Tom Jones: An Epic Comedy?

in Ensayos

  Henry Fielding tells us the story of Tom Jones, a foundling or orphan born in eighteenth century England. This work has been seen as a humorous novel, a satire of eighteenth century life, a comedy. However, is it so far-fetched to think of it as an epic work? And, if it does enter into this classification, can it not then be construed as a variation of epic based on its humorous nature? If works such as: The Rape of the Lock can be considered under the category of “mock epic”, then will this variation then not get the new name of “epic comedy”? Henry Fielding’s preface to Joseph Andrews, titled The Comic Epic in Prose, describes this, a novel previous to Tom Jones, as the first representation of this category.

 Fielding gives us a clear definition of this new term he chooses to call his novel Joseph Andrews (comic epic in prose):  “Now, a comic romance is a comic epic-poem in prose; differing from comedy, as the serious epic from tragedy: its action being more extended and comprehensive; containing a much larger circle of incidents, and introducing a greater variety of characters. It differs from the serious romance in its fable and action, in this: that as in the one these are grave and solemn, so in the other they are light and ridiculous; it differs in its characters, by introducing persons of inferiour rank, and consequently of inferiour manners, whereas the grave romance sets the highest before us; lastly in its sentiments and diction; by preserving the ludicrous instead of the sublime.”  I will hereby illustrate the elements that this later novel of Fielding, Tom Jones, bears in common with epic writing, and show what aspects of comedy it possesses. I will also try to prove the belonging of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling into this new category of literature.

 According to Penguin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory: “An epic is a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes. It is a polygonal, ‘heroic’ story incorporating myth, legend, folk tale and history. Epics are often of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty or grandiose manner.”

    Just by reading the definition of the term we are presented with the first problem to the hypothesis: Tom Jones is not a poem. However, if we go a little farther in our search of the term “epic”, we find that Webster’s Third New International Dictionary gives us many definitions, one of them being: “a prose narrative (as a novel), play or motion picture, esp: one embodying a nation’s ideals or achievements of a single person or character.” This definition fits better with the work at hand, Fielding’s novel is written in prose.

   Now that we have cleared up the issue of the form in which the work is written, we will proceed to the elements it bears in common with “epic”. First of all: the hero. It is a basic component of every epic, and in Tom Jones, this honored character just happens to be right in the title. Again I refer to Penguin’s dictionary for the definition of the term: “Hero and heroine: The principal male and female characters in a work of literature. In criticism the terms carry no connotation of virtuousness or honor.”

   This definition seems completely appropriate for the character of Tom Jones. He is the male lead in the novel, though his honorability seems to always be in question. He is definitely not the moral compass that epic heroes, such as Odysseus, are always portrayed to be. Tom’s character is more ambiguous, he is filled with moral faults. “Tom Jones was universally disliked; and many expressed their wonder that Mr. Allworthy would suffer such a lad to be educated with his nephew, lest the morals of the latter should be corrupted by his example.” (p. 103, Fielding) However, all these weaknesses are rationalized by the author, making the reader empathize with the character.

   The narrator provides us, in the beginning of book XV, with a great view of Fielding’s opinion on morality versus vice: “There are a set of religious, or rather moral writers, who teach that virtue is the certain road to happiness, and vice to misery, in this world. A very wholesome and comfortable doctrine, and to which we have but one objection, namely, that it is not true.” (p.687, Fielding) This fragment from Tom Jones seems to be an insight into Fielding’s thought process in using a figure such as Tom as the main character of the novel. Our hero isn’t completely virtuous, but he isn’t completely vicious either. He seems to fall into a more “gray” category. Tom is not blessed with gifts from a higher being, as epic heroes usually are, he is not a demigod. He is an “average” man with all the limitations that that entails.

   Fielding tells the reader of the novel:  “I am, in reality, the founder of a new province of writing, so I am at liberty to make what laws I please therein.” (p. 68, Fielding) This assertion can be meant in many different ways, it could be meant for the manner in which the work is written, as well as for any doubts or concerns with the contents of the novel.  Since Tom Jones was one of the first works in prose to be given the term “novel”, the author could certainly take liberties with his writing as he was a pioneer in Literature. It is to these liberties that the work’s appearance of an epic novel can be attributed to.

   Another representative element of an epic is the invocation of the muses, meaning “an appeal or request for help addressed to a muse or deity. In epic, it is a literary convention.” (Penguin) Fielding uses this literary device during the tale of the attack on Molly Seagrim in Chapter VIII, Book IV. “Ye Muses, then, whoever ye are, who love to sing battles, and principally thou who whilom didst recount the slaughter in those fields where Hudibras and Trulla fought, if thou wert not starved with thy friend Butler, assist me on this great occasion.” (p. 154, Fielding) Here, the narrator implores the muses for their assistance in the recounting of this battle fought, on one side only by Molly, and on the other by an entire congregation, caused by the jealousy of the women from the parish after seeing Molly in a dress that Sophia gave her.

   In this last quote we can also see an example of the comedy so representative of the novel, as the narrator calls: not to the muses that assisted Homer in the divulging of The Iliad or The Odyssey, but to those that assisted Samuel Butler in the telling of his mock heroic poem Hubridas. Going back to Penguin’s definition of an epic, we can take another aspect off the list. By the invocation of the muses, the writer is “incorporating myth” into the novel since muses come from Greek mythology.

   Now that I have talked about this section of the definition, let’s see if the work “incorporates” the other three aspects: “legend, folk tale and history”. We know that Tom Jones is a work of fiction; however, it does include traits of English history. Throughout the novel we are presented with hints of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. “The sergeant had informed Mr. Jones that they were marching against the rebels, and expected to be commanded by the glorious Duke of Cumberland. By which the reader may perceive (a circumstance which we have not thought necessary to communicate before) that this was the very time when the late rebellion was at the highest; and indeed the banditti were now marched into England, intending, as it was thought, to fight the king’s forces, and to attempt pushing forward to the metropolis.” (p.321, Fielding)

    This historical rising was led by Charles Edward Stuart, known as “the Young Pretender”, who went to Scotland to recruit supporters in order to regain the British throne for the exiled House of Stuart. His aim was to recreate an absolute monarchy in the Kingdom of Great Britain. During the Rebellion of 45 the troupes marched south but didn’t get all the way to London when the British army made them retreat. The Jacobites were supporters of the Roman Catholic Church, as was “the Young Pretender”. On the other hand: the ruler of England at the time, King George II from the House of Hanover, was a Lutheran. Lutheranism is a a type of Protestantism based on the theology of Martin Luther.

  With these historical aspects of the novel, we can cross off two of the three items left: history and legend. The first is obvious why we have crossed it off since the Jacobite rebellion is part of English History, as for the second one, I will explain further. According to Penguin’s dictionary, a legend is “a story or narrative which lies somewhere between myth and historical fact and which, as a rule, is about a particular figure or person”.

   By the previous definition, the story of Tom Jones would certainly constitute as a legend. Fielding’s story takes the historical fact of the Jacobite rebellion as a background for the story of Tom Jones’s life. As for the last item on our check list, Fielding’s work has all the characteristics of a folk tale, except for one. I will not get further into this term since it is imparted the same meaning as a legend, the only difference being that a folk tale is usually oral, the one characteristic that Tom Jones does not possess.

  Now, for the last part of Penguin’s definition: “Epics are often of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty or grandiose manner.”  For this final section we can take again the above-mentioned aspect of the novel: the Jacobite Rebellion. As in any war, there are two sides, and there are people rooting for both of them. In Fielding’s work we are told that: “Jones had some heroic ingredients in his composition, and was a hearty well-wisher to the glorious cause of liberty, and of the Protestant religion.” (p.321, Fielding) If we consider that the Protestants were the majority in England at that time, we can easily conclude that most people would have rooted for that side to win the war.

   With this conclusion we can take Tom’s decision to volunteer for the expedition of soldiers as an embodiment of the “aspirations of a nation”. Now, is it in a “lofty or grandiose manner”? I think so. It isn’t just any character of the novel that is doing this actions, it is the hero of the story, giving them a very special significance. Also, if you consider what he is giving up: the search of Sophia, his one and only love, it is very much a grand sacrifice he is making.

   Since I have finished the search of “epic” characteristics in the novel, I will now proceed to see if it does in fact enter into the category of “comedy”. “The term comedy is still usually applied to drama; occasionally, though, a novel may be described as a comedy… The comic novel has become a well-established form from Fielding onwards…” (Penguin) From this definition we could just say that it is referring to the author in question and leave our analysis there.

   There are many definitions of the term, yet the most appropriate for the purpose of this essay seems to be the following: “the genre of dramatic literature that deals with the light or the amusing or with the serious and profound in a light, familiar or satirical manner.” (Webster) Though this work may not be dramatic literature, the rest of the definition is very befitting to Fielding’s novel. There is, however as we have seen in Penguin’s definition, there is a type of novel called “comic novel”, being part of comedy we can take Fielding’s work to be in it too.

   One of the main points that make Fielding’s work so comedic is the character of Partridge. This man is first introduced to us as a teacher, who is suspected of being the father of Tom Jones because of his relationship with Jenny Jones. Jenny worked for the Partridges and, as she was a very intelligent girl, Mr. Partridge gave her some classes. They never really had a personal relationship, but it is as a result of Mrs. Partridge’s jealousy that her husband is in the end convicted of the crime and exiled. In this first appearance of Partridge he is comic due to the abuses he suffers by the hands of his wife.

   We are shown a glimpse of this woman’s fury unleashed when she finds out that Jenny had a child, and immediately suspects her husband. “Not with less fury did Mrs. Partridge fly on the poor pedagogue. Her tongue, teeth, and hands, fell all upon him at once. His wig was in an instant torn from his head, his shirt from his back, and from his face descended five streams of blood, denoting the number of claws with which nature had unhappily armed the enemy.” (p. 77, Fielding) This abuse and unfounded jealousy on the part of Mrs. Partridge provides a cause of laughter for the reader, mainly because of the way the author describes it, as her innocent and unsuspecting husband is unable to defend himself.

   The second time Partridge is present in the novel; he is introduced to Tom Jones as Little Benjamin, a barber. We soon find that this is the same man involved in the scandal of Tom’s birth. As we get to know the character of Partridge he becomes a source for hilarity due to his tiresome custom of using expressions in Latin, not always correctly. He presents a new comic aspect when the reader finds out that his intention is to get Tom to go back to Mr. Allworthy, who he believes to be the boy’s real father. This is clearly pointless to the reader that has been following the story, making Partridge’s attempts a source of laughter for the reader.

    Another important contribution to the comic aspect of the novel is Fielding’s use of irony and hypocrisy in the characters within the work. A good example of this is the reaction of Mr. Allworthy’s sister to the death of Captain Blifil, her husband. We are told, in detail, of her increased dislike towards him. This dislike eventually grew to a hatred that, being perceived by her husband, made him hate her in return.

   It is because of this hatred, which we know Mrs. Blifil had towards her husband, that her reaction to his death is so hypocritical and comic. She became terribly ill when she found out her husband was deceased.  “At length the decent time for sickness and immoderate grief being expired, the doctors were discharged, and the lady began to see company; being altered only from what she was before, by that colour of sadness in which she had dressed her person and countenance.” (p. 99, Fielding)


   The longest, and most important, example of hypocrisy in the novel is that of young Mr. Blifil. He seems to have inherited his parents’ readiness to show this “virtue” every chance he gets. From the moment of their childhood, Blifil and Tom were raised together. The first always bore a secret hatred for the latter, which he masterfully hid from the word. At one point of their lives, the two boys had a confrontation which left Blifil with a bloody nose.

   The dispute began when Blifil called Tom a “beggarly bastard”, which, when being interrogated about the fight, he denied. The narrator tells us that “It is indeed possible that this circumstance might have escaped his memory; for, in his reply, he positively insisted, that he had made use of no such appellation; adding, ‘Heaven forbid such naughty words should ever come out of his mouth!’ ” (p. 112, Fielding) This instance of hypocrisy on Blifil’s part is even more humorous by the narrator’s assurance that it might have not been an actual act of hypocrisy, but a faulty memory in Blifil’s part.

    There are many more aspects of the novel that add to its comic effect, however to talk about them all would require an entirely new essay. These two being the ones I consider to be the most influential, I will leave it at that. Now that we are done with the epic elements as well as the comedic elements, can it be safe to say that I have proofed The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling to fit into the proposed category of “epic comedy”?

   Let’s round up what I have demonstrated in this work: the novel in question is not written in prose as an epic should commonly be, but it is not an absolute necessity according to Webster’s dictionary. The work is centered in the life of a hero, though it may not be a virtuous one, again it is not an absolute necessity. Fielding incorporates myth into the novel by the narrator’s invocation of the muses. It includes an instance of England’s history into the plot, and qualifies as a legend by the definition I have presented. It can also be thought of as a folk tale, except for the fact that it is not oral but written down. Finally, the novel incorporates the desires of the people of England, at the time, into the plot. With all of these points, we can conclude that the novel does qualify to be seen as an epic work.

  Now, for the “comic” part of the new proposed category. This work is not dramatic literature, however there is an existing term called “comic novel” which enters in the category of comedy. We have seen, from the examples of comedy in the text that I have given, that the novel deals with serious matters (such as a death or spousal abuse) in a “light, familiar or satirical manner”.

    From all that I have summed-up in the last two paragraphs from the essay, I can conclude that The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling is indeed possessed of the necessary qualification to be considered as a work from this new proposed category of literature: “epic comedy”.



-       - Fielding, Henry, Tom Jones (Oxford University Press, 2008)

-       - Cuddon, J. A., Literary Terms and Literary Theory (Penguin Books, 1999)

-       - Merriam-Webster, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary Unabridged and Seven Language Dictionary (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1986)

   - Prefaces and Prologues. Vol. XXXIX. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001.