Study Guide

Tom Jones Society and Class

By Henry Fielding

Society and Class

The same animal which hath the honour to have some part of his flesh eaten at the table of a duke, may perhaps be degraded in another part, and some of his limbs gibbeted, as it were, in the vilest stall in town. Where, then, lies the difference between the food of the nobleman and the porter, if both are at dinner on the same ox or calf, but in the seasoning, the dressing, the garnishing, and the setting forth? Hence the one provokes and incites the most languid appetite, and the other turns and palls that which is the sharpest and keenest.

In like manner, the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author's skill in well dressing it up. […] In like manner, we shall represent human nature at first to the keen appetite of our reader, in that more plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragoo it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford. By these means, we doubt not but our reader may be rendered desirous to read on for ever, as the great person just above-mentioned is supposed to have made some persons eat. (1.1.7-8)

Basically, the narrator uses food as a metaphor to explain why it's okay that Tom Jones jumps between lower class and upper class characters. Since the subject of Tom Jones is supposed to be human nature, that means all humans, no matter what their social positions. By reading about "plain things" (rough characters with gross habits), you will appreciate "the very quintessence of sauces and spices" (the characters with well-balanced and decent qualities) even more once you get to them. The narrator's message seems to be that class is mostly a matter of custom and education (and money) rather than real distinctions among people, which is pretty liberal for late eighteenth-century England.

Sure master might have made some difference, methinks, between me and the other servants. I suppose he hath left me mourning; but, i'fackins! if that be all, the devil shall wear it for him, for me. I'd have his worship know I am no beggar. I have saved five hundred pound in his service, and after all to be used in this manner. —It is a fine encouragement to servants to be honest; and to be sure, if I have taken a little something now and then, others have taken ten times as much; and now we are all put in a lump together. If so be that it be so, the legacy may go to the devil with him that gave it. (5.8.1)

All of Mrs. Wilkins's nasty feelings in this passage basically arise from the fact that Squire Allworthy won't leave her as much money as she feels she deserves in his will. We can't help but think, reading this, that it shows one of the major problems of any relationship between a master and a domestic servant. Mrs. Wilkins is an intimate part of Squire Allworthy's life. She has looked after Squire Allworthy's household for years and she has also helped to raise Tom. But she will never actually be a member of the family. She is still just a servant, and he treats her as such in his will. So, in a weird sort of way, by trying to be nice to Mrs. Wilkins and to blur the lines between master and servant, Squire Allworthy has actually made her more resentful of her position in his family than if he had kept more rigid discipline.

[Wine] heightens and inflames our passions (generally indeed that passion which is uppermost in our mind), so that the angry temper, the amorous, the generous, the good-humoured, the avaricious, and all other dispositions of men, are in their cups heightened and exposed.

And yet as no nation produces so many drunken quarrels, especially among the lower people, as England (for indeed, with them, to drink and to fight together are almost synonymous terms), I would not, methinks, have it thence concluded, that the English are the worst-natured people alive. Perhaps the love of glory only is at the bottom of this; so that the fair conclusion seems to be, that our countrymen have more of that love, and more of bravery, than any other plebeians. And this the rather, as there is seldom anything ungenerous, unfair, or ill-natured, exercised on these occasions: nay, it is common for the combatants to express good-will for each other even at the time of the conflict; and as their drunken mirth generally ends in a battle, so do most of their battles end in friendship. (5.9.10)

So, as you may have noticed, there is a lot of drinking going on in this book. But while Fielding mostly seems interested in the hilarious possibilities of drinking too much, alcohol also caused huge social rifts during his lifetime in the early 1700s. This subtle association between (a) poverty, (b) social disorder, and (c) booze seems to underlie the narrator's claim that, "no nation produces so many drunken quarrels, especially among the lower people, as England." (We're assuming that, by "lower people," the narrator means working class people. Not, like, mole people who enjoy living below ground.)

What's interesting about the book's approach to this issue is that, instead of finishing off this passage with a lecture—"in conclusion, drinking is bad and leads to fighting!"—the narrator just says, well, most of those drunken fights are friendly anyway. It's all in good fun!

Those who sat in the world's upper gallery treated that incident [of Black George stealing Tom's money], I am well convinced, with their usual vociferation; and every term of scurrilous reproach was most probably vented on that occasion. […]

The pit, as usual, was no doubt divided; those who delight in heroic virtue and perfect character objected to the producing such instances of villany, without punishing them very severely for the sake of example. Some of the author's friends cryed, "Look'e, gentlemen, the man is a villain, but it is nature for all that." And all the young critics of the age, the clerks, apprentices, &c., called it low, and fell a groaning.

As for the boxes, they behaved with their accustomed politeness. Most of them were attending to something else. Some of those few who regarded the scene at all, declared he was a bad kind of man; while others refused to give their opinion, till they had heard that of the best judges. (7.1.9-12)

In this metaphor of theater seats, the narrator talks about the ways that people of different classes respond to art. The poorest people have totally emotional reactions, commenting with "their usual vociferation." Artists and critics mostly think about artistic form and morality, without feeling anything in particular about what they are looking at. And the richest people (those who can afford "the boxes" in the theater) are very polite and quiet, but they are also barely paying attention. What are some of the shortcomings of each of these three different modes of interacting with art? How does the narrator's descriptions of these three artistic modes (emotional, mechanical, politely uninterested) fit in with common class stereotypes of the poor or the very wealthy?

"A servant of Squire Allworthy!" says the barber; "what's his name?"—"Why he told me his name was Jones," says she: "perhaps he goes by a wrong name. Nay, and he told me, too, that the squire had maintained him as his own son, thof he had quarrelled with him now."—"And if his name be Jones, he told you the truth," said the barber; "for I have relations who live in that country; nay, and some people say he is his son."—"Why doth he not go by the name of his father?"—"I can't tell that," said the barber; "many people's sons don't go by the name of their father."—"Nay," said the landlady, "if I thought he was a gentleman's son, thof he was a bye-blow, I should behave to him in another guess manner; for many of these bye-blows come to be great men, and, as my poor first husband used to say, never affront any customer that's a gentleman." (8.4.11)

(A "bye-blow" or by-blow is a slang term for a bastard, by the way.) What's interesting about the landlady's is-he-or-isn't-he anxieties is that her worries expose two or three very different meanings of the word "gentleman." On the one hand, it means someone born into a gentry family, so, someone "well-bred," to use the language of the time. On the other hand, it means someone with money. When the lieutenant uses the term, he means that Tom has a good, polite manner. But all the landlady hears from the word "gentleman" is the clinking of coins in her pocket.

"Here," said [Watson], taking some dice out of his pocket, "here's the stuff. Here are the implements; here are the little doctors which cure the distempers of the purse. Follow but my counsel, and I will show you a way to empty the pocket of a queer cull without any danger of the nubbing cheat." (8.12.9)

One thing we find striking about the Man of the Hill's story of crime and redemption is that he has to be taught by other people to be evil. It's through bad influences that the Man of the Hill learns real wrongdoing, first from Sir George Gresham and then by Watson, here. Similarly, Mr. Blifil may be proud and cold by birth, but he is encouraged in his evil by his (mis)education with Misters Thwackum and Square. It seems like Fielding believes that people are born (more or less) good but then are made bad by their social influences. On the other hand, the narrator specifies that Tom has natural instincts towards doing good (4.6.3) that protect him (at least somewhat) from bad influences.

Mr Dowling was indeed very greatly affected with this relation; for he had not divested himself of humanity by being an attorney. Indeed, nothing is more unjust than to carry our prejudices against a profession into private life, and to borrow our idea of a man from our opinion of his calling. […] A butcher, I make no doubt, would feel compunction at the slaughter of a fine horse; and though a surgeon can feel no pain in cutting off a limb, I have known him compassionate a man in a fit of the gout. […] n the same manner an attorney may feel all the miseries and distresses of his fellow-creatures, provided he happens not to be concerned against them. (12.10.8)

The key point here about Fielding's assessment of lawyers, who may be professionally ruthless but who can still be personally sympathetic, appears in that bit where he adds "provided he happens not to be concerned against them." When Mr. Dowling meets Tom in passing at an inn, he sympathizes with Tom's family troubles. But as soon as Mr. Dowling starts working for Mr. Blifil and (he thinks) Squire Allworthy, he does his best to make sure that Tom gets convicted for a murder he didn't commit. So according to Fielding, it's more or less Mr. Dowling's job to hurt whoever he's paid to hurt, no matter what his feelings about the person might be.

"Etoff entertained me last night almost two hours with [stories of Tom Jones]. The wench I believe is in love with him by reputation." Here the reader will be apt to wonder; but the truth is, that Mrs Etoff, who had the honour to pin and unpin the Lady Bellaston, had received compleat information concerning the said Mr Jones, and had faithfully conveyed the same to her lady last night (or rather that morning) while she was undressing; on which accounts she had been detained in her office above the space of an hour and a half. (13.3.6-8)

Lady Bellaston first hears about Tom (and starts lusting after him) from her dresser, a servant woman named Mrs. Etoff. It's odd: in many ways, the social classes seem pretty separate in this novel. Even in a crowded inn, the servants all hang out in the kitchen while rich people like Sophia stay in rooms upstairs. But servants often pass gossip and information on to their employers. It's through the servant-employee relationship that the characters in this novel most often seem to cross class barriers.

I will venture to say the highest life is much the dullest, and affords very little humour or entertainment. The various callings in lower spheres produce the great variety of humorous characters; whereas here, except among the few who are engaged in the pursuit of ambition, and the fewer still who have a relish for pleasure, all is vanity and servile imitation. Dressing and cards, eating and drinking, bowing and courtesying, make up the business of their lives. (14.1.11-2)

You may have noticed that, while there are characters from up and down the social ladder in Tom Jones, most of them are middle or working class. Even the two squires are low down on the hierarchy of landed, titled people in eighteenth-century Britain. Well, here, the narrator gives us an explanation: he thinks that there is more variety among lower-class people. Upper-class people may not always be the same, but they are mostly dominated by "vanity and servile imitation." Fielding implies that there isn't a lot going on at the top. Since the middle class was gaining social and political influence throughout the eighteenth century, we can understand why Fielding felt that his society's movers and shakers were mostly coming from there.