Moral Teaching in Fielding's Tom Jones

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  • Topic: Novel, Irony, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
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Moral Teaching in Fielding’s Tom Jones

This essay aims to explore Henry Fielding’s art of moral teaching in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, as the author originally entitled it. In his writing, Fielding does not try to create utterly good or evil characters; instead, he simply depicts them as what they are. For example, he treats Tom Jones as a simple-minded human being who errs at times. The story, though treated in this way, is as a matter of fact written with a deliberate purpose, which is to teach moral lessons in the form of burlesques. In addition, to achieve the purpose of moral teaching and to make the story colorful and dramatic, Fielding employs such skills as authorial intrusion, mock-heroic style, and irony. With authorial intrusion, Fielding engages his readers in the evaluations of moral judgments. With irony and mock-heroic style, Fielding not only offers himself chances to play with his lively humor, but he also creates chances for his readers to assess the characters. Thus, it is fair to say that the core of Tom Jones is a parade of human nature. Everything else in the plot revolves around this core.

I. The moral tone
Henry Fielding began his career as a playwright, a journalist, and a lawyer. He accidentally became a novelist because of the closure of the theaters in London. The skills which he gained from his former dramatic works enabled him to adeptly handle intricate plots of his novels, such as colorful dialogue and vivid action. Among half a dozen novels, Fielding is best remembered for his Tom Jones. Thackeray, a Victorian novelist, exclaimed that the plot of Tom Jones was a perfect one (Johnson 95). Coleridge, a Romantic poet, even regarded the plot of Tom Jones as one of the three most perfectly planned plots in the history of literature (Coleridge 521). And it is safe to say that the publication of this novel, at least, drove the eighteenth century fiction almost to the midway of that century (Mckillop 118).

At first sight readers of Tom Jones may feel the characters in this novel superficial and decide that his subjects are obviously shallow; however, there is historical background of Fielding’s Tom Jones. As a novelist in the eighteenth century, an age in which society required novels to be morally written, Fielding had to combat the expectations of his days since many characters of the novels in his days were too good to be true. His first novel Shamela, for example, was written with a purpose to satirize Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, which Fielding felt hypocritical and manipulative. Shamela comes from the word “sham”. It is clear that he denounced sham of every sort. Equally clear is “…his hatred of cant and humbug, something he shares strongly with Pope. Both poets hate a hypocrite more than anything else” (Stephen 191).

Fielding’s sense of moral is evident. The hero Fielding molds in Tom Jones is not a man without flaws, but a person who makes occasional mistakes. Fielding views human nature as a combination of good and bad; Tom Jones is fundamentally a good person, vigorous, lusty, yet honest. Though he is tinged with sexual indulgences, his major weakness, he is finally made amend by his honesty, goodwill, and innate honor, which Fielding deems as the bright side of human nature. It is a pity that Dr. Samuel Johnson, the renowned dictionary writer, once said to friend, “I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book [Tom Jones]” (Penguin Readers). However, Arnold Kettle, one of the critics who give Fielding high approbation, says that Fielding

. . . is not complacent but he is fundamentally confident that the problem of human society, that is to say, his society, can and will be solved by humane feelings and right reason. It is this broad and tolerant confidence which gives Tom Jones its particular tone and which also alienates those critics who feel less confident in social man than Fielding, whose optimism they mistake for insensitivensss. (76)...
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