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Tom Jones

Outrageously funny and shockingly frank in its portrayals of extramarital sex, The History of Tom Jones: A Foundling (1749), commonly known as Tom Jones, caused such a controversy in its day that it was believed to be the cause of not one but two earthquakes.1 This lengthy novel's complex plot tells the story of an orphaned baby's childhood in a country estate, his estrangement from his foster father, his struggle to succeed, and his eventually happy marriage. Along the way, both the protagonist, Tom, and the reader learn that not everything in this world is what it seems: greed, hypocrisy, and selfishness often have greater sway over human affairs than we care to recognize.

The Author of Tom Jones

Tom Jones Henry Fielding Portrati StudySmarter
A portrait of Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones, Library of Congress

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was a prominent lawyer, playwright, and novelist from an aristocratic but poor family. As a barrister and eventually magistrate, Fielding was responsible for progressive reforms in London’s policing and criminal justice system that laid the foundations for the modern Metropolitan Police.

At the same time, he was a successful comic playwright until 1737, when the anti-government stance in his plays got his work banned from the theaters. Fielding turned to novel writing, often making use of the comic chops he developed in the theater. His most well-known novels include Shamela (1741), Joseph Andrews (1742), and Tom Jones (1749). Fielding died in 1754 outside of Lisbon, where he had gone to try to cure the health issues that would lead to his death.1

Characters in the Novel Tom Jones

Tom Jones is a lengthy novel with many characters and subplots. Only the most significant characters will be listed here, divided into major and minor characters necessary to understand the plot.

Major Characters

The main characters of the book are the families of two neighboring estates in Somersetshire.

Tom Jones

Found abandoned by Allworthy as a baby, Tom grows up to be handsome and athletic. Despite his good heart, he often acts impulsively. His fighting and extramarital sex get him kicked out of Allworthy’s house until his mother is revealed to be Allworthy’s sister.

Blifil

The son of Bridget and Captain Blifil, Blifil is raised thinking he is the only rightful inheritor of the estate and sees himself as Tom’s superior. Despite being Tom's brother, he has an entirely opposite personality. Mean and selfish, Blifil plots to have Tom kicked out of the house for his own benefit and persists in trying to marry Sophia even though she hates him.

Sophia Western

The daughter of Allworthy’s neighbor, Sophia Western is the picture of beauty, innocence, and high moral standards. She falls in love with Tom, and while it breaks her heart to disobey her father, she refuses to marry the match he chooses for her and runs away.

Squire Allworthy

A wealthy landowner, Allworthy acts as a father to both Tom and Blifil. He is a philanthropist, freely giving large amounts of money to people in need. Allworthy has good intentions but is easily deceived by those who do not.

While Tom Jones is often realistic in its portrayal of society and human motivations, Fielding often has fun with the names he gives his characters. Allworthy, for example, is "all worthy." Blifil could be a partial anagram for "fib/lie." Can you see any other instances where a name seems to contain a characteristic or description?

Squire Western

Sophia’s father and Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western’s sole interests are hunting and drinking. He adores his daughter but believes that he has an absolute right to arrange her marriage. He flies into a rage whenever this is questioned.

Minor Characters

Below is a selective list of supporting characters who play critical roles in the plot.

  • Bridget Allworthy
  • Dr. Blifil
  • Captain Blifil
  • Jenny Jones / Mrs. Waters
  • Square
  • Thwackum
  • 'Black' George Seagrim
  • Molly Seagrim
  • Benjamin Partridge
  • Mrs. Western
  • Maid Honour
  • Mr. Dowling
  • Ensign Northerton
  • Harriet Fitzpatrick
  • Mr. Fitzpatrick
  • The Man of the Hill
  • The King of the Gypsies
  • Mr. Anderson
  • Lady Bellaston
  • Mrs. Miller
  • Nancy Miller
  • Mr. Nightingale
  • Lord Fellamar

Tom Jones Summary

Tom Jones is divided into 18 books. The book-by-book summary below is not exhaustive but provides an outline of the basic plot developments and the subplots that are necessary to appreciate or understand it.

Books I - VI

The novel opens with a description of Paradise Hall, an idyllic rural estate in 18th-century Somersetshire inhabited by Allworthy and his sister. One day, after returning from an extended trip to London, Allworthy discovers that a baby has been left in his bed. He calls his maid and, despite her objections, has the baby taken care of and begins to love it as though it were his own.

A short investigation in a nearby village produces a mother in Jenny Jones, who does not deny her guilt and is sent out of town, and a teacher named Partridge, who denies everything but is denounced by his own wife. He loses his job and leaves town. Allworthy’s sister, Bridget, marries an angry, conceited man and has a son with him shortly before he dies of a stroke.

Tom Jones rural England Somersetshire StudySmarterThe novel begins in Somersetshire, a rural part of southwestern England, Pixabay.

The abandoned baby, Tom Jones, grows up in the Allworthy household with Blifi, Bridget’s son. They are educated by two private tutors, Thwackum and Square, with Allworthy supervising. The tutors, along with Bridget and Blifil, often show disdain for Tom because he is an illegitimate child. Tom tends to get into fights and other kinds of trouble, but is a kind and genuine person. In contrast, Blifil has the outward appearance of virtue but is often sneaky and malicious.

Tom spends increasingly more time hunting with Squire Western, who admires his skill and courage. He becomes close to Western’s beautiful daughter, Sophia, who soon falls in love with him. Tom, thinking that his illegitimacy and lack of wealth make him an unsuitable match, is oblivious to her love for him.

Tom has meanwhile developed a relationship with Molly Seagrim, the beautiful but poor daughter of an erstwhile gamekeeper. Molly is pregnant, and Tom is certain he’s the father. He slowly realizes that Sophia is in love with him but feels obligated to marry Molly until he finds Square, his philosophy tutor, in bed with her and learns that she has yet a third lover who is the real father of the baby. Tom breaks it off with Molly but still feels unable to pursue Sophia because of his low social position.

Tom Jones Sophia Western Squire Western music StudySmarterAn engraving showing Sophia playing music for her father, Squire Western, Wikimedia Commons.

Shortly after, Allworthy gets sick. His doctors fear that his life may be in danger. As Tom, Blifil, Square, and Thwackum are gathered around the sick bed, a lawyer comes with urgent news for Allworthy. Hearing that he is on his deathbed, he delivers the letter to Blifil. The letter contains the news that Blifil’s mother has died suddenly and unexpectedly while out of town. Against all advice, Blifil insists on delivering this news to Allworthy immediately. Allworthy is upset, but his condition does not worsen.

After Allworthy begins to recover, Tom gets drunk in order to celebrate and blow off steam. In his drunken state, he gets into a fight with Blifil, storms off, finds Molly, and is about to make love to her in the forest when he is discovered by Thwackum and Blifil, who he proceeds to fistfight. Blifil, Square, and Thwackum present these actions to Allworthy as a drunken rampage in celebration of his impending death. Allworthy kicks Tom out of the house but gives him a 500-pound check, instructing him never to contact him again.

Squire Western’s sister notices that Sophia is in love, incorrectly identifying Blifil rather than Tom as her beloved. She brings this to her brother’s attention, and he is delighted by the idea that his daughter marry Blifil, combining the two largest and wealthiest estates in Somersetshire.

Books VII - XII

Tom sets off, uncertain of what to do with his life. In his despair, he fails to notice when the 500 pounds that Allworthy had given him falls from his pocket on the roadside. He eventually decides to start life over anew as a sailor and to send a letter to Sophia urging her to forget him for her own good.

Squire Western tries to set up the marriage between Blifil and Sophia as quickly as possible. Allworthy approves of the idea on the condition that Sophia and Blifil are in love. Sophia, who really loves Tom and despises Blifil, begs her father not to insist on the match. Squire Western is outraged, especially after learning that Tom is the object of her affection. Squire Western becomes more abusive and insistent on the marriage. Sophia is further upset by Tom’s letter, which she finds insulting. She decides to escape the house with the help of Honour and to go to London to find a relative, Lady Bellaston, who she knows will sympathize with her refusal to marry.

Tom joins a company of soldiers on their way to quell a rebellion. After taking a wine bottle to the head, he leaves them behind and rests. He meets Partridge, who is working as a barber, and explains how he was falsely accused of being Tom’s father. Partridge vows to assist Tom in his journey in the hopes of being forgiven by Allworthy.

While on their way to an inn at Upton, Tom rescues a woman named Mrs. Waters who is being attacked in the woods. Arriving at the inn, Tom and Mrs. Waters eat dinner together. Mrs. Waters seduces Tom, and they sleep together.

Sophia and Honour also arrive at the same inn by chance. Sophia learns that Tom is there, but that he is sleeping with Mrs. Western. Devastated, Sophia leaves an article of clothing with her name pinned on it in Tom’s room, then leaves without speaking to him. Tom finds it, curses his own stupidity, and leaves in pursuit of Sophia.

Sophia is joined on the road by her cousin, herself fleeing an unhappy marriage. They decide to go to London together. Sophia loses her purse with a 100-pound banknote inside. Jones and Partridge pursue Sophia on foot but aren’t sure if they’re headed in the right direction. They come across a beggar who tries to sell them a purse he found by the roadside. Tom examines it and discovers Sophia’s 100-pound banknote inside. Encouraged that he is on the right track, he buys it immediately.

Books XIII - XVIII

Tom and Partridge arrive in London and stay at an inn owned by Mrs. Miller, a recipient of charity from Allworthy. One day, Tom gets a mysterious invitation to a masquerade. He attends, thinking it could be from Sophia, but it is from her relative, Lady Bellaston. Lady Bellaston is attracted to Tom, and he reluctantly starts an affair with her in the hopes of finding something out about Sophia. He also receives money and fine clothes in this morally dubious exchange.

One evening, Tom is at Lady Bellaston’s house waiting for her to arrive when Sophia comes home unexpectedly early. They are both surprised and begin talking. Sophia is understandably upset with Tom, but he explains his behavior to her satisfaction. He also returns her 100-pound note. Lady Bellaston comes home and discovers them together, but she and Tom manage to hide their relationship from Sophia.

Tom Jones London Cityscape StudySmarterAfter Book XIII, all of the main characters are in London, Pixabay.

Lady Bellaston is worried that Tom has revealed their affair to Sophia. Sophia, unaware that Lady Bellaston already knows everything, is worried that she will discover who Tom is. Tom is playing an increasingly difficult game between the two of them.

While the plot so far centers around Sophia's rejection of her arranged marriage with Blifil, it also includes details of several other marriages: between Bridget and Captain Blifil, Harriet and Mr. Fitzpatrick, the Andersons, and Nancy Miller and Mr. Nightingale. Are these marriages of convenience or love? How do they work out in the end, and do you think Fielding is suggesting a pattern?

Both Lady Bellaston and Sophia’s cousin have devised plans against Sophia. Harriet, hoping to gain favor with Squire Western and his sister, has exposed Sophia’s hiding place. Lady Bellaston, jealous of Sophia’s relationship with Tom, has contrived to get her to marry a rich aristocrat named Lord Fellamar who has fallen for her. She convinces Fellamar to rape Sophia, insisting this is the only way that she would ever agree to marry him. Lady Bellaston has contrived to get Sophia and Lord Fellamar alone in the house together. Just as Lord Fellamar attacks Sophia, her father bursts in, demanding that she come with him. Sophia is relieved to be saved from Fellamar and goes with him.

Tom has meanwhile decided that he needs to break off his relationship with Lady Bellaston, who is becoming increasingly angry and possessive. He proposes marriage to her in a letter, hoping that she will reject him. She cuts him off entirely after reading the proposal.

Hearing that Sophia’s cousin may have some information about where Squire Western is keeping Sophia, Tom visits her only to be spotted by her husband, who flies into a jealous rage and attacks him. Tom stabs his assailant in self-defense. He's immediately taken to the police station. Doctors believe the wound is mortal, and Tom worries that he will be executed as a murderer.

Mrs. Waters visits Tom in prison to inform him that Mr. Fitzpatrick’s wound is not mortal. Partridge overhears her talking with Tom and recognizes her voice as belonging to Jenny Jones, who he believes is Tom’s mother. He informs Tom, who now believes he has committed incest with his mother and is horrified.

Allworthy is also in London and has begun to soften towards Tom. He is surprised one day to see his lawyer. He learns Blifil has hired him to try to prosecute Tom for murder. He also learns, by interrogating the lawyer, that his sister had confessed to being Tom’s mother before her death. Blifil had hidden this fact from him.

Allworthy now disowns Blifil, making Tom his nephew and the legitimate heir of his estate. Tom is not guilty of murder or incest and is free to pursue Sophia. Squire Western also approves of the match after learning that Tom is Allworthy’s nephew. Sophia, while reluctant at first, eventually believes that Tom has learned from the consequences of his impulsive behavior, has improved, and will be true to her. They marry and live happily on Squire Western’s estate.

Themes in Tom Jones

Tom Jones is a long, rich, complex book with a number of themes. Among these, the nature of good and evil, unexpected differences between appearance and reality, and changing perceptions of the place of love in marriage are some of the most important.

Good and Evil

Tom Jones is, above all, a novel about morality. It shows how people who act from good principles, especially those derived from religion or philosophy, often turn out to be self-serving hypocrites. Those who act from good impulses–particularly Tom, Allworthy, and Sophia–often make mistakes and take more than their share of the blame but are actually their moral betters.2

Appearance and Reality

Things are often not what they seem in Tom Jones, and characters are routinely mistaken for other people or as being from different social classes. Tom, in a double twist, appears gentlemanly throughout the novel despite being illegitimate, but then does turn out to be the legitimate heir of Allworthy. Similarly, those whose actions appear to be virtuous often turn out to be greedy, selfish, and mean, while those who appear immoral turn out to be the most virtuous.

Love and Marriage

Tom Jones was written at a time when the idea of marriage for love was just gaining popularity. Arranged marriages were still very prominent, especially in the upper classes and among successful, upwardly mobile members of the middle class. Fielding is at pains to demonstrate that marriages arranged for wealth alone never work out. He also shows the distress that young people (particularly women) go through when they are forced to marry against their will.

Tom Jones wedding rings marriage StudySmarterTom Jones advocated for marriage based on love in an era where arranged marriages were still common, Pixabay.

Tom Jones Analysis

Often hailed as one of the first great comic novels, Tom Jones makes use of humor and irony to satirize the corruption and hypocrisy of 18th-century England. The story’s omniscient narrator often makes use of sarcasm, selectively informing the reader of discrepancies between characters’ actions and motivations but hiding key details when necessary to create mystery or suspense. The result is a richly funny work of social satire that targets the pretensions of the upper and lower classes indiscriminately.

Satire is any work that points out social or political problems by mocking them. The aim of satire is ultimately to use irony and humor as a weapon to fix these problems and improve society.

The plot of the book, rich in intricacies, complex subplots, and improbable but believable coincidences, is a masterpiece of planning. Fielding manages to sustain the reader's interest while touching on an enormous variety of characters and events, all of which end up being relevant to the development of Tom and his pursuit of Sophia.3

Tom Jones - Key Takeaways

  • The author of Tom Jones is Henry Fielding (1707-1754), a prominent lawyer and successful comic playwright who turned to writing novels towards the end of his life.
  • Tom Jones has a complex plot with a large cast of characters but centers on the life of the orphaned Tom Jones, who is discovered and raised by Squire Allworthy until he is disowned, only to prove his worth and innocence and marry the woman of his dreams, Sophia Western, by the end of the novel.
  • One of the major themes of the novel is marriage, and whether young people should marry for love or follow their parents' orders and marry for money and social prestige.
  • Other important themes in the novel include the deceptive nature of appearances and the true sources of virtue or goodness.
  • Tom Jones makes heavy use of irony and humor to satirize 18th-century English society, targeting the greed, selfishness, and hypocrisy of both the aristocracy and the lower classes.

References

1. Richetti, J. (editor) The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth Century Novel. Cambridge UP, 1998.

2. Empson, W. "Tom Jones." The Kenyon Review, Vol. 20 No. 2, Spring 1958. pp. 217-249.

3. Crane, R.S. "The Plot of Tom Jones". The Journal of General Education, Vol. 4 No. 2, January 1950 pp. 112-30.

Frequently Asked Questions about Tom Jones

Tom Jones is a comedy, both in the modern sense (i.e., it is funny) and in the classical sense (the hero gets married at the end).

Tom is not a symbol in the technical sense of that word, but his honesty and good impulses make him a good representative of a virtuous (but flawed) person.

Important themes in Tom Jones include love and marriage, appearances and reality, and the nature of virtue or morality.

Tom Jones forcefully argues that marriage should be based on love and the choice of the potential husband and wife rather than money, social prestige, or a parent's arrangements. The novel was written at a time when arranged marriages were still quite common, especially among the upper classes.

The plot of Tom Jones is complex, but basically it follows the life of Tom, an orphan who grows up in a rich country estate. Tom falls in love with his neighbor, but knows that he can't marry her because of his lack of wealth and social station. His brother schemes to get him kicked out and disinherited, and Tom wanders the countryside until his adopted father, who turns out to be his uncle, discovers the plot. Tom marries his neighbor, Sophia, in a happy ending.

Final Tom Jones Quiz

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It can be inferred that the author of Tom Jones believes that

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marriage should be based on love

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Allworthy most likely interprets Tom's drinking, fighting, and philandering in book V as

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a sign that he is celebrating Allworthy's illness and possible death

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Tom Jones is regarded as one of the first great

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comic novels

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Tom writes a letter asking Sophia to forget him in Book VII because

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his lack of status and money makes him a bad match for her

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Which of the following has an effect on Tom similar to his discovery that Sophia has left an article of clothing in his room in Book X?

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Sophia's discovery of his marriage proposal to Lady Bellaston

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For which of the following reasons does Partridge decide to help Tom?

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He wants to restore his favor with Allworthy and doesn't realize that Tom has been entirely disowned.

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Which of the following best describes the way the novel is narrated?

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An omniscient narrator selectively reveals events and characters' motivations

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Which of the following is true of Allworthy's attitude towards Blifil throughout the novel?

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He believes Blifil is essentially good until his lies are uncovered at the end of the novel

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Who is Tom's mother?

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Bridget Allworthy

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What best describes the tone of the novel?

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Ironic and satirical

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Why does Lady Bellaston want Sophia to marry Lord Fellamar?

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She is jealous of Sophia and wants to punish her.

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All of the following are major themes addressed in the novel EXCEPT

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Death

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