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Tom Jones : the authoritative text, contemporary reactions, criticism

by Henry Fielding; Sheridan Warner Baker

  Book : Fiction  |  2nd ed

Modern novel from the Eighteenth Century, ELC review   (2014-03-25)


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by vleighton

  I was very surprised when I finally got around to reading Tom Jones: it is a very amusing and enjoyable novel, not at all a Mark Twain classic (which is a novel you enjoy saying you have read more than you enjoy actually reading). I read it one brief chapter at a time each night during a phase of my life when I suffered from insomnia, and it did not put me to sleep. (For that, I recommend reports of scientific investigations, which even when they are interesting require a lot of mental exertion.) A warning though: Fielding's eighteenth century morality is definitive not Victorian or politically correct by today's standards.  It is both too promiscuous for the Victorians and too patriarchal for today's feminist. It has a little bit of the zanyness of Tristam Shandy, but it is not that confusing.

  As an English major, I did not take a course that covered the history of the novel. I had read a number of nineteenth century novels (Austen, Dickens, Thackery, Hawthorne, Twain, etc.), and early twentieth century novels (Joyce, Woolf, Conrad, Joseph Roth, Dos Passos, etc.), but I had not had to dip into the eighteenth century novel. So I naively believed that the avant-garde techniques of breaking the fourth wall and addressing the reader was a twentieth century phenomenon. How wrong I was. Each of the many books into which the novel is divided begins with an essay to the reader. These essays might meditate on the nature of fiction, or the class of society which breeds the best novelist, or some other thoughts about existence.

  The plot of the novel follows the strange career of an orphan, Tom Jones, who is remarkably well-endowed in looks, in temperment, and perhaps in other ways. He is raised by a wealthy country gentleman. The gentleman's nephew and apparently sole heir is Tom's nefarious opposite, and is out to try to ruin Tom at every turn. Meanwhile, many of the women in the book stalk Tom, and the ending is a thrilling race between his rescuer and those leading him to the gallows. Fielding clearly has fun with the cultural and philosophical currents of his era. It is justifiably considered one of the great novels of English literature. And it's actually fun.

Applying Evolutionary Literary Criticism

Because I have been reading evolutionary literary criticism (ELC), it has occurred to me that I should be trying to apply it at every turn. So here is my attempt with this text.

Evolutionary Literary Criticism Explanation Boilerplate

For theory, I will be drawing primarily on the collection "The Literary Animal" (abbreviated below as TLA) edited by Gottschall, and Gottschall's own book, "The Storytelling Animal" (TSA). One problem with offering an evolutionary interpretation of the text is that there are three different versions of evolutionary literary criticism (ELC). The first (ELC1) simply observes that humans are fascinated by stories featuring survival, social status, and mating themes (boy loses girl, maiden guarded by dragon, boy hangs from cliff, etc.). In TLA, this line is promoted by McEwan, Nettle, Carroll, Nordlund, Fox, Gottschall himself, Kruger, and Salmon.

The second version (ELC2) is to emphasize that storytelling itself is an adaptation, and that humans are wired to enjoy and transmit stories. In TLA, this position is presented by Boyd and Sugiyama, and it is the thesis of Gottschall's own book, TSA. ELC2 also allows one to explore the degree to which the author intentionally (or perhaps unintentionally) tries to conform to or challenge the expectations of a genre. In other words, how good of a job did the author do telling the tale, and how was it received by the readers or listeners?

The third version (ELC3) is that stories have been a method of storing cultural information throughout human history, and as such, they preserve cultural entities and allow for cultural evolution. Stories here include religious texts and political histories. This position is argued by David Sloan Wilson's essay in TLA and by Gottschall in TSA to a limited degree. Wilson's position is partially related to version one, in that he says that human nature is not infinitely flexible, and texts that stray too far from evolutionarily interesting themes will fail to be embraced and retold. But Wilson's position also allows for a sort of historicism or ideological critique, in which the subtext of a narrative or of its reception might be to  support the current cultural status quo or to advocate for a different cultural state. So the cultural meaning of a text might be quite different from what the author had in mind when it was written. Culturally powerful elements may promote a story that justifies their own hegemony.

ELC3 should also encompass the use of a storytelling tradition to indicate group membership. Knowledge of a canon of stories, or the proper form of a storytelling genre, can act as the sign of worthiness for membership as much as any other demonstration of mastery of a behavior or belief system. Reading Joyce's Ulysses may not keep you riveted at the edge of your seat turning the pages (ELC2), and it may not recount the harrowing adventures of survival or the boy getting the girl (ELC1), but having read the book might indicate the membership of the reader within a social class. It indicates both the ability to perform the task and the value system of the group. To be knowledgable about the details of a large canon of stories, whether it is Proust's In Search of Lost Time or the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you must first have the ability and free time to learn those details, and you must also have the inner motivation to learn them, a motivation often achieved by belonging to a group that considers them worth knowing. Establishing one's worthiness for membership in any group potentially allows one to share in the tangible benefits of the group (resources, social hierarchy, etc.), whether or not one is consciously aware of such benefits. For example, the shipwrecked Odysseus was treated as noble because he demonstrated mastery of a particular behavior—an aristocratic form of address.

Fielding via ELC1

  For an evolutionary literary criticism viewpoint, the sexual dynamics are fairly straightforward to lay out. In Tom's society, powerful men could sire children with women among the working poor on their estates without too much stigma against them when it comes to marriage and respectability, though that system is being contested. Tom's rival, the nephew of the landowner, is trying to ensure his own financial legacy at Tom's expense. The nephew has legitimate worries: in the society of that age, Tom might have been the gentleman's real but illegitimate son. The head of the household may divert resources to illegitimate children. And indeed, at the end of the book, Tom in fact has some noble blood and would have been in line to inherit a share of his adoptive father's estate had his rival allowed the knowledge of Tom's birth to be public.

In that era, if you were part of polite society, your likelihood of starving or going childless was much less than if you were part of the unwashed peasantry, and because high-status property owning males could impose themselves sexually on lower class women on their estates,  lower class males where in an even more precarious position from the reproductive point of view. Even if Tom is not given money, he is given social capital in the form of a good education and the refinements of polite society.

Tom's true love will have to look past all the women he has incidentally shagged if she wants to marry him. But many upper class women of that era did have to look past the mistresses and illegitimate children. It was against this promiscuous exercise of social power that Victoria's Prince Albert campaigned in British society. But it is an exercise of power that David Buss and other evolutionary psychologists could predict. Within Tom Jones, there is a dialectic between the cultural influences of strict Christianity and classical virtue, all of which is played out within the context of 18th century English society in which landowners could abuse others sexually.

Many stories told in human society highlight cases when the person of low birth has the courage and decency to be a leader in the society. The story often revolves around whether or not that worthy person manages to break out of the social class of birth. This is certainly the theme of Tom Jones. Unlike the novels of a later, wealthier society, Tom Jones portrays a society where ill-fortune could have immediate catastrophic effects on one's reproductive success.

Fielding via ELC2

I do not believe that Fielding used as a theme within his spacious novel the human need for story and the human predisposition to turn experience into a coherent narrative. But he does play with our desire for a good read. Fielding does not assume that the reader has a long attention span: the chapters are short, and the author will at frequent intervals break the narrative thread to comment on it. Peppered within the book are meditations on the nature of the art of the novel. Fielding does not take the desire for narrative form to the breaking point, the way Tristram Shandy does, but he does enjoy messing with his readers and teasing them.

As for the quality of the novel within the context of its genre, Fielding was writing in the early days of the novel. He assumed that many of his readers were familiar with classical epics. The fight between two peasant women in the churchyard over hand-me-down clothes is told in an heroic style that can be best appreciated if the reader is familiar with such epics as the Illiad. His writing is lively. For some writers, such as Joyce, the reader needs to be slightly masochistic to suffer until understanding is achieved. There is no such requirement for Fielding's magnum opus.

Fielding via ELC3

With regard to social context and subtext of Tom Jones, nothing could be clearer than Fielding's position. Another contemporary novelist was Richardson, with his novel Pamela. That novel told the tale of an educated but poor woman working in an upper class household. The master of the house wants her to be his mistress, but she holds onto her honor and insists on marriage if there is to be a physical relationship. A growing segment of the reading public was women in the same situation, and Pamela had a large readership. Fielding rejected the values argued in Pamela and even wrote a parody of it called Shamela. He thought lower class women holding out for marriage was an inappropriate way for them to try to climb the social hierarchy, hoping upper class men would get desparate enough to confer upon them a higher status.

Tom Jones, in contrast, supports and validates the patriarchal status of the landed gentry. Tom proves himself to be worthy by in the end understanding the balance between competing versions of the Good within his society. At the end of the novel, Tom could have sought revenge on his enemy by having him put to death, but Tom displays a generous and forgiving nature that is wise and worthy of nobility. I have read that in the early 20th century, some Marxist critics tried to revive the status of this novel on the grounds that Tom is of low birth and triumphs over an upper class rival. But in the end, it turns out that Tom was a legitimate heir to the estate, and that he steps into the patriarchal system without overthrowing it. So that revival attempt failed.

Finally, there is the ELC3 question: does a knowledge of this story confer membership within a social class in modern society? IMHO, no. The social class that would have found it supportive and enlightening is long gone. Male fox-hunting landowners with a classical education are pretty thin segment in today's society. The text survives today because of its nature as a signpost: it is exemplary of its literary era, and it is a good read. Historians can use it as a window into the value system of a very different era, but its value system is no more appreciated today than it would have been by the Victorians, who would have embraced the morals of Pamela.

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