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Reacting against the sentimentality and moralism of the earliest English novels, Henry Fielding chose to create a work whose main character contains all the complexities of a real human being: the foundling Tom Jones. Tom has been raised by the Squire Allworthy to love virtue, and he truly wants to do good. But Tom’s inability to control his temper and his hearty appetite for food, drink, and the opposite sex get him kicked out of Allworthy’s estate – and separated from his one real love, Sophia Western. So he begins a journey from the English countryside to the teeming city of London. Along the way he meets a parade of colorful characters, enjoys a series of bawdy, comic adventures, eventually discovers his true parentage, triumphs over the villainous Blifil, and rejoins the beautiful Sophia.
Soon after its 1749 publication, Tom Jones was condemned for being “lewd,” and even blamed for several earthquakes. But what really riled its critics was its supremely funny satirical attack on eighteenth-century British society and its follies and hypocrisies – which, of course, are very much like our own.
Ross Hamilton is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Barnard College, where he specializes in eighteenth-century and romantic literature. His book, The Shock of Experience: A Literary History of Accident, is forthcoming.