Hypocrisy in Tom Jones Essay Example

Hypocrisy in Tom Jones Essay

Hypocrisy in Tom Jones

In Tom Jones Fielding is attempting little less than a redefinition of virtue.  Tom’s moral superiority over characters such as Blifil is established in a manner which has not always satisfied all readers, for Tom is sensual and reckless, while Blifil is prudent and law-abiding.  William Cobbett, writing in 1829 in his Advice to Young Men, asked “How is it possible for young people to read such a book, and to look upon orderliness, sobriety, obedience, and frugality, as virtues?” (quoted in Sambrock, 1973, p.158).  Samuel Richardson in a letter in 1751 called the novel “a dissolute book” (quoted in Paulson & Lockwood, 1969, p. 238), and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is recorded as saying that “she was sorry [Fielding] did not himself perceive that he had made Tom Jones a scoundrel” (quoted in Paulson & Lockwood, p. 359).  Each of these critics seems to miss the point that it is the normal trappings of respectability and lawfulness that Fielding is questioning.  As Martin Price argues, “The central theme in Fielding’s work is the opposition between the flow of soul – of selfless generosity – and the structures – screens, defenses, moats of indifference – that people build round themselves” (Price, 1964, p. 287).  These defenses and screens are the forms of social order – legality, prudent self-interest, restraint – which by their very nature encourage hypocritical practices.  It is easy to appear to be acting out of calm wisdom and with a keen eye to justice, but in Fielding’s vision this is often the disguise adopted by the crafty and malicious individual.  Hypocritical behavior is often successful in the world, and it is only by adopting a more generous and in many ways less conventional moral stance that we can see through it.

Fielding is a satirist and the revelation of hypocrisy in his characters is often comic (though the underlying seriousness of his view makes the amusement “never quite that of the merely amiable comedy” (Crane, 1952, p.638)).  Bridget Allworthy, for example, conceals her own disappointment about being seen as an old maid with a hypocritical denunciation of the physical charms of a young woman, which she “very rightly conceived … to be no better than snares for herself, as well as for others” (Fielding, 1966, p. 54).  The real reason for her generosity to the foundling Tom has to be disguised hypocritically behind the “correct” abhorrence of sexual immorality.  She will attend to Tom because it is her brother’s curious wish; “For her part, she could not help thinking it was an encouragement to vice” (61), and she denounces the fictional mother as “an impudent slut, a wanton hussy, an audacious harlot, a wicked jade” (60) and so on, all in an elaborate charade to conceal the truth of her own moral lapse.  It is an example of what Price calls “the ways in which selfishness finds refuge in forms” (Price, 300); all the forms for the denunciation of sexual vice are ready at hand – the language, the attitudes, the judgments, the behavior – and it is easy for the hypocrite to borrow them.  It needs more than the perceptiveness of an Allworthy to see through them.

Allworthy’s simplicity similarly gives him no insight into Captain Blifil’s attack on the infant Jones, which Fielding tells us is motivated by jealousy.  Captain Blifil argues that the nurturing of “the fruits of sin” (89) is against scriptural direction and contrary to the preferences of law and the Church.  Again forms are adopted by the hypocrite, whose only real concern is for the exclusive welfare of his own child (meaning eventually an inheritance).  But it is his son who shows the greatest skill in manipulating society’s forms in his own interest.  While Jones as a child has been convicted of “robbing an orchard” (123), Blifil is a model of seriousness and restraint.  “He was indeed, a lad of a remarkable disposition; sober, discreet, and pious beyond his age; qualities which gained him the love of everyone who knew him” (123).  It is the last part of the sentence that is most remarkable.  The hypocrite is given a charter to thrive in the world Fielding explores.  Tom refuses to betray George the gamekeeper, and endures Thwackum’s punishment, feeling anxiety only “lest his constancy should fail him, and he should be brought to betray the gamekeeper” (126).  Blifil’s malignant hatred for Jones finds an opportunity to inform on him in the guise of moral indignation.  Blifil has abused Jones as “a beggarly bastard” (131), and Jones’s physical retaliation gives Blifil the chance to betray him.  He declares that he would never lie like Jones, announcing that “he confessed it to me, that black George the gamekeeper was there” (132).  Jones’s appeal to Allworthy not to punish George’s family “as he himself only had been guilty” (132) saves his standing with his guardian, but no one questions the actions of Blifil, so well disguised are they as moral rectitude.

Thwackum and Square in some ways hold symbolic roles.  Square is the rationalist who believes that reason is the guide to moral truth, while Thwackum is a Calvinist, who believes that men are fallen and can only be saved by grace.  Fielding is not so much at war with their principles (though he does think them absurd) as with their particular personal failings and hypocrisy.  For all their arguments about the nature of virtue “in one point only they agreed, which was, in all their discourses on morality never to mention the word goodness” (128).  Thwackum is in fact sadistic and vindictive, and Square rather spoils his moral arguments when Jones catches him in bed with Molly, and then has the shamelessness to make a moral argument to justify himself. “I am not guilty of corrupting innocence,” he says to Jones, and “Nothing is indeed unfit which is not unnatural” (218).  Jones reminds him that his view had been rather different when Jones himself was caught with Molly.  Then Square had denounced him with hypocritical vigor.  He seized the chance to blacken Jones with Allworthy, because he hates him for his refusal to respond to Square’s dictates.  He had been pleased, he tells Allworthy, to make “allowance for youth” (187) when Jones defended George, but now he realizes that “the sacrifice of truth…was in reality a prostitution of it to a depraved and debauched appetite” (187).  Both pedants curry favor with Allworthy by means of hypocrisy, and are themselves unable to see through Blifil’s dishonesty.  Blifil always showed a “profound respect” (135) for Thwackum and a “decent reverence” for his doctrine.  He shows the same enthusiasm for Square’s quite opposite beliefs.  “With one he was all religion, with the other he was all virtue.  And when both were present, he was profoundly silent, which both interpreted in his favor and in their own” (135).  They both hate Jones because he is not a hypocrite.  He shows his contempt for Square’s absurdities, and demonstrates the falsehood of Thwackum’s “rule of right” by saying that “he believed there was no rule in the world capable of making such a man as his father” (135).

Sophia too is incapable of hypocrisy.  Fielding calls her “simple”, but is eager to assure us that he does not mean foolish.  “She wanted all that useful art which females convert to so many good purposes in life” (309) – she lacks the “art” to deceive and dissemble.  The episode concerning her pet bird demonstrates particularly clearly Fielding’s thoughts about hypocrisy and the way it succeeds in the world.  Blifil lets the bird escape out of simple malice, as Jones immediately recognizes (“he cursed Blifil for a pitiful malicious rascal” (158)).  Blifil’s defense of his actions is a masterly piece of hypocritical pretence, exploiting the forms provided by the world.  He felt compassion for the bird in its captivity, “for I always though there was something very cruel in confining anything” (158).  It is “against the law of nature” and “even unchristian, for it is not doing what we would be done by”, thus serving the agendas of just about everybody present.  All this is couched in a sanctimonious language of mimed apology.  As George Sherburn says “For ingenuity and transparency this is admirable… and incidentally it is an interesting bit of satire on many a sentimental cliché of the time” (Clifford, 1959, p.263). At least Squire Western is not fooled, even if everybody else is.

It is clear that in the world Fielding presents “reputation, which is the yardstick by which society measures its citizens, may have little to do with genuine virtue; little to do with humanity, or compassion, or vitality, or simple goodness of heart” (Dyson, 1965, p.25).  Society seems incapable of reading real motives, and so the skilled deceiver will succeed if he can borrow the disguise of class and “respectability”.  The Quaker Jones advises on human feeling changes his attitude as soon as he discovers that Jones has no social standing (334).  Similarly, the doctor who treats him loses all sympathy when he is told that Jones is “an arrant scrub” (372).  The story of the Man of the Hill centers on the dishonesty of mankind and the way it has soured the Man’s whole view of life.  He comments on the absurdity of the Protestant establishment’s failure to support the Monmouth rebellion.  “A great party” had formed during Charles II’s reign to fight for the defense of Protestantism, and now the same people “fought with … zeal and affection” for his Catholic brother. (Book 8, chapter 14).  Nor can the man believe that there is still a vigorous Jacobite party seeking the restoration of the Stuarts.  (Fielding toned down these passages in later editions, concerned perhaps that they preached rebellion).  For the Man of the Hill these political hypocrisies combined with his personal disappointments have driven him into misanthropy.  There is no point in traveling to find a better world, he tells Jones, because one will only find “The same hypocrisy, the same fraud; in short, the same follies and vices dressed in different habits” (430).  Jones’s response is a noble example of Fielding’s faith in the possibilities of humanity.  He refuses to believe that all men are hopelessly corrupt because some are.  Indeed no man is totally without merit of any kind.  “In truth, none seem to have any title to assert human nature to be universally evil, but those whose own minds afford them one instance of this natural depravity” (432).

William Empson believed that “In Tom Jones [Fielding] is expressing a theory about ethics, and the ironies are made to interlock with the progress of the demonstration” (Rawson, 1973, p. 502).  This might make the novel seem too schematic, but it is certainly true that Fielding is aware that his account of human virtue is challenging, and needs thorough arguing.  Jones’s morality centers on the satisfaction that derives from “a good mind… in the contemplation of a generous, virtuous, noble, benevolent action” (586), compared with which all the material glamour of the world is insignificant.  He wants no power over others, seeks nobody’s money, and delights in doing right.  It is he, not Allworthy, who shows Nightingale what, in all natural decency, he must do.  “And do not the warm, rapturous sensations, which we feel from the consciousness of an honest, noble generous benevolent action, convey more delight to the mind than the undeserved praise of millions?” (680). While he is convinced that hypocrisy is all too prevalent in the world, Fielding has a notion of how it can be combated, or at least lived with.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Crane, R.S.  Critics and Criticism. Ancient and Modern.  Chicago; Chicago U.P.,1952.

Dyson, A.E.  The Crazy Fabric.  London: Macmillan, 1965.

Empson, W.  ‘Tom Jones’, in Rawson, C. Henry Fielding. A Critical Anthology.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Fielding, H. Tom Jones. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Paulson, R.& Lockwood, T.  Henry Fielding. The Critical Heritage.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969.

Price, M.  To the Palace of Wisdom.  New York: Doubleday, 1965.

Sambrock, J.  William Cobbett.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.

Sherburn, G.  ‘Fielding’s Social Outlook’, in Clifford, J.L. (ed.). Eighteenth-Century English Literature. Modern Essays in Criticism.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1959.

 

 

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