Study Guide

Tom Jones Themes

  • Foolishness and Folly

    It doesn't get much more foolish than blaming the spread of gossip on a witch's curse. Or sending a woman a marriage proposal to make her break up with you. Or assuming that a girl traveling with her maid must be the princess of a distant rebellion.

    The characters of Tom Jones do all of these idiotic things (and more). Tom Jones is a satire, which means that it focuses on the folly and weakness of human beings. It exposes its characters' pride, vanity, self-deception—all of those things that make people as a group kind of annoying.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. How does the topic of "Foolishness and Folly" interact with "Society and Class"? Are some social classes more foolish than others in this book?
    2. In this novel, what are some of the differences between foolishness and actual immorality or evil? How does Fielding distinguish between the two?
    3. What are some of Fielding's strategies for representing the foolishness of his characters? What tone does the narrator take towards individual examples of folly in the novel?

    Chew on This

    By keeping a sense of ironic distance from the characters, the narrator maintains the objectivity to portray their foolishness as a moral lesson to the reader.

    The tone of the narrator shifts when he portrays foolishness and immorality: the narrator plays on characters' folly for humor, but he treats violence and deliberate deception seriously.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Tom Jones isn't all sex jokes and romantic comedy (though it has plenty of both). There's some serious stuff going on, like Big Moral Issues. According to Squire Allworthy there are two ways to be immoral: imprudence and villainy. And they're very different.

    Tom's imprudent: too much drinking, too much sex, too much spending, etc. This gets him into sticky situations that are, for the most part, hilarious. But then there's villainy (like that of Mr. Blifil), and villainy is Serious Bizniz because it permanently points your character to the Dark Side. So while Tom has made some serious mistakes, as long as he changes his tune, all's forgiven. But once a villain, always a villain.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. How does gender influence morality in Tom Jones? Does Fielding emphasize different moral traits for men and women, or is there a universal moral code in place in the novel?
    2. The novel's happy ending suggests that Tom can come back home and redeem himself for his ethical mistakes. Are there any characters who cannot be redeemed? Why or why not? What kinds of crimes appear to be unforgivable in this book?
    3. Squire Allworthy gives moral lectures to multiple people in this book, including Jenny Jones, Molly Seagrim, and Tom himself. Does the novel always seem to agree with these speeches? Are there ever moments when the novel makes fun of Squire Allworthy's moral vision? If so, when and how? If not, why is Squire Allworthy beyond satire?

    Chew on This

    Sophia and Tom both honor their guardians, even when those father figures treat them badly. This respect towards authority implies that the most important ethical trait in Tom Jones is gratitude to your benefactors.

    While Squire Allworthy is the moral center of Tom Jones, his inability to recognize insincerity and hypocrisy in the people around him undercuts his ethical lessons and makes the reader question the authority of his wisdom.

  • Family

    Tom Jones is a foundling, which means that he's not related by blood to any of the people who raise him (or so he thinks). But Tom definitely has a family: he admires Squire Allworthy a whole heck of a lot, he fights with Mr. Blifil the way any mismatched set of siblings might, and he wants to marry Sophia enough to change his entire way of living for her by the end of the novel.

    So Tom Jones raises all kinds of questions about the otherkinds of bonds that draw together (or tear apart) families, including love, obedience, gratitude, and respect. It's an old saying that you can't choose your family. But that saying isn't true in Tom Jones: the characters in this book can and do choose who fits in to their families—and who just doesn't belong.

    Questions About Family

    1. Tom Jones includes a number of characters who have been disowned by their families. What behaviors have lead to these disownments? What do these characters have in common? Why are some successful in returning to their families while some are not?
    2. A lot of the family drama in Tom Jones happens between siblings. How does Fielding portray brothers and sisters? How do the arguments between brothers and sisters in this novel compare to those between husband and wife or parent and kid?
    3. What makes a good parent in Tom Jones? Who are the good parents in this novel, and how do they differ from the bad ones?

    Chew on This

    Tom Jones presents a contradictory model for good parent-child relationships, in which parents must have power over their children but not use it (like Squire Allworthy), while children should have free choice but must still listen to their parents (like Tom Jones, eventually).

    While Tom Jones emphasizes the importance of respecting positive authority of father figures such as Squire Allworthy, the oppressiveness of bad fathers such as Squire Western or Nightingale Senior imply that it is legitimate for children to be disobedient if their guardians are unwise or unjust.

  • Society and Class

    Tom Jones really goes up and down the British class hierarchy: you've got the Seagrim family, living practically naked from poverty on Squire Allworthy's estate. And you've got Lord Fellamar, flouncing around London with multiple servants and lots of free time on his hands to plan horrible things to do to Sophia. Fielding is pretty even-handed about pointing out the bad sides of all the people we meet in the novel, even those who are very high up on the social ladder.

    At the same time, this isn't some democratic novel suggesting that we shouldn't have social classes at all. Tom Jones seems to argue that some people are naturally superior to others, and that superiority often (though not always) goes along with higher birth. Eww.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Are some social classes funnier than others in this book? How does the comedy of the novel change depending on the social class of the people involved in a given scene?
    2. How does Fielding justify including all social classes in this novel? Does the tone of the novel shift when he moves from one class to another?
    3. How does Tom's experience of "society" change when he moves from the countryside into London? What are some of the universal characteristics that people in both places share? What are of the differences between countryfolk and city folk, according to Tom Jones?

    Chew on This

    By claiming that the upper class has less variety, and thus less opportunity for satire, than the lower classes, Tom Jones implies that the working classes are more appropriate subject matter than aristocrats and lords for the kind of realism Fielding wants to create.

    Tom Jones criticizes the hypocrisy and deceptiveness of city society much more harshly than the gossip and melodrama of the countryside. By portraying country society as rough and rude rather than villainous, Tom Jones implies that the countryside is morally healthier than the city.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Lots of people lie in Tom Jones: Bridget lies about being Tom's mom, Mr. Blifil lies about Tom attacking him, and Lady Bellaston lies to Lord Fellamar about Tom's class status. But we're less interested in those outright untruths; the real fibs that we care about are the ones that the characters tell to themselves.

    These self-deceptions go from tiny white lies to huge whoppers. On the lower end of the scale would be Partridge, who is very puffed up about his "learning," when it's clear his Latin sucks. On the upper end of the self-deception scale would be Tom's belief that he can truly love Sophia—and convince her of the fact—while still sleeping with a series of women on the side. It's only once Tom recognizes how badly he's hurting Sophia with his behavior that the two of them can begin to patch things up.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Is there anyone in this novel who does not lie? How does this honesty affect their characterization? If there are multiple characters who do not lie, then what traits do they share in common? If there are no totally honest characters, than what does this say about the novel's portrayal of human nature?
    2. When is lying justified in Tom Jones? Are there moments when it would be immoral or unethical to tell the truth?
    3. How do lies relate to gossip in this novel? If a gossiping character says something false without realizing that he is exaggerating or misspeaking, is it still a lie? What untruths circulate in the novel, and how do they affect the plot?

    Chew on This

    In Tom Jones, the fact that the gossip circulating around the innsis generally exaggerated and incorrect implies that the tendency of groups of people will always be to lie and deceive.

    Squire Allworthy never lies, but his own honesty makes it hard for him to see deceitfulness in other people. Thus, in a sense, Squire Allworthy's honesty is actually a social and moral obstacle for him, because it makes it more difficult for him to judge his fellow characters correctly.

  • Sex

    Of course, we know intellectually that people had sex before the 21st century. Otherwise, how would we all be here? But it's still kind of surprising to see just how raunchy Tom Jones can be. There isn't anything explicitly pornographic in this book, for sure—Fielding even jumps in to reassure us that he's not going to get X-rated (13.9.1).

    But even if this isn't a particularly graphic text, sex is still a major part of the plot, from Tom and Molly Seagrim having to explain her pregnancy to Mr. Nightingale and Nancy and their shotgun wedding. Still, while Tom Jones is pretty free and easy about sexuality outside of marriage, there are definite limits: Tom's love of sex leads him to some serious trouble, particularly when he realizes that he may have accidentally committed incest with his own long-lost mother. Oops.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What are some of the differences between Tom and Mr. Blifil's sexual desire? What can their sexual desires tell the reader about their contrasting moral qualities?
    2. When Tom has sex with Molly Seagrim and, later on, with Lady Bellaston, what concerns does he have on behalf of his partners? What do Tom's choice of sex partners tell us about his character as a whole?
    3. How does Tom Jones portray the morality of sex outside of marriage? What are some of the ethical issues that the novel raises about sexuality?

    Chew on This

    By emphasizing the naturalness and inevitability of human sexual desire, Fielding suggests that strict moral codes forbidding sex will always fail, leading to hypocrisy and deception.

    Tom's concern for Molly's moral character and Lady Bellaston's honor demonstrates his character's sensitivity to the social consequences of sex outside of marriage even before his relationship with Sophia requires that he gives up all vice.

  • Hypocrisy

    There are loads of examples in Tom Jones of people saying one thing and doing another: Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square preach morality but have no interest in practicing it. Mrs. Fitzpatrick talks a good game about protecting Sophia from a bad marriage to Mr. Blifil, but she's the one who rats out her cousin to Squire Western. Even Ensign Northerton has a big mouth about honor, but he throws a bottle at Tom's head.

    But while these liars often seem obvious and ridiculous in their self-deception, the narrator also has something earnest to say about the dangers of hypocrisy. He tells us that, "a treacherous friend is the most dangerous enemy" (3.4.3). Fielding uses broad jokes about hypocrites to say something deadly serious about how much damage they can do.

    Questions About Hypocrisy

    1. At the end of Tom Jones when they are making up, Squire Allworthy congratulates Tom that "hypocrisy […] was never among [his] faults" (18.10.2). What makes hypocrisy so particularly dangerous, according to Squire Allworthy? What specific damage do we see hypocrisy doing over the course of the novel?
    2. Are there some kinds of hypocrisy in Tom Jones that are worse than others? Or are all hypocrites equally dangerous in this book?
    3. Is there a difference between hypocrisy and self-deception? Are there characters who show signs of one but not the other? What overall character traits appear to go with hypocrisy, self-deception, or both?

    Chew on This

    While some hypocrites in this novel are worse than others, Tom Jones does not distinguish morally between people who pretend to feel love that they do not really feel (such as Mr. Blifil towards Squire Allworthy) and characters who pretend to follow spiritual or philosophical teachings that they do not obey (such as Mr. Thwackum's cruelty in spite of his religious faith).

    The ethical difference between hypocrisy and self-deception in Tom Jones is that hypocrisy damages other people while self-deception turns in on the individual.

  • Appearances

    95% of the dark comedy of Tom Jones comes from looking past a character's positive appearance to see the weakness and the hollowness within. So, Lady Bellaston appears fashionable and lovely on the outside, but if you scrape off all that pancake makeup, you would see a petty, bitter woman underneath.

    But the only way we can laugh at a character's false appearance is if we (as readers) can see both sides of her personality at the same time. It's very rare that Fielding actually tricks the reader with a character's surface appearances: for example, we know that Mr. Blifil is a self-serving, lying fiend about a hundred chapters before the characters in the novel do. Why does FIelding always let us in on the secret? Does Fielding ever try to fool us about a character's nature?

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Tom Jones spends a lot of time showing the flaws underneath seemingly good and righteous appearances. But how about the reverse? What about characters who have bad reputations that hide good hearts? What do these kinds of characters share in common? Where do these bad or good reputations come from?
    2. Certainly, appearance matters a lot to the characters in Tom Jones. But how does the narrator talk about social perceptions of him as an author? What concerns does he have about his public reputation?
    3. What can we figure out about the characters in Tom Jones from their physical appearances? How does the narrator use physical appearance as a tool for characterization?

    Chew on This

    While the narrator continually warns the reader not to pay too much attention to appearance when judging his characters, the lovely faces of both Tom and Sophia reflect their spiritual and ethical superiority over the other characters in the book.

    Although the characters that try to read the facial expressions of others often misinterpret what they see, Fielding still uses the face as a reliable method of characterization. This power of the narrator to read faces correctly gives him authority over and above any of the other characters in Tom Jones.

  • Gender

    There is a surprising amount of girl-fighting in Tom Jones: Molly Seagrim fights off a whole group of villagers with a human leg bone in her hand (seriously), Mrs. Honour and Mrs. Western's maid leave bloody scratches on one another, and Susan the chambermaid gives Partridge a bloody nose at the Upton inn.

    No one in this book is saying that women can't be violent. But the narrator makes this surprising distinction between courage, which is appropriate to a woman, and fierceness (10.9.3), which is not. All of these girl fights we just mention? Those are fierce. Instead of putting up fists and resorting to hair-pulling, the narrator advises women to be more like Sophia: strong and committed to her own beliefs, but only passively resistant. What do you guys think: is Sophia Western a model of tough womanhood, or not?

    Questions About Gender

    1. Does the narrator use different terms or images to describe men and women? Are there different kinds of comedy that attach to male and female characters?
    2. What kinds of rights and privileges do women have within Tom Jones? What kinds of restrictions do they have to obey? What can we say about the legal status of women in Britain in the eighteenth century from reading Tom Jones?
    3. The narrator describes Tom as "rather too effeminate" (9.5.6) in his facial expressions, while Molly Seagrim's beauty "had very little of feminine in it, and would have become a man at least as well as a woman" (4.6.15). So both of these characters have something slightly androgynous about them. How does this slight ambiguity of gender affect their characterization?

    Chew on This

    Although the narrator shows sympathy towards Molly Seagrim as the mother of a child outside of marriage, the novel's positive portrayal of Sophia Western's nonsexual virtue reinforces the eighteenth-century idealization of virginity for unmarried women.

    The narrator uses Molly Seagrim's masculine nature to imply that she is the aggressor in her sexual relationship with Tom. By emphasizing Molly's unfeminine sexuality, the narrator takes the reader's focus away from Tom's moral responsibility in (supposedly) taking Molly's virginity.

  • Literature and Writing

    Helpfully, Fielding spends a bunch of his introductory chapters for the different books of Tom Jones explaining (a) what his project is in writing the novel, and (b) how it's different from the other novels of the time. What Fielding says he wants most out of his writing is believability.

    But Fielding knows that no one is going to read a doorstop novel about a guy who goes to work every day and then comes home to his loving wife and kids. Fielding has to include a lot of dramatic coincidences and surprising circumstances in Tom Jones in order to keep the reader's interest. And these twists and turns can sometimes seem unrealistic… but the narrator reminds us in Book 8, Chapter 1 that truth is stranger than fiction.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What are some of the ways that the narrator describes the "truth" of Tom Jones? In what sense is Tom Jones meant to be "true"?
    2. Why does the narrator emphasize the importance of probability and believability in novels? What contrasts does he build between probable fictions and other kinds of texts? What does believable fiction allow an author to do or to achieve in his writing? What goals does the narrator of Tom Jones set for this kind of writing?
    3. What does the narrator value about reading? What can reading teach you, according to Tom Jones? What are some of the limitations of extensive reading? How does Fielding connect his reading with his work as a writer?

    Chew on This

    Although the narrator focuses on believability as the main characteristic of his style of novel-writing, the far-fetched plot lines of Tom Jones undermine his creative statements about the importance of mimicking real life in fiction.

    While the narrator spends several of his introductory essays discussing ways in which critics have "abused" (18.1.4) his work, his own harsh assessments of other modes of writing (such as romance and supernatural fiction) make his personal resistance to criticism appear hypocritical.