A reader cannot but be lost in the wilderness of characters and incidents that made up the epic novel, Tom Jones of Henry Fielding universally praised to be one of the masters of novels in English literature. He has presented life in its minutest details as he has observed without any presumptions. Tom Jones is the most outstanding achievement of Fielding so far as its construction of plot is concerned. Because of his almost faultless construction, the great critic Coleridge has considered it to be one of the three most perfect plots ever planned, the other two being the Oedipus Rex and The Alchemist.
There are a lot of episodes in the novel yet they do not impair the interest of the story in any considerable way. Rather, according to many critics, the wealth of incidents contribute to the exposition of the theme and characters. Thackeray declared that there was not an incident even so trifling, but advanced the story, grew out of former incidents, and was connected with the whole.
Most of the critics do not, like Thackeray, find fault with the too many digressions and episodes of the novel because they have become the parts of an integrated whole. Fielding has offered like Bernard Shaw, an elaborate interpretation of incidents in the form of introductory chapters and personal comments. These chapters or the comments in the course of narrative itself in one sense, assist the readers to understand the problems. As for the introductory chapters, Fielding himself looked upon these ‘initial essays’ as an indispensable part of his scheme. He confesses that these introductory chapters have given him the greatest pains in composing as compared with other parts of the work. The other motive of writing these ‘essays’ is to secure him against imitation by inferior writers. Each introductory chapter is not directly connected with the main theme and often deals with a different literary subject and so each is in the nature of an essay. Perhaps Fielding was influenced by the periodical essays which were very much popular in the eighteenth century England.
For example, the opening chapter tells us about the scope of the work defining it as Human Nature seen both in the country and in the town. He compares the subject matter to a bill of fare or a feast of eatables and he says;
‘The provision then which we have here made is no other than Human Nature’.
He goes onto say that human nature is such a subject which no author can exhaust. Thereafter the author treats of his approach to prose fiction. (By doing so, he claims to be the founder of a new province of writing in which he has the legitimate right to make laws according to his pleasure. Perhaps he was aware of his deviation from his predecessors and to provide a justification he said so.) He informs us of the manner of his characterization. Upon the actual experience, he holds his characters are based. These essays in the forms of chapters show much wisdom and wit. No reader would wish them to disappear because of their moving qualities. The shorter essays are scattered throughout the narrative. These essays too are rich in ideas. (Bernard Shaw in the twentieth century has added these types of long prefatory essays to his dramas explaining his novel and principles on life. This is why a critic has remarked that Shaw was a playwright with the instincts of a novelist while Fielding was a novelist with the instincts of a novelist creating successful novels only by means of authorial intervention at each important turn of a plot.)
Another significant method of Fielding writing is his casual remark or comment on the characters, on the happenings, on human nature in general, etc. Some of these comments are very short and as such, they do not interfere with the readers enjoying the novel but those comments that acquire much space and time certainly detract the attention of the reader. In one such comment, Fielding dwells upon human curiosity. Very correctly he describes the barber’s shop as a place of gossiping and exchanging information, the women do the same thing at a Chandler’s. In one such comment, he describes true wisdom; at another, he compares good writers with ingenious travelers. (The list of such comments can be extended further but these comments are like rubies scattered here and there in the pages of the novel. Since these comments are informative, enlightening and instructive, they seldom bore the reader.)
There are many digressions in the novel, whatever the critics say, these digressions cannot be the integral parts of the main narrative. (Even they are loosely connected with the plot. One such digression is the description of the man of the Hill whom Tom met while he was on his journey to London. Scott has objected to the inclusion of this episode occupying seven chapters in the novel this is a tale within a tale.)
In spite of having these minor faults, Tom Jones remains to be a gripping narrative with all its episodes and digressions. Because it has the rapidly of movement, suspense, dramatic situations and surprised, humor and pathos- the qualities that make a novel successful and popular.