Main lines of criticism of Fielding's Tom Jones, 1900-1978

Author/Creator ORCID




Towson University. Department of English


Citation of Original Publication

Hahn, George. "Main lines of criticism of Fielding's Tom Jones, 1900-1978." The British Studies Monitor, vol. 10, no. 1/2, 1980, pp. 8-35.



Except when questions of its morality got in the way of dispassionate criticism, as they did for Richardson, Johnson, and Hawkins, Tom Jones has continually been recognized as a masterpiece of design. As early as 1834 such an acute critic as Coleridge praised the novel, grouping it with the Oedipus Tyrannus and the Alchemist as “the three most perfect plots ever planned.” Basing his remarks on the book’s construction and characterization, Byron termed Fielding “the prose Homer of Human Nature.” Scott envied Fielding the book’s meticulous construction, and Thackeray and the Victorians, though protesting its morality, deemed it a masterpiece of fiction. The great superlative of the twentieth century was written by Wilbur Cross, who called Tom Jones “The Hamlet of English fiction.” Thus the novel moved into this century largely free of the problems attached to Fielding’s other works. Unlike the plays, it was regarded as “serious literature.’’ Unlike Shamela, there were no problems of authorship or protests against overt vulgarity. Unlike Joseph Andrews, its design and morality did not have to be established. And unlike Amelia, it was not victimized by a debate still unsettled, on Fielding’s intentions, philosophy, and merit as a narrator. Consequently, the dominant business of recent criticism of Tom Jones has been formalistic, the observation of refinements and their integration in a novel considered virtually flawless. There are dissents, but for the most part, they are not based on critical grounds, for the demurrers center on a preference for the Richardsonian over the Fieldingesque novel, a preference exhibited most prominently by F. R. Leavis, Frank Kermode, and Ian Watt.