Great or Scandalous?

Henry Fielding was one of the originators of the English novel.  His masterpiece, Tom Jones, which is the latest addition to the literature website, was a best-seller, but appeared to decidedly mixed reviews.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that the novel was among “the three most perfect plots ever planned. And how charming, how wholesome, Fielding always is!”  Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, wrote to a friend of his, “I am shocked to hear you quote from so vicious a book. I am sorry to hear you have read it: a confession which no modest lady should ever make. I scarcely know a more corrupt work.”  So is Tom Jones a classic or a piece of immoral trash?  Though the title character certainly does engage in numerous sexual escapades before finally obtaining his lady fair, the descriptions of these are mild compared to the way such scenes are handled today, not only in literature, but also in films and on television, where nothing is left to the imagination.  Not only that, but when one of Fielding’s characters swears, the author gives only the first and last letters, reluctant to include such inappropriate language in his novel.  More to the point, Fielding insisted that the theme of his book was nothing less than human nature.  As an Enlightenment figure, he believed that most people were basically good, but that even good people had their flaws; his extensive cast includes no perfect characters.  His hero changes for the better over the course of the novel, repenting of his follies at the end and adopting the prudence and religion that his mentor had long advocated.  In addition to the moral lessons the author intends to teach, the book contains numerous classical allusions – one of the comic figures frequently makes terrible jokes the puch lines of which are in dreadful Latin – and is both clever and very funny.  Altogether a worthwhile read despite its length of almost 900 pages.