Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 14. The morality and the realism of the book: the author’s openness of soul

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

II. Fielding and Smollett

§ 14. The morality and the realism of the book: the author’s openness of soul

The question of the “morality” of Tom Jones is so closely bound up with the realism which is another of its main characteristics, that it is almost impossible to treat them apart. In Jonathan Wild, Fielding had a double object—to carry on his lifelong war against humbug, and to show how poorly vice rewarded its votaries. Both these aims underlie Tom Jones; but both are subdued to a wider aim—to show life as it is. “The provision which we have here made is Human Nature.” The implication is that, if we can see the whole of human nature, we shall find that some of it is, in itself, ugly, and some, in itself, beautiful. That which is ugly makes people unhappy; that which is beautiful. That which is ugly makes people unhappy; that which is beautiful makes them happy. Fielding was content to leave to Richardson the conventions of society, of “good form,” as it is called—the code of Sir Charles Grandison. Its place is taken in Tom Jones, if at all, by that “prudence” which Allworthy preached to Jones, and which is no more than the moderation that keeps a man out of reach of what is ugly in human nature, and of those who practise it. The gist of the book’s moral purpose is to show human nature, ugly and beautiful alike, raised to a high power of activity, so that the contrast between what is itself beautiful and what is itself ugly shall be clearly perceived. Incidentally, meanness, cruelty, hypocrisy, lasciviousness will be found to bring unhappiness in their train; but it is a worse punishment to be a Blifil than to suffer as Blifil ultimately suffered.

Since no man can see life whole, the question of the moral value of Tom Jones—which has been considered a great moral work and a great immoral work—resolves itself into the question of how much of human life Fielding could see. To much of it he was blind. He could have understood a saint as little as he could have understood an anarchist. The finer shades—such as were clear to Richardson—were lost to him. Of love as a spiritual passion, he shows himself almost entirely ignorant. He was wholly in sympathy with the average morality of his time; and he takes, quite comfortably, what would nowadays be considered a low view of human nature. He had never known a perfect character; therefore, he will not put one in his book; and even Allworthy, who stands nearest to his ideal of a good man, comes out, against Fielding’s intention no doubt, a little cold and stiff. But, of human nature that was not perfect, not exalted by any intellectual or moral or religious passion, he knew more than any writer, except, possibly, Shakespeare. In Tom Jones,

  • We shall represent human nature at first to the keen appetite of our reader, in that more plain and simple manner in which it is found in the country, and shall hereafter hash and ragoo it with all the high French and Italian seasoning of affectation and vice which courts and cities afford.
  • True to his promise, he shows us the whole of life as he saw it, in its extremes of poverty and luxury—from Molly Seagrim to Lady Bellaston; its extremes of folly and wisdom—from Partridge to Allworthy; its extremes of meanness and generosity— from Blifil to Tom Jones. And every character in the book has been thought out, not merely adumbrated. Fielding had used to the full his opportunities of exercising his enormous interest in men and women; his experience had brought him into contact with nearly all kinds in nearly all circumstances; and the distinguishing feature of Tom Jones is the solidity of thought and judgment with which the numberless types included in it have been built together into a coherent whole.

    The question then arises: what use did the author of Tom Jones make of his knowledge? Reference has been made to his realism; and, if by a realist is meant an artist conscientiously determined to express life exactly as he sees it, then Fielding was one. But, if a realist is one to whom all the facts of life and character, all aims and emotions are of equal value, Fielding cannot be called by that name. He is without the golden dream of what life should be which shines through the work of nearly every other great artist; but, in the place of that dream, his passionate sympathy with certain human qualities supplies so much of direct moral as may be found in his book, and, through it as a medium, he sees which of these qualities are ugly, and which of them beautiful. Chastity, to him, is not a thing of much account; but, in considering the much-discussed licence of Tom Jones, it must be remembered, first, that, in the episode of Nightingale, a line is shown over which even Tom will not step; next, that all Tom’s lapses—even the affair, painful as it is to modern feeling, of Lady Bellaston—leave unimpaired the brightness of his prominent quality; and, last, that, in Fielding’s eyes, those very lapses were caused by the untrained excess of that very quality—his generous openness of soul. If you have that quality, in Fielding’s opinion, you cannot go very far wrong; if you are mean, envious, cruel, you can never go right. There is a strong spice of fatalism in the doctrine, if pressed home—a reliance on instinct which the villains have as much right to plead in excuse as have the generous-minded. But a candid, steady view of so much of life as we can take in shows generosity to be beautiful and meanness to be ugly. Tom Jones is no hero; Fielding was concerned to draw, not heroes, which, to him, were impossible abstractions or inventions, but men as he knew them. Finally, a word should be added on Fielding’s utter absence of pretence. His own sturdy wisdom (often, to us of later times, commonplace) is always at hand—and not only in those introductory chapters to each book which tell us, in his manliest, most humorous, prose, what he is thinking and what he is trying to do. In every incident throughout the crowded story, and in every character throughout the wonderful array of personages high and low, the force of his own knowledge and conviction may be felt.