use your work to teach a moral lesson, there will always be people out there who think you don't go far enough to be decent. So moral instruction shouldn't be the only purpose of a work of art—you should work to be entertaining as well.

In reality, I know but of one solid objection to absolute monarchy. The only defect in which excellent constitution seems to be, the difficulty of finding any man adequate to the office of an absolute monarch. (12.12.38)

Fielding is thinking through a serious issue here: centralized power can be a good thing, but only if the person who holds it is competent and fair. He clearly does believe in the importance of authority: Squire Allworthy may sometimes get a little too bossy, as when he misjudges Partridge and Jenny Jones, or when he throws Tom out of the house. But in general, he does a lot of good in the neighborhood. His wealth and his power are good things. But then you look at a guy like Squire Western—he also has a lot of local power. Still, we know that he's a bad judge—he almost tries to prosecute Mrs. Honour for the dire crime of being rude to his sister. So Fielding doesn't have a problem with authority per se, but he does recognize the problem that a lot of the people who have power probably shouldn't. There doesn't really seem to be a remedy to this issue, though. If you are going to support the idea of a king and a landed aristocracy, then you have to accept the fact that some of them are going to be good at their jobs and some of them aren't.

"Alas! my lord," answered [Lady Bellaston], "consider the country—the bane of all young women is the country. There they learn a set of romantic notions of love, and I know not what folly, which this town and good company can scarce eradicate in a whole winter." (15.2.9)

Yeah, this line of dialogue comes across as clumsy and incredibly obvious to us. Even the most passionate hater of romance and love is not going to come out and say that it is the job of "this town and good company" to destroy the "romantic notions of love" of young women from the countryside. Still, this passage contains the novel's clearest statement of the moral difference between the countryside and London. In the country, people are still virtuous enough (or naive enough, depending on your point of view) to believe in love, while in the city, all of these romantic notions have been "eradicated." Do you think there is a difference between city love and country love? Could this distinction have been more of a thing back in the eighteenth century, or does it continue on today?

As I do not doubt your sincerity in what you write, you will be pleased to hear that some of my afflictions are at an end, by the arrival of my aunt Western, with whom I am at present, and with whom I enjoy all the liberty I can desire. One promise my aunt hath insisted on my making, which is, that I will not see or converse with any person without her knowledge and consent. This promise I have most solemnly given, and shall most inviolably keep: and though she hath not expressly forbidden me writing, yet that must be an omission from forgetfulness; or this, perhaps, is included in the word conversing. However, as I cannot but consider this as a breach of her generous confidence in my honour, you cannot expect that I shall, after this, continue to write myself or to receive letters, without her knowledge. A promise is with me a very sacred thing, and to be extended to everything understood from it, as well as to what is expressed by it; and this consideration may, perhaps, on reflection, afford you some comfort. (16.5.2)

We talk about Sophia's weird interpretation of the idea of obedience in her "Character Analysis." Here, we want to talk about Sophia's stated emphasis on keeping her promises. She believes that a promise is "a very sacred thing" (hinting that Tom should remember her promise not to marry anybody else). But consider the person to whom she has made promises: Mrs. Western. Her aunt has made Sophia swear that she won't meet with anyone without her aunt's permission, and Sophia plans to keep that oath. Yet, Mrs. Western has only been slightly less violent than her brother in her treatment of Sophia. She has lectured Sophia repeatedly about her ungratefulness and overall badness in refusing to marry, first, Mr. Blifil, and then, Lord Fellamar. So does Sophia really owe this woman any promises? Are there any circumstances when it might be okay not to keep your word? Or is a promise a promise, and that's that?