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The History of Tom Jones
A Foundling by Henry Fielding
originally published 1749
It's been said that Tom Jones could be considered the first novel. I've read the same thing about Moll Flanders, so I don't take such statements very seriously- but the fact is, Tom Jones is one of the first novels. More like two novels- at 7 to 9 hundred pages long, Jones is an epic slog through English society circa 1750.
Whenever you read 18th century literature you need to ask yourself, "Is there some narrative form that this copies of which I am presently unaware?" In the case of Tom Jones, the answer is, "Yes." and that form is Picaresque. The basic idea of picaresque as applied to the novel is "Hero walks around and sees different types of people." Picaresque maintains a fascination with the grotesque and the odd ball- think of Hunter Thompson's characterizations of Vegas Tourists in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" for a modern analogue.
People often conflate the 18th century with the later Victorian period, but I can assure you that the 18th century was a far bawdier place. Indeed, the early novels: this one, Moll Flanders- Joseph Andrews, all share ribald plot points- both Flanders and Jones have plot points involving explicit allegations of parent/child incest. In Jones, the entire plot revolves around his desire to marry Sophia. That doesn't stop him from banging multiple chicks along the way.
The length of the novel means that Fielding has ample opportunity for human observation, dialect and moral teachings. You simply can't read 18th century British literature without discussing the morality issues. Although it is presently regarded highly for it's historical value, a debate over the artisitic merit is long standing:
Few novels, indeed, have aroused such stark and abiding evaluative disagreements as 'Tom Jones'. From the first, what some readers hailed as a refreshingly broad-spirited tolerance was denounced by others, like Richardson, as moral coarseness and special pleading. Coleridge's admiration for the book's plot (shared by Smollett and Thackeray) as one of the three most perfect in literature ... was the reverse of Dr Johnson's or Frank Kermode's dismissal of it as clockwork. The chatty asides and prefatory discourses which charmed Empson were so disliked by Somerset Maugham that his own edition of 'Tom Jones' simply left the latter out.
(DOREEN ROBERTS, INTRODUCTION TO WORDSWORTH CLASSIC EDITION)
I def. like the "lack of fussiness" that Jones brings to his description. I do agree with Maugham's decision to omit the chatty "prefatory discourses"- I almost never understood what he was talking about.
I very much noticed Fielding's classical education at work. This is a time period when culture fields were establishing new archetypes, independent of Roman/Greece and Renaissance examples but Tom Jones is attached to those traditions more thoroughly then Robinson Crusoe, which exists largely outside of classical reference points and allusions.
Ultimately, the development of the novel as a literary form is all about plot development, and it is for the excellent development here that Jones secures his place in the canon. In the words of Roberts, again:
the main unity-promoting device is the use nearly of all the secondary characters to advance an ethos and illustrate a scheme of moral taxonomy. Fielding's moral vision operates for example between the moral polarities of appearance and reality, action (what one sees) and motive (what one deduces), reasoned principle and instinct, prudence and impulsiveness, and suspicion and trust.
It's the link between the morality lessons and plot points that make a modern novel.