Fielding’s Education of Readers in “Tom Jones,” Part Two

Claiming Narrative Authority

The historian (to use Fielding’s terminology) immediately begins his quest to build mutuality between the reader and himself in the first introductory chapter to Book I. He asserts that an author should consider himself as “one who keeps a public ordinary” (Fielding 29). He extends this metaphor by claiming he will borrow from the public ordinary his habit of posting a ‘bill of fare’ in order to prevent “giving offense to their customers” (Fielding 30). The narrator will provide the reader not only with a “general bill of fare to [his] whole entertainment” but will also provide “particular bills to every course which is to be served up” in the narrative.

The narrative style being described here is one in which the historian is servile to the reader. While this induces one to look benevolently on the historian, the feeling does not last for long. Maurice Johnson states:

Although the preface to a novel may itself be feigning, it is usually intended to let the author speak for himself, preparatory to his conducting his reader out of the ‘real’ world into the feigned world of his fiction. (Johnson 83)

One must conclude that the historian is ‘feigning’ in his characterization of himself as a keeper of a public ordinary, after being confronted with the introduction to Book II. Now the previous social scale is reversed: the historian is “the founder of a new province of writing” in which he can “make what laws [he] please[s] therein” (Fielding 68). We, the former patrons of the public ordinary, are now his “subjects” and are “bound to believe in [his laws] and to obey” (Fielding 68). But if we “readily and cheerfully comply,” the historian assures us he will have only our best interests at heart (Fielding 69).

John Richetti claims that this narrative authority “is supported, like the Hanoverian monarchy, by the narrative equivalent of the distribution of favours or patronage in return for the recognition of a sovereignty” (Richetti 189). If we acknowledge the complete authority of the historian, we will be rewarded with what means the historian can give us: Words. He will use his skill to surprise and delight us, perhaps shock and trick us. He will sprinkle his narrative with “sundry similes, descriptions, and other kind of poetical embellishments” (Fielding 131). He will:

draw upon an associated theory of ‘genres’ for established tones appropriate to various moods and modes: poetic elevation (pastoral and epic), moral elevation (sermon and essay), the ironic and satiric (various forms of satire)…he [will] parody or burlesque regnant genres or the styles of earlier literary works. (Miller 268)

These ‘rewards’ are exhibited in the sublime description of Sophia, the “domestic government” which is ran “contrary to the rules of Aristotle” (Fielding 71), the anecdote of King Pyrrhus (Fielding 132), the invocations to the historian’s muse Mnesis, the “whimsical adventure” of Squire Western (Fielding 734), Molly’s epic battle in the graveyard, the historian’s ‘slightly altered’ quotations, all the twists and turns of the plot, the mistaken identities, and extraordinary coincidences, just to name a few. While Fielding refers to these “embellishments” as being mere “ornamental parts of [his] work,” he includes them to “refresh the mind” whenever boredom and/or sleep may overtake the reader (Fielding 131).

Eric Rothstein describes Fielding (the narrator) as “a man always in control, bound only by voluntary constraints, needing the approval of no one” (Rothstein 100). I agree that the narrator is completely in control of his narrative, and that he is not bound by any constraints than those he puts on himself, but I cannot see how Rothstein can assert that Fielding needs the approval of no one. If this were true, why would he carry on so many conversations with his readers? Fielding is, of course, very skillfully using his rhetoric to manipulate his readers, but he is attempting to persuade us to agree with him, not dictating to us what we must think and believe. In that sense, he does need to gain the approval of his readers.

After claiming his authority as a historian, the narrator expands on his style of writing by illustrating the reasons for his prefatory chapters. Asserting that these essays are “essentially necessary to [his] kind of writing” (Fielding 181), the narrator cites “contrast, which runs through all the works of the creation” as being the principal function of his prefatory chapters (Fielding 183). Fielding uses the terms the ‘serious and the comic’ to show the difference between his prefaces and the narrative proper (Fielding 183). But as his prefaces are not always serious, a different terminology would be more applicable.

Thomas Lockwood applies the terms, ‘matter and reflection’ to the prefaces and narrative. He distinguishes the matter of a chapter as having “a definite psychological value” (Lockwood 227). The reflection is, of course, the narrator’s comments on the matter. So matter and reflection work together to point us in the direction the narrator wants us to take. Another set of terms that has been discoursed over is ‘position and perspective’.

In his article, James Vopat asserts that the “function of art is to define position and perspective, to provide the means of limiting nature so that it is meaningful” (Vopat 146). As a result, life “becomes more meaningful because it is manageable” (Vopat 146). This quality of “limiting nature” so as to make life more “manageable” can be discerned in the character of Tom Jones. Throughout the majority of the novel, Tom conducts himself through natural instinct. He is possessed of “wantonness,” “wildness,” and “want of caution” (Fielding 122). Tom’s wildness is contrasted by Sophia, who is “perfectly well-bred” (Fielding 136). Taking Sophia as a model, Tom learns to ‘limit’ his animal spirits, and so attains control over his life. Sophia and Tom illustrate Fielding’s “belief in the existence of Order in the great frame of the universe, and in the necessity for Order in the private soul” (Battestin 290). In like manner, Fielding presents us with many other contrasts to subtly manipulate us into embracing his view of proper conduct.


Battestin, Martin C. “Tom Jones: The Argument of Design.” The Augustan Milieu. Eds. Henry Knight Miller, Eric Rothstein, and G.S. Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. 289-319.

Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Johnson, Maurice. Fielding’s Art of Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961

Lockwood, Thomas. “Matter and Reflection in Tom Jones.” ELH 45.2 (1978): 226-35.

Miller, Henry Knight. “The Voices of Henry Fielding: Style in Tom Jones.” Eds. Henry Knight Miller, Eric Rothstein, and G.S. Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. 262-288.

Richetti, John. “The Old Order and the New Novel of the Mid-Eighteenth Century: Narrative Authority in Fielding and Smollett.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 2.3 (1990): 183-96.

Rothstein, Eric. “Virtues of Authority in Tom Jones.” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 28.2 (1987): 99-126.

Vopat, James B. “Narrative Technique in Tom Jones: The Balance of Art and Nature.” Journal of Narrative Technique 4 (1974): 144-54.

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