So, we just saw The Avengers, and it hit us like Captain America's spinning shield of doom: Tom Jones is a lot like Thor. Hear us out: not only do both of their names start with "T," but they are also naturally outgoing, friendly, handsome guys who get into major fights with their fathers. What's more, they both have sly brothers who lie and manipulate others, and they both set off on long journeys, have a series of surprising adventures, and eventually redeem themselves in the eyes of their dads.
The character arc of these two guys is really startlingly similar: their adventures lead both Thor and Tom to put aside their arrogance and their self-indulgence. Once they become a bit humbler, they prove to their fathers (or father-figure, in Tom's case) their true worth, and they get to go home and become proper, official heirs once more. (Of course, the exact nature of their inheritances is a little different, since Thor is a Prince of Asgard by birth and Tom is a bastard. For more on Tom's status as an illegitimate child, check out our analysis in "What's Up With the Title?")
We're not sure Henry Fielding would approve of this comparison between his novel and a Marvel Studios movie, especially given how much he emphasizes the importance of keeping gods and mythology out of modern fiction. But we can't ignore the overlap now that we've noticed it.
Honestly, we think that the echoes between these two story lines tells us something fundamental about Tom's character, and about the book that carries his name. This novel lays out a classic narrative of a good-hearted but somewhat misguided hero, who has to go on a quest of self-discovery to figure out what's truly important to him before he wins the girl and secures his future.
It's not that Tom (or Thor) doesn't deserve some kind of lesson in better behavior. He really does have to figure out the importance of discipline and self-restraint (again, like Thor). But once he has learned these lessons, he gets to go home again with a new crew of friends at his back, secure once more in his own future.
We've said before that Tom Jones is not perfect. He is well-meaning, but he can be careless of people's feelings (seriously, how did he not think that it would bother Sophia that he proposed to Lady Bellaston?). He never thinks twice about how things appear, so he makes himself an excellent target for mean gossip. He has a quick temper, and he sometimes drinks too much (though he's nothing like as bad as Squire Western).
But all of Tom's faults are also the flip sides of his best qualities: the other side of Tom's free and easy sexuality is that he's kind and sympathetic to everyone, especially women. The relationship he falls into with Mrs. Waters, which winds up causing his first major break with Sophia, comes about because he rescues Mrs. Waters from a man trying to murder her. Even Tom's reputation for theft, which he builds up as a child in the early chapters of the novel, only arises from his desire to help out George Seagrim and his starving family.
Squire Allworthy also notices this weird quirk of Tom's character, that he has plenty of faults but they get balanced out by his good points:
While [Squire Allworthy] was angry therefore with the incontinence of Jones, he was no less pleased with the honour and honesty of his self-accusation. He began now to form in his mind the same opinion of this young fellow, which, we hope, our reader may have conceived. And in balancing his faults with his perfections, the latter seemed rather to preponderate. (4.11.12)
So, on the whole, Tom is a good guy. Squire Allworthy believes this (before Mr. Blifil twists him against Tom), and so do we.
In his introductory chapter to Book 10, Fielding actually comes out and says that we shouldn't "condemn a character as a bad one, because it is not a perfectly good one" (10.1.4). He points out that there are plenty of books where you'll find heroes who are 100% good, but these portrayals are not exactly true to life. Since Fielding is trying to write a realistic book, it makes sense that he wants us to like his main character, who may not be all good, but who is good enough to be a decent guy.
What is more, Fielding uses Tom's complicated character to evaluate the moral grey areas between Good and Evil. Since none of us can be purely good, Tom's character shows us the faults that Fielding thinks aren't really so bad. Tom gets into all kinds of trouble thanks to his headstrong and undisciplined nature. And some of his trouble—almost losing Sophia over his affairs; possibly sleeping with his own mom—is truly serious and not to be laughed at. Even so, the novel seems to imply, it's better to make mistakes out of generosity and friendliness than out of coldness and cruelty.
As Tom's mirror opposite, Mr. Blifil has plenty of good points that grow out of his bad side: he is disciplined and careful with money and with his reputation (which means that he is also merciless and never generous). He is extremely respectful and always knows just the right thing to say (which also means that he is calculating and hypocritical). But we know that he is an overwhelmingly bad character, even if he has some positive traits.
Between Tom and Mr. Blifil, Fielding creates this interesting ethical system of positive virtues, faults that are actually virtues (like Tom's lack of discipline, which equals generosity), virtues that are actually faults (like Mr. Blifil's impressive self-control, which equals stinginess and manipulativeness), and outright faults.
By considering the ways in which some virtues and some faults compliment each other, Fielding is trying to draw well-rounded characters who can be good without being angels and who can be bad without being devils. After all, even the saintly Squire Allworthy's moral certainty leads him to misjudge Partridge, Tom, and Mr. Blifil pretty severely. No one gets out of this book completely without criticism.