"I am not what I was" : social insecurity in Tom Jones
Weeks, Edna Kay
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Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, perhaps the most widely familiar picture that the twenty-first century has of eighteenth-century England, takes its readers through all levels of society as Tom travels from great country estates to the Gatehouse Prison in London. Fielding himself, thanks to his birth, his family, and the whims of fortune, was at home with the titled, the gentry, actors, hack writers, political infighters, and imprisoned debtors. Throughout Fielding’s panoramic novel, what seems to be of overriding importance to the characters and action of the novel is social position: why people are in particular stations; how they maintain, improve, or slip from those positions; and how social position determines who they are and what happens to them. What comes across most clearly in Tom Jones is Fielding’s conflicted attitudes toward the turmoil of mid-eighteenth- century England as social rank based on status and birth gave way to social class based on wealth and occupation. Fielding sympathetically portrays the suffering of the poor but fears the lawless and frightening strength of the masses. He admires those who earn status through education and hard work and yet refuses to accept the mere accumulation of wealth as worthy of admiration or social reward. He abhors the ruling orders’ abdication of duty as the upper sort withdraw from conversation with society or spend themselves chasing money, pleasure, and interest, yet he values his own gentle birth and the access it gives him to the society and the power that are the right of those born to privilege. To fill the void he sees at the top of England’s social order, Fielding creates Tom, whose precarious and indeterminate social position combined with his gentle birth allows him to earn his position in the upper orders. Fielding leaves us with the knowledge, however, that one’s social position is always precarious on some level and that status is a slippery and shifting thing. It is only as a novelist, only in fiction, that Fielding can put England’s social order to rights.