Class and Violence in Henry Fielding’s ‘Tom Jones’
On the 28th of February 1749, Henry Fielding’s novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, was first published in London by Andrew Millar, who offered Fielding the sum of £700 for its exclusivity. It is generally seen as a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age or character-building novel) as well as a Picaresque novel (satirical or comic depictions of lower class characters). One of the first ever novels written in English prose, its story revolves around Tom Jones, a foundling discovered on the property of a very kind and wealthy landowner, Squire Allworthy, in Somerset, England. The illegitimate son of a serving wench and a local barber, he is raised by master Allworthy alongside his heir, Blifil, the son of Allworthy’s widowed sister. Tom grows into an amiable and joyful rascal, with a penchant for the ladies. However, his feelings for their noble neighbour’s daughter, Sophia Western, are true and fully reciprocated. Their love, a popular subject of 18th-century comedy, is sadly marred by class opposition: Tom, a bastard of dubious provenance, is deemed unacceptable as a love interest for Sophia. Instead Blifil, his malevolent love rival, is seen as her rightful future spouse. Intrigue pushes Tom out of the family who raised him. Given just a small allowance, he sets off into the big wide world to find his own fortune.
The adventures he embarks on are the subject of controversy, as they include promiscuous activities such as adultery and prostitution. Meanwhile, Sophia also elopes from Blifil. She goes to London and her path is explored parallel to Tom’s. Blifil seeks revenge by trying to wrongly set Tom up to suffer the death penalty for a crime he did not commit. Only, we find out that the real reason behind this setup is Blifil’s attempt to cover up the truth about his and Tom’s class provenance: an old letter confirms the last twist in the plot, as Tom is proven the actual legitimate heir to Allworthy, while Blifil turns out to be the bastard child. All prior resentment vs Tom and Sophie’s union magically evaporates, and the two families embrace their impending marriage. Fielding’s criticism of the class friction prevalent in his age acted as a biting social commentary. It seemed that everyone’s fame, fortune and luck was determined by only one deciding factor: their social pedigree.
Class prejudice was, of course, deemed as normal at the time of the novel’s publication in the late 18th century, so its criticism focused instead on the seediness of Tom’s adventures alongside contradictory characters such as prudes, whores, libertines, bumpkins, misanthropes, hypocrites, scoundrels, virgins, and imperfect humanitarians. “Rape jokes, trials for rape and comic attempted rapes recur in large numbers throughout Fielding’s career – Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Jonathan Wild (…) With just one exception, modern critics have been silent on the issue; even the most extended studies of Fielding and gender have little to say. (…) Fielding’s repeated scenes of sexual violence compel us to re-evaluate critical commonplaces about the legal metaphors and forensic reasoning of Fielding’s later work. Sexual violence emerges as one of a handful of endlessly problematic issues for Fielding.” (Simon Dickie, ‘Fielding’s Rape Jokes’, The Review of English Studies, New Series, Vol. 61, No. 251, September 2010). One of the serious implications of violence in Fielding’s work is connected to the issue of class. While Tom is portrayed as a warm hearted, yet, on the surface, promiscuous and openly expressive character, Blifil, the supposedly genteel gentleman, is reserved and cold-blooded.
Alcohol too, was largely instrumental in violent assaults in Fielding’s time. The writer noted in Tom Jones that “ ‘no Nation produces so many drunken quarrels, especially among the lower People, as England (for, indeed, with them, to drink and to fight together, are almost synonymous terms).’ Strangely, Fielding presents violence as almost a form of gentleness or , whereas politeness may often disguise an underlying cruelty (Nokes 151). His books are filled with broken noses and bruised ribs. Also, like Jonathan Swift, Fielding attacks hypocrisy and sees very little hypocrisy in a knock-down, drag-out fight. Blifil in Tom Jones seems very gentle but is quite conniving.” (Jennine Hurl-Eamon, Gender and Petty Violence in London, 1680-1720, Ohio State Uni. Press, 2005). In conclusion, Fielding presents the lower classes as having the moral upper hand: although they are depicted as brash, uneducated and ready to express themselves through openly violent acts, their heart is in the right place. They are morally superior to most of the sophisticated, manipulative upper classes. This is ultimately the main message emerging from the Tom-Blifil role reversal at the end of Tom Jones.