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The ‘History of Tom Jones, A Foundling’ was enthusiastically received by the general public, if not by Richardson, Dr. Johnson and other literary figures. The introductory chapters that preface each of the novel's 18 books cultivate the reader in a way that was then unprecedented in English fiction and the tangled comedies of coincidence are offset by the neat, architectonic structure of the story.
The kindly, prosperous Mr Allworthy finds a baby boy on his bed and adopts the mysterious child, naming it Tom Jones. Tom begins a life of bawdy adventure. Allworthy suspects that Jenny Jones, a maid-servant to the wife of the schoolmaster Partridge, is the mother, but Jenny leaves with Partridge the neighbourhood. Allworthy's sister Bridget marries Captain Blifil and their mean-spirited son and Blifil are raised together. A devilish, good-looking young man, Tom has a way with women, but loves only one; young Sophia Western, the daughter of a neighboring landowner. A rivalry over the attention of Sophia Western arises between Jones and Blifil. Because of an affair with the gamekeeper's daughter Molly Seagrim, and because of Blifil's treachery, Tom is expelled from the house. Tom's attempts to woo Sophia and the many adventures that befall him from forest sword fights to bedroom romps all lead in one direction: to London. He has an affair with Lady Bellaston, nearly kills his opponent in a duel, and is imprisoned. The duel with a jealous husband lands him in prison waiting to be hanged.
Meanwhile, Sophia is in London to escape the marriage with Blifil. Jenny Jones reveals that Bridget is the mother of Tom, and Blifil's cruelties to Tom over the years are revealed. While Blifil is severely reprimanded, Tom marries Sophia, who forgives him for his infidelities. Tom also reunites with Squire Allworthy and becomes his heir.
Fielding was a writer for the theater before he was a novelist, and one of the strongest impressions that the reader gets from 'Tom Jones' is that of dramatic handling of scene and act: the sharp silhouetting of characters and their grouping in such a manner as to avoid any confusions, even in so populous a drama.
Tom Jones (1749) is rightly regarded as Fielding's greatest work, and one of the first and most influential of English novels. At the center of one of the most ingenious plots in English fiction stands a hero whose actions were, in 1749, as shocking as they are funny today.