In Tom Jones, Fielding explores a myriad of characters and situations through the eyes of the main character. These situations expose Fieldings own views on human nature and how it affected society in the eighteenth century. Fielding uses the many characters and their relationships to one another to relate differing qualities of human nature, and I will explore those opinions in this paper. Fielding's main exploration of human nature is regarding morality in the eighteenth century and how it shaped society.
At first sight, readers of Tom Jones may think the characters in the novel to be superficial and shallow; however, we must consider the historical background of the time in which the novel was written. As a novelist in the eighteenth century, an age when society required all novels to be morally written, Fielding had to combat the expectations of his time since many of the novel's characters seem to be too good to be true. The restrictive culture of Eighteenth Century England required novels to be written with these moral tones, and so Fielding had to include these values in order to be able to be published.
In The History of Tom Jones, Fielding's sense of morality is evident. The hero Fielding creates is not a man without flaws, but a man who does make occasional mistakes. Fielding clearly views human nature as a combination of good and evil; Tom Jones is a fundamentally good person- he is lusty, but also incredible honest. Though Jones is plagued with sexual indulgences, his primary weakness, he makes amends throughout the novel with honesty, goodwill, and and honor- showing, ultimately, the goodness of human nature.
Another moral aspect that Fielding explores in Jones' character is the belief that the nobility of the heart matters more than the nobility of birth or rank in society. He demonstrates through characters in the novel that nobility of birth does not always equal nobility of the heart. In the novel many characters of noble birth prove, by the novel's end, to be dishonest, selfish, and evil. Obviously, nobility of heart is not associated with class. Fielding basically believes that he who has nobility of heart has moral superiority. To this point Tom Jones offers an ostensible example.
Before his true birth is revealed, he is a foundling, a bastard, a status of the most ignoble birth. However, he is a true gentleman because even though he did not always act properly, he acted correctly in more instances than the latter. He may err, but his good conscience and his kind heartedness are present; he may sleep with women, but to seduce a young woman, however low her condition is, appears to him a very hideous crime. Because he acts with nobility of heart--generosity, sincerity, compassion, and selflessness, which are the prime merits in human beings—he finds happiness in the end.
Fielding uses the narrator to guide us through the ale of morality in Tom Jones. By using words like “I” and “my reader” in his narration, he pulls the reader out of story momentarily to allow them the opportunity to make moral judgments regarding the events happening at the time. An example of this method can be seen in Book XVI, Chapter VIII, when Fielding says “But perhaps the reader may wonder why Lady Bellaston, who in her heart hated Sophia, should be so desirous of prompting a match which was of so much to the interest of the young woman. Now, I would desire such readers to look carefully into human nature” (563).
Indeed, these authorial explanations make it unlikely for the reader to miss many of Fielding’s moral lessons in the novel. As Martin Stephen points out, authorial intrusion “allows Fielding to point the reader gently in the direction in which he wants him or her to go” (192). Besides the moral lecturing, his authorial intrusion serves another function as well, which is to remind the reader of the previous plots, so that the reader will find it less taxing to follow the complicated fictional development of Tom Jones. Not unlike any of us, Tom Jones, the protagonist, is rather human.
He sometimes errs, but is essentially good. By the age of fourteen, he had been convicted of robbing an orchard, stealing a duck, and pick pocketing Master Blifil. Undeniably, his impulsive and affectionate nature gets him involved in many problems. But, at the same time, his actions are basically governed by benevolence and generosity. He robbed the orchard and stole the duck to help the impoverished gamekeeper, Black George. And the “highwayman” aroused kindness from Tom; instead of resorting to justice, he even gave him all his money when he found that the robber had a starving wife and children at home.
As a mirror of life, Fielding’s Tom Jones is written to tell the truth about the hero, as revealed by the author in Book III, Chapter II, when he says that “As we determined when we first sat down to write this History, to flatter no Man, but to guide our Pen throughout by the Directions of Truth, we are obliged to bring our Heroe on the Stage in much more disadventageous Manner than we could wish... ” (78). The little incident about Sophia’s pet bird, which occurred when Tom was fifteen years old and Sophia was thirteen, clearly reveals the characteristics of all the main characters.
Tom had given the little bird to Sophia, who loved it, nursed it, taught it to sing, and kept a small string about its leg to prevent it from flying away. Bliful, having hypocritically persuaded Sophia to trust it to him, suddenly slipped the string and tossed the bird into the air. Tom, seeing this, bravely climbed into a tree to try to retrieve the bird. The branch broke and Tom fell into a canal below, while the bird flew off and was caught by a hawk. Bliful hypocritically again made up an excuse that it was cruel in confining anything.
This passage, again, shows the good mature of Tom Jones and demonstrates his development into a kind hearted adult. In conclusion, I find that it is relatively simple to see how Fielding explores human nature and its importance to eighteenth century England in the development of characters in Tom Jones. Fielding proves, through Tom, that human nature does not have to be connected to birth or to social rank, and that any man can bring himself to goodness through trial and error, as long as his heart is virtuous.
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. ed. Sheridan Baker. New York; WW Norton, 1995.