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The South Central Modern Language Association

Incest and Morality in "Tom Jones" Author(s): Michael L. Hall Source: The South Central Bulletin, Vol. 41, No. 4, Studies by Members of the SCMLA (Winter, 1981), pp. 101-104 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press on behalf of The South Central Modern Language Association Stable URL: Accessed: 16/11/2009 12:41 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord,why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. (p. 308) Lewis outlines in Experiment in Criticism his definition of myth. He portrays its effect on his own life in Surprised by Joy. He imaginatively evokes it in the Chronicles of Narnia, the space trilogy, and Till We Have Faces. The reader may, as Peter Kreeft notes, see Till WeHave Faces as the portrayal of the struggle in Lewis' own life: Though we must avoid what Lewis calls "the personal heresy" (reading the writing through the writer rather than vice-versa), we may note an obvious resemblance to Lewis' own rationalism-romanticism dilemma, his preference for the romantic and catalytic resolution through a higher revelation.3 More relevant to the purposes here, however, Lewis has portrayed through Orual the nature of true myth, a nature that is traditionally Christian in every respect. Romantic and Platonic, the myth is apprehended through a combination of faith and reason, with the former being far the more important of the two. Moorman sums it up well when he says: Man, if he is to be saved, will not be saved by his reason. If Perelandra and Till We Have Faces (and perhaps Surprised byJoy) are to be believed, salvation comes only with the capitulation of reason, or more accurately, with the capitulation of a wrong use of reason .... The City of God, in Lewis as in Augustine, is founded on faith, and, in many cases, on a blind, unreasoning faith.4 The ultimate significance of Till WeHave Faces remains to be seen. When and if readers and critics examine the

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work on its own merits rather than as a curious example of a minor genre, they may find that it - and Lewis' whole canon of imaginative works - offers both an aesthetic and philosophic answer to the corner into which the modern novelist seems to have written himself. Where after existentialism and Finnegan's Wake?Chad Walsh sums up the possibilities beautifully when he says: Quite possibly, at some time that no one can predict, the Ego-searching and Id-probingof our time will lose its fascination, and men will suddenly see an interesting world outside themselves, a world with which they can enter into significant relations. With a sigh of relief, they may turn fromthe ever-receding self to the non-self and in joyfully accepting it, know themselves at last. If this happens, Lewis may serve as a spiritual mentor for many of them. He is the specialized guide through a world that is simply there because God put it there.5

2C.S. Lewis, "De Descriptione Temporum," Selected Literary Essays, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 5 3Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), p. 36. 4Charles Moorman, The Precincts of Felicity: The Augustinian City of the Oxford Christians (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966), p. 83. 'Chad Walsh, "C.S.Lewis: The Man and the Mystery,"in Shadows of Imagination, ed. Mark R. Hillegas (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1969), p. 14.


Centenary College of Louisiana The problem arising from Fielding's use of incest in the plot of Tom Jones was perhaps best described by Frank Kermode in his essay "Richardson and Fielding."1 Kermode accused Fielding of evading "the only genuinely crucial test that confronts his hero as a moral being" by allowing the situation to be "resolved comically by an unethical stroke of good luck." Comparing Tom to a "hot blooded version of Allworthy" who represents "to Fielding a desirable vital compromise between excellent principles and the plenary and immediate operation of natural instinct," Kermode argued: "Inso far as the incest theme is not a merely theatrical peripeteia, it must stand as the crisis of this alliance of incompatibles. In this instance, the uninhibited demonstration of sexual prowess does not ultimately escape with a reproof from an understanding lover, a muff on a bed; it is suddenly confronted with the awful judgment of principle exalted into taboo." Fielding "has produced a situation which, as the whole European tradition instructs us, is tragic."2ButKermode'sstatement of the problemobscures its complexity; the moral difficulty surrounding Fielding's use of incest in TomJones involves not only his introduction of a tragic theme into a comic novel, but also the reader's understanding of Fielding's moral criteria and the thetical function of Tom'ssupposed incest in relation to those criteria.

When in the final chapters of Joseph Andrews Fielding momentarily suggests the moral complicationsof incest for Joseph and Fanny, no one objects to the comic resolution because the question was comic in the first place. If Joseph and Fanny had been brother and sister, they would not have been able to marry, but they would nevertheless have been innocent of incest. In the case of Tom Jones, if Mrs. Waters (the former Jenny Jones) had actually been Tom's mother, he would have been guilty. The comic resolution, therefore, saves him from the guilt of a "horrible sin," a guilt which, as Kermode suggested, raises a difficult 'Frank Kermode, "Richardson and Fielding," Cambridge Journal, IV (1950), 106-14. See also Barry D. Bort, "Incest Theme in Tom Jones," American Notes and Queries, III (1965), 83-4. Martin C. Battestin has published a very interesting study of Fielding's fascination with the theme of incest which takes into account some of the known facts of Fielding's biography, especially his close relationship with his sister Sarah, who in her own work seems to share her brother'spreoccupationwith the theme, "Henry Fielding, Sarah Fielding, and 'the dreadful Sin of Incest,' " Novel: A Forum on Fiction, XIII (1979), 6-18. 'Kermode, p. 109.

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question concerning Fielding's morality of the Good Heart - the assumption that Tom's good-hearted altruism or good nature will somehow guide him to correct moral decisions. Kermode has argued that Fielding's moral criteria can finally be reduced "tocommon sense, which in this context is a supposedly instinctive understanding on the part of both reader and writer of Right and Wrong."3If Tom'snatural instinct could lead him to commit incest with his mother, then according to the principles of almost any age, and certainly of Fielding's own, there is something wrong with the morality of the Good Heart. But there is some distortion in limiting Fielding's moral criteria in TomJones, as Kermodehas done, to the morality of the Good Heart. Though the novel certainly suggests that Tom'sgood-heartedbehavior is morally superiorto the hypocrisy of someone like Blifil, Fielding himself questions the sufficiency of goodness and innocence to guide us in the properpath of virtue and protect us frommisfortune. In the dedication to George Lyttleton, Fielding declares that "to recommend goodness and innocence hath been my sincere endeavor in this history .... Besides displaying the beauty of virtue which may attract the admiration of mankind, I have attempted to engage a stronger motive to human action in her favor by convincing men, that their true interest directs them to a pursuit of her .... Lastly, I have endeavored strongly to inculcate, that virtue and innocence can scarce ever be injured but by indiscretion; and that it is this alone which often betrays them into snares that deceit and villainy spread for them" (p. 37).4 These sentiments are repeated throughout the novel, such as when Allworthy admonishes Tom:"I am convinced, my child, that you have much goodness, generosity and honour in your temper; if you will add prudence and religion to these, you must be happy; for the three former qualities, I admit, make you worthy of happiness, but they are the latter only which will put you in possession of it (V, 7). In these two passages (and in others including the author's lesson to "well-disposed youths") Fielding gives a rather complete statement of the moral criteria of TomJones. To "goodness of heart" and "openness of temper" it is necessary to add "prudence"and "circumspection"(III, 7).5 When Tom'sactions are examined, his lack of prudence and discretion emerges as his principal moral flaw. After he recognizes that his woes result from his own imprudence, the many obstacles of the plot fall away, and he is rewarded with his inheritance and finally with marriage to Sophia. Patridge's revelation to Tomthat he has "beena-bedwith Ihis] own mother" (XVIII, 2) plays an important part in Tbm'seducation because it serves as a test of the sincerity of his repentance. When Mrs. Waters visits him in prison and relieves him of his fears concerning Fitzpatrick, whom he has accidentally wounded in a duel, Tom'sthoughts turn to Sophia, and "he lamented the follies and vices of which he had been guilty; every one of which, he said, had been attended with such ill consequences, that he should be unpardonable if he did not take warning and quit those vicious courses forthe future"(XVII,9). Characteristically, Fielding throws an ironic light on Tom's repentance by remarking that "Mrs. Waters with great pleasantry ridiculed all this, as the effects of low spirits and confinement." But Tom'ssincerity is underscoredwhen he rejects her advances and their conversation ends "with perfect innocence, and much more to the satisfaction of Jones than of the lady." It is one thing, however, for Tomto repent and vow to sin no more when he hears that he has been freed of the guilt of murder and may yet hope to persuade Sophia to forgive him; it is another entirely

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different matter for him to accept all the blame for his misfortunes when he learns from Partridge that Mrs. Waters is his mother. Patridge suggests, "Sure the devil himself must have contrived to bring about this wickedness" (XVIII, 2), but Tomreplies: "Sure ... Fortune will never have done with me, 'til she hath driven me to distraction. But why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the cause of all my misery. All the dreadful mischiefs which have befallen me, are the consequencesonly of my own folly and vice." At this point Tom, as Martin C. Battestin observes, "arrives at last at that crucial moment of self-awareness toward which the novel has been moving."" By refusing to take the way out offered him by Partridge and by accepting his own responsibility for his misery, Tom confirms his repentance. If he had shirked his responsibility, he would have been lost, but he accepts - he passes the test - and the comic spirit of the novel can take charge and deliver him. But the momentary suggestion of incest does much more than test the sincerity of Tom'srepentance; it also tests the reader's response to the moral issues Fielding raises in the novel. When we have finished reading Tom Jones and reflect on the incident at Upton - where Tom and Mrs. Waters spend the night - and the later confusion over the possibility of incest between Tom and Mrs. Waters, we realize that Fielding worked hard to contrive the ironic misunderstanding. It is not actually necessary for Tom.He has already recognized his own responsibility for his misery. Not only that, he has begun to repent even before the fight with Fitzpatrick which threatens him with the guilt of murder. He has withdrawn himself from Lady Bellaston, withstood the charms of Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and turned down the scheme of seduction against Mrs.Western. Later, he declares that he "shouldbe unpardonableif he did not ... quit those vicious courses for the future" (XVII,9), and he refuses the advances of Mrs. Waters, who is by the way, surprised to find him so altered. Although Tom's commendable reaction to his supposed incest is important, the reader's response is perhaps more significant. By introducing the problem of incest, Fielding removes a veil from the reader's eyes and enlarges the ironic field to include the reader as well as the characters of the novel. From the beginning of Tom Jones the reader is encouraged by the narrator to judge the characters and their actions. When Fielding relates the reactions of Allworthy's neighbors to his expectation of meeting his 3Kermode, p. 110. 4My text is The History of TomJones, ed. R.P.C.Mutter (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd., 1966); hereafter, I have cited quotations by book and chapter rather than by page to facilitate reference to other texts. 5Although prudence has been recognized for some time as an important part of Fielding's moral theme in Tom Jones, there continues to be considerable discussion of what Fielding meant by the word. See Eleanor N. Hutchens, "'Prudence':A Case Study," Chapter Five in Irony in Tom Jones (University of Alabama Press, 1965), Dove': pp. 101-18;Glenn W.Hatfield, "'TheSerpent and the 'Prudence'in TomJones," Chapter Five in Henry Fielding and the Language of Irony (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 179-96; Martin C. Battestin, "Fielding's Definition of Wisdom: Some Functions of Ambiguity and Emblem in Tom Jones," ELH, XXXV (1968), 188-217. 6Battestin, "Fielding's Definition of Wisdom,"p. 201.

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wife in heaven, he tells us that these were "sentiments for which his sense was arraigned by one part of his neighbors, his religion by a second, and his sincerity by a third"(I, 2). And even the narrator himself remarks: "tho' it must be confest, he would often talk a little whimsically on this head." But at the same time he assures us that Allworthy has "an agreeable person, a sound constitution, a solid understanding, and a benevolent heart." Here Fielding offers several points of view, but without actually affirming or condemning any of them. By refusing to pass judgment ("I am not possessed of any touchstone, which can distinguish the true from the false," I, 10), Fielding pretends to give his readers the facts and allows us to draw our own conclusions. At the same time, Fielding frequently warns us not to judge too hastily on the basis of mere appearances. When Allworthy's motives and actions with respect to Jenny Jones are questioned by the mob, the narrator observes: "But as we cannot possibly divine what complexion our reader may be of, and as it will be some time before he will hear any more of Jenny, we think properto give him a very early intimation, that Mr. Allworthy was, and will hereafter appear to be, absolutely innocent of any criminal intention whatever" (I, 9). This technique itself, however, encourages us to feel we have been admitted behind the scenes (to borrow one of Fielding's metaphors) and are privileged with information that the characters do not possess. Notice how Fielding takes us into his confidence concerning Thwackum: The reader is greatly mistaken, if he conceives that Thwackum appeared to Mr. Allworthy in the same light as he doth to him in this history; and he is as much deceived, if he imagines, that the most intimate acquaintance which he himself could have had with that divine, would have informed him of those things which we, from our inspiration, are enabled to open and discover. Of readers who from such conceits as these condemn the wisdom or penetration of Mr. Allworthy, I shall not scruple to say that they make a very bad and ungrateful use of that knowledge which we have communicated to them. (III,5) To the judicious circumspection of the narrator, his digressions and addresses to the reader, Fielding adds a liberal dose of irony. When he introduces Miss Bridget Allworthy, for instance, describing her prudent behavior in sexual matters, he observes that "this guard of prudence is always readiest to go on duty where there is the least danger" (I, 2). The irony here tells the reader several things. First, we perceive that Miss Bridget's prudence is superfluous and is therefore an affectation. But more than that, the irony reflects on the word "prudence"itself. The context adheres to the word enough to give it a negative connotation of pretentiousness. Although the actual denotative meaning of the word is not really altered, it is stripped of its positive connotations by the ironic context in which it appears.7Theirony encourages us tojudge not only the characters, but their virtues as well. I have used the example of Bridget's prudence because it leads naturally to another important consideration of Fielding's irony. Prudence, which is the virtue Tom must acquire in orderto possess happiness, is the chief"virtue"of the novel's villains. Eleanor N. Hutchens has pointed out that "nearly every unadmirable character in the novel is described as prudent or is shown advocating prudence.

These unfavorable uses are, of course, ironic; but ...


practically all instances the word retains its literal meaning." She goes on to remark that "'prudence,' 'prudent,' and 'prudential' are used unfavorably three

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times to every one time they are used favorably.""Although we might agree with Glenn W. Hatfield that this kind of prudence, the kind we associate with Blifil, is false prudence,9the antagonism which Fielding sets up between Tom and his prudent half-brother causes us to judge the virtues along with the men, just as we did in the case of Bridget. In contrast to Blifil's prudence, therefore, is Tom's good-hearted altruism. Born with a Good Heart, bTm is motivated by his love of his fellow men, which Fielding describes as "a kind and benevolent disposition ... gratified by contributing to the happiness of others" (VI, 1). Love inspires Tom'sactions throughout the novel, not only his benevolence toward Black George and his compassion for Mrs. Miller's daughter, but also his benevolent gratification of the advances of Molly Seagrim, Lady Bellaston, and Mrs. Waters. It is not insignificant that Fielding never makes Tom the aggressor in his sexual affairs, but has the ladies begin them. It would not occur to Tom to turn the women down. When we review the plot of TomJones before Partridge's revelation, we find that although Fielding has provided ample warning againstjudgement, he has encouragedus to participate with the narrator in a privileged ironic perspective that urges us to pass some more or less tentative judgments. For instance, we feel reasonably safe in condemning Blifil and applauding Tom, though we are aware of the latter's obvious imprudence. More importantly, Fielding even suggests that we question the value of prudence by emphasizing the unfavorable examples over the favorable ones, and it certainly seems ironic that Allworthy advises Tom to acquire the virtue that we come to associate with the deception and pretense of Blifil. The result of all this is that we come to see Tom's misdeeds in the light in which Fielding has carefully placed them. It is not likely that any but the most censorious reader would find any serious fault in Tom's occasional breaches of proper moral conduct, since we are well acquainted with the true goodness of his character. In addition, Fielding gives us the example of Black George to confirm our judgment: "A single bad act no more constitutes a villian in life, than a single bad part on the stage" (VII,1). Thus even when Tom is taken away to prison, he not only appears more sinned against than sinning, but an innocent victim of misunderstandings. With Partridge's revelation that Mrs. Waters is Tom's mother, the reader's perception changes. The ironic distance we have shared with the narrator closes, and we realize that, like Allworthy, we have been judging Tomon the basis of appearances. The incident at Upton, which at the time seemed neither more nor less significant than Tom's other sexual adventures, could have been a serious moral transgression. The addition of a single piece of information changes the moral complexion of the entire episode, although nothing else is actually altered. With the ironic confusion over Tom'ssupposed incest in Book XVIII, Fielding arranges a moment of awareness for the reader as well as for Tom. Thereafter the plot moves quickly toward the inevitable harmonious comic resolution, but the

7I have overlooked, for the moment, the irony we recognize when we discover that it is Bridget's imprudence that is the causa causans of the entire novel. Cf. Hutchens, p. 106, n. 2. "Hutchens, p. 101. 9Hatfield,p. 190.




moment of tragic discordcontinues as a faint echo. It really makes no difference that Tomis finally relieved of guilt; the contrivance of the plot, the mere hint of incest, is enough to make the point manifest. What is significant is that Fielding attempts to distinguish between true virtue and the appearance of virtue. Tom's Good Heart without the protection of prudence could have led him into tragic misfortune. But Blifil's prudence, without goodness, is perverted into the self-serving pretense of virtue. It is difficult even for a wise man to recognize goodness when it is disguised by imprudence. Fielding's lesson for "well-disposedyouths" is pertinent here: "Itis not enough that your designs, nay that your actions, are intrinsically good, you must take care that they shall appear so.... This must be constantly looked to, or malice and envy will take care to blacken it so, that the sagacity and goodness of an Allworthy will not be able to see thro' it" (III, 7). Lacking the necessary qualities of "prudence"and "circumspection,"Tom has disguised his goodness as effectively as Blifil has hidden his wickedness. The confusion over the identity of Mrs.Watersand Tom's supposed incest provide the ingredients not only to test the sincerity of Tom's repentance, but also to determine the quality of the reader's own moral vision. Though Fielding warns us not to judge on the basis of appearance, most readers fall blindly into his rhetorical trap. The moral dilemma of Tom Jones is that although it is impossible to judge either character or actions by appearances, there are moments when we must judge; and, like Allworthy, we seldom have anything other than appearance to base our judgments on. One of those moments comes at the conclusion of the novel when Sophia must judge for herself the sincerity of Tom'srepentance, and it is interesting to observe that the method Fielding chooses for her is very

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similar to the test of Tom'ssincerity he contrives out of the confusion over the events at Upton. In this case Sophia acts as a model of prudence and correct moral judgment. Although Tom vows to her that no repentance was ever more sincere, Sophia is reluctant to accept merely his word for it: "Sincere repentance, Mr. Jones, . . . will obtain the

pardon of a sinner, but it is from one who is a perfectjudge of that sincerity. A human mind can be imposed on; nor is there any infallible method to prevent it ....

If I can be

prevailed on by your repentance to pardon you, I will at least insist on the strongest proof of its sincerity" (XVIII, 12). But after demanding that Tbmprovehis constancy for a twelve-month, she reverses her decision (ostensibly to please Squire Western)and consents to marry the next day. It is ironic that Sophia turns bTm's final misery into happiness so quickly after demanding the "strongest proof,"but like the earlier ironic reversal, this comes after Tom has satisfactorily passed the test of his sincerity. Assured the blessed day will come, bTmagrees to Sophia's conditions and even takes her part when Western bursts into the room cursing her contrariness. The proof is sufficient for Sophia, whose innate wisdom (sophia) allows for clearer vision than that of the other characters in the novel: "She honored TomJones, and scorned Master Blifil, almost as soon as she knew the meaning of those words" (IV, 5). Satisfied of Tom'srepentance and long acquainted with his goodness, Sophia turns to her father and consents: "Whythen to-morrowmorning shall be the day, papa, since you will have it so."Her new compliance is a rather sudden reversal in itself, and we see through her trick, just as we see through Fielding's trick of incest; but in both cases the rhetorical stratagem is effective, allowing the novel to make its moral point without deserting its comic mode.


Northern Michigan University Camus and Sartre agree that the idea of God's absence condemns man to his sense of alienation, and the profound alienation suffered by their protagonists is presented as both an indication and a consequence of that absence. This alienation reveals itself in a number of ways: the failure of father-son relationships, alienation-from-the-self, social and sexual alienation, and a sense of separation from nature. the past, and the present. Of these manifestations, the failure of father-son relationships is that which most clearly symbolizes, as well as indicates and precipitates, man's isolation from God. Alienation-from-the-self, which partially results from man's abandonment of the idea of God, is also closely related to the failure of father-son relationships; and these are the two types of alienation that stem most immediately from the crisis of faith. Several of Sartre's and Camus' characters reveal a consciousness of the general connection between alienation and the abandonment of God. In Sartre's The Devil and the GoodLord Goetz laments, "Ikilled Godbecause He divided me frommankind, and now I see that His death has isolated me even more surely."' In Camus' The Possessed, Shatov tells Stavrogin, "Youcan't love anyone because you are a man without roots and without faith."2And in rejecting Zeus to embrace his freedom, Orestes discovers in Sartre's The Flies that in severing relations with God one cuts oneself off from both men and the world. He complains to Zeus, after he rebels against Him, "Yesterday,when I was

with Electra, I felt at one with Nature, this Nature of your making. ... Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning little universe of yours."3Although he formed a bond of blood between himself and the people of Argos in killing Aegistheus, Orestes must exile himself fromthe city if he is to relieve them of their remorse and defy Zeus; he can remain as King only if he accepts Zeus's will, accepts God, and maintains the status quo. Those characters who most completely reject Godare not only those who are most aware of their alienation but are also those who most often exhibit symptoms of alienation, for the alienation between man, his fellows, and the world is the sign as well as the consequence of man's isolation from God.Although man's alienation - in all of its aspects taken together - indicates his divorce from God, this divorce is most clearly and appropriatelysymbolized in the nature of father-son relationships. The father, like a king or tsar, is a secular emblem of God, particularly to a child, over whom the father's power, like God's is seemingly absolute. In the works of Sartre and Camus (and in those of other modern existentialist writers) the feeling that one has been abandoned by the father often parallels the feeling of having been abandoned by God, while indifference to or rejection of the father is likewise

Incest and Morality in Tom Jones  
Incest and Morality in Tom Jones  

In this essay Michael L. Hall states that, "Fielding's use of incest in "Tom Jones" involves not only his introduction of a tragic theme int...