On Reading Well
Karen Swallow Prior

Chapter One
The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling
By Henry Fielding

I, wisdom, dwell together with prudence;
I possess knowledge and discretion.

Proverbs 8:12

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin wrote:

We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men but to look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, an image which, by its beauty and dignity, should allure us to love and embrace them.

So are people good or evil?  Is it possible to be totally depraved, yet a bearer of God’s image?  In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior explores this quandary in Chapter One.

As Karen wrote

Tom Jones is a traditional bildungsroman, a novel of development. Thus, as Tom’s love for Sophia (wisdom) grows, so too does his prudence. Because “the virtue of prudence is dependent upon the constant readiness to ignore the self,” the more Tom puts Sophia’s interests ahead of his own, the more he is able to cultivate prudence (such as by learning to decline the wealthy and worldly women who offer themselves to him). Tom eventually applies wisdom by pursuing all its components—seeking counsel, deliberation, judgment, coming to resolution, and action.

The novel paints a vivid picture of Fielding’s own belief that a good-natured soul is capable of great good once virtue is cultivated. This question of human nature—whether it is essentially good or corrupt—is a strong undercurrent in the larger debate between Fielding and Richardson and among their contemporaries. Fielding’s more liberal theology emerges in Tom Jones in his emphasis on Tom’s essential good nature, which triumphs over his moral failures. In contrast to Fielding’s high-church Anglicanism, Richardson’s theological view of human nature was influenced by the Methodism of John Wesley and George Whitefield and thus reflects the doctrine of human depravity. The question of whether human nature is essentially good or bad was a pressing one among Enlightenment philosophers and, not surprisingly, made its way into the most influential literature of the day. This philosophical, and essentially theological, debate played a significant role not only in shaping these novels (e.g., the differences between each side’s literary style and overall message) but also in the development of the emerging genre of the novel as a whole. Because of such underlying questions, the novel is, in many ways, the genre best representative of the modern condition.

Are people basically good or evil? Has your opinion changed over time?

On Reading Well


Published by

Rick Wilcox

Editor in Chief | Literary Life