Henry Fielding: Pushing an Ideology While Making a Profit

Companies such as the Walt Disney Corporation use tactics such as manipulation, control and deception to maximize profits and publicize their family-friendly ideology. Such corporations take their cue from 18th Century novels such as Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Fielding’s playful use of slander and libel law in his attack on critics in Tom Jones reveals a means of narrative control that has implications for the novel’s success in the marketplace and its ideological influence. Tom Jones is Fielding’s vertically integrated company, much like Disney, pushing an ideology while turning a profit.

Fielding reveals himself as a vertically integrated company is within the first couple of pages of Tom Jones when he says that “the excellence of the mental entertainment consists less in the subject than in the author’s skill in well dressing it up” (30). It is a wink and a nod to the audience that Fielding is the Chief Executive Officer of his vertically integrated company, Tom Jones. He has taken great pains to craft his company in order to present a particular ideology. Each word has been carefully chosen; each character carefully crafted in order to present a particular mode of thought. The plot has been painstakingly constructed to act as the hand of Fate acting on the main character. Fielding has maintained complete autonomy, like any good CEO of a company that owns its product from conception to final product and distribution. Fielding maintains his control throughout the novel in the character of the narrator. He continually thrusts himself into the reader’s consciousness by speaking directly to the reader, making it difficult for the suspension of disbelief that Richardson worked so hard to achieve in Pamela. By making suspension of disbelief virtually impossible, the reader is constantly on guard for interjections by the narrator, which provides Fielding with another element of control to aid in attacks on sections of society. This attack is notable at the very beginning of Book XI when Fielding lashed out at his critics.

At the beginning of Book XI, Fielding evokes the “royal we” to attack critics. Critics would be “well enough pleased if we were to leave them thus compared to one of the most important and honorable offices of the commonwealth” (492),Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ says Fielding, automatically forcing readers into his train of thought with no means of escape. He continues to manipulate the audience when he says, “we must remind them of another officer of justice of a much lower rank, to whom, as they not only pronounce, but execute their own judgment” (492). Readers are now caught in Fielding’s net, unknowingly replacing independent thought with Fielding’s beliefs. The reader is led to associate the word “slander” with the word “critic.” Eric Rothstein furthers this point in his essay “Virtues on Authority in Tom Jones.” Readers cannot help but also share in Fielding’s distaste, which, as Rothstein points out, “herds [the readers] where he wants [them]” (149).Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ And Fielding wants readers on his side of the “slander” of critics. He wants readers to agree that slandering his book is wrong. He says that the “slander of a book is, in truth, the slander of the author” (494), going on to compare slandering of an author with not being able to call a person a bastard without calling the mother a whore. He is setting the reader up to agree that unfavorable criticism “is perhaps more injurious to [the author’s] worldly interest” (494). In other words, speaking poorly of the author reflects poorly on the novel, which in turn has an impact upon sales and the author’s means of survival.

To fully understand his “slandering” of critics, however, the reader must understand the ambiguous nature of early defamation law. M. Lindsay Kaplan points out in her book, The Culture of Slander in Early Modern England,Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ that “the very problem with defamation is its ability to be believed and thus inflict damage on its victim” (13). She points out two specific problems: charges of slander are reversible, meaning that the plaintiff and the defendant can switch places at any point during the trial, and it is entirely possible that the victim of slander is also the perpetrator. There was also ambiguity in prosecution of defamation. Defamation as a legal was still being developed. The ecclesiastical definition of slander did not require the accusation to be false, nor did canon law. However, canon law required malice to be present, so even if a malicious accusation was true, it was still considered defamatory. To avoid abuse of this loophole, Parliament enacted a statute that “eventually led to development of a redress for malicious prosecution” (16).

The common law courts saw an increasing number of cases “in which words not imputing a crime clearly resulted in financial loss” (16). In other words, there was no criminal act committed, such as robbery, but the words spoken caused significant harm to a person’s reputation that caused financial loss. In effect, the common law definition of defamation focused on financial loss.

The most telling piece of information from Kaplan’s book that might cause one to think of Fielding, is that “political climate, and not the truth of the speech, determines whether language is defamatory or not” (29). This comes on the heels of her discussion of “institutionalized defamation” used by the English court system and how the only recourse, or defense, against slander is “to discredit, that is, to slander it” (24). So when Fielding compares a “person who pries into the characters of others, with no other design but to discover their faults, and to publish them to the world, deserves the title of slanderer,” (493) to that of a critic who “properly styled the slanderer of the reputation of books” (493), he is in effect slandering critics. He is combating bad criticism, what he sees as slander of his work, with Kaplan’s suggestion of discrediting the critic. If Tom Jones gets bad reviews, then people will be less inclined to buy the novel, which would have a financial impact on Fielding. If his books don’t sell then it is difficult for him to make a living. Bad criticism becomes detrimental, and he could prove financial loss and win a defamation suit against critics who “slander” his novel.

Looking through the eyes of the 21st Century, Fielding’s use of the word slander instead of libel seems ridiculous. It has been established that libel is the more serious offense. It is written defamation, so it can easily be disseminated to a much larger audience. Libel was also considered criminal defamation by the Star Chamber, which measured it “in terms of its disruption of public order” (Kaplan, 17). Slander, on the other hand, is spoken defamation; the words “evaporate” into the air. So when Fielding says, “slander is a more cruel weapon than a sword” (493), one can’t help but think of the old adage that sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. He also states that “it often proceeds from no provocation, and seldom promises itself any reward” (493), which is exactly how his “slandering” of critics is performed. It is difficult to attack what has not been published, so his comparison of critics to murderers in Tom Jones is done without provocation. And, in a sense, Fielding is reinforcing the rules in the world he has created in order to push his ideology of virtue as action rather than thought.

Virtue, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a special “manifestation of the influence of moral principles in life or conduct.” Truth is a virtue that is pressed throughout Tom Jones. According to Literature Online, the word itself is used 232 times in the novel. The OED definition of truth that applies to the novel states truth as a “conformity with fact; agreement with reality; accuracy, correctness, verity (of statement or thought).” In essence, truth is conforming to something.
Truth as conformity poses a contradiction in Tom Jones. Tom Jones the character does not conform to the fact that when a gentleman professes his love for a woman, he does not violate that verbal agreement. He also does not conform to the reality of being raised in a wealthy home where piety is expected and an untamed heart is not to be desired. Tom Jones is a “thoughtless, giddy youth, with little sobriety in his manners” (115). In this sense, Tom Jones is untruthful whereas Blifil is truthful. Blifil is “indeed a lad of remarkable disposition; sober, discreet and pious beyond his age” (103). Blifil conforms to the realities and expectations of his upbringing, understanding the social contract he must agree to follow because of his place in the hierarchy of society.

Though Tom Jones is rambunctious, and does seem to attempt to curb his infidelity, he also illustrates the truth of being human. Humans are compassionate beings and have developed emotions that leave them more complex than Blifi’s hypocritical adherence to the letter of the law. Compassion for those less fortunate such as Black George is what causes Tom Jones to seek the aide of Sophia whom “her fatherâÂ?¦loved and esteemed above all the world” (130) in order to prevent further ruin of the lives of Black George and his family. Tom Jones also showed compassion while Mr. Allworthy was ill. Square confesses as much in his letter to Mr. Allworthy, saying that Tom Jones “was the only person in the house who testified any real concern; and what happened afterwards arose from the wildness of his joy on your recovery” (819). Square goes on to say that Tom Jones posseses “every virtue which can ennoble a man” (820), including truth.

It is in this realm, this truth of being human by exhibiting compassion, that Tom Jones excels and Blifil fails. Blifil is more concerned with ruining Tom and getting Sophia for himself. He takes every opportunity to twist events so that Tom’s actions are viewed poorly. Blifil twists Tom’s stealing of apples to help Black George’s family so that it conforms to the truth of the family expectations rather than the truth of being human. Stealing, or borrowing to help those less fortunate, is looked down upon by the family but would be revered by mankind. Tom conforms to a standard of human generosity. Blifil illustrates the opposite of the truth of being human. He is more interested in his own selfish pursuits, which is more in line with the truth of his upbringing. He does not possess compassion and would rather stomp on the people below him than extend a helping hand.

Fielding presents two types of truth: the truth of upbringing, like Blifil, and the truth of being human, like Tom. Both types of conformity are correct since both function in a specific context. The truth of upbringing comes with respect from those a person interacts with most, but allows the least amount of movement outside that circle. The truth of being human allows movement within a wider audience, but causes discomfort in the family. Since the end of the novel rectifies all wrongs against Tom, the truth of being human outweighs the truth of upbringing. Virtue is its own reward. If the novel is read critically, however, virtue is its own reward only if the reader accepts the events of the novel as provided by Fielding’s filtering of events – just as a guest accepts Disney’s family-friendly atmosphere as presented by Disney’s control over its security.

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