Realism in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones

It is easier in the case of Tom Jones than most other English novels to move out of the presented situations. The narrator remains insistent that Tom Jones is not a fictional work but history. The division of the description into three clear parts takes us into the manner in which the countryside and the city coexisted and reflected upon each other. Coexistence is a weak word since the relationship between the two social segments was anything but kind and peaceful. The metaphor of the city in Tom Jones signifies a moribund life-mode and the sooner it is replaced or wiped out by the country (Tom- Sophia intervention), the better. The writer could not adopt a harsher attitude towards the social set-up of his time. Understandably, it evoked a violent response.

Fielding’s sense of realism stands further enhanced by his view of the countryside which, as he sees it, contained a large amount of the natural and spontaneous. In spite of this, Fielding offers a thorough-going critique of the good as well as the negative characters in the countryside by persistently presenting them as targets of ridicule or irony. He does not seem to be sufficiently sure that the vigour and zeal of the simple people can see the society through. In many cases, Fielding understands the ills and evils of Somerset to be entirely insurmountable.

The road has more of a political aspect to it as against the social. Here, the current of ‘life’ is stronger. Rebellion by a section of society and the effort of others to quell it is a cons constant point of reference. What England seems to need is a check on lawlessness but in Fielding’s view, this check should contain in large measure the support of the common people – Tom’s gusto is quite akin to Molly’s. Fielding’s prescription is not narrowly literary — an entertainment through fiction that makes the reader aware of the follies, ills and evils of human behaviour through the deployment of technique. This is what most English and American criticism is preoccupied with. Instead, the prescription is political because of which Tom Jones shocked the eighteenth-century reader. If Johnson tended to reject it as immoral and ‘vicious,’ he did so because he understood it as going against established norms. For Johnson, these forces were of morality and decency in life.

From here, we move on to the higher plane of social history. The novel is not merely Tom’s story but history. Tom signifies the emergence of a new group of people in the eighteenth-century English society. This group took independent positions and enjoyed critiquing and rejecting whatever obstructed its social progress. The group had an outlook of optimism and constructive intervention. This approach marked the behaviour of characters such as Tom and Sophia who were enlightened and modem in the true sense of the word. However, Fielding finds the scope of their onward journey in the novel rather difficult. We see in the novel a fine interplay of actual, fearsome conditions on one side and individual intervention on the other.

We should also not lose sight of the fact that human initiative may not succeed necessarily. The energy and dynamism of individuals is to be tempered by a great deal of wisdom. One way of successfully countering the challenge of orthodoxy and social stagnation is to evolve an alternative strategy of action. ‘Nurture’ is to play an important part in this strategy, meaning thereby that people like Molly, Partridge, Mrs Miller and Mrs Waters have to be left behind in favour of those who would acquire genuine moral superiority through intellectual daring and economic power. Fielding is strongly convinced of this.

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