In this essay, I confront the problem of character inconsistency in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones by first showing how the novel is positively influenced by the example of naive virtue and class conversion found in Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which Fielding had previously and famously derided. Then, responding to the long critical history surrounding the representation of experience in the novel, I argue that experience, for Fielding, is not constitutive of but superfluous to character identity. By choosing to marry Tom, Sophia rejects the experiential model of prudence, which would encourage her to act in accordance with her knowledge of his past actions and her own experience of heartbreak. Concurrently, Tom's society (in recognizing him as Allworthy's heir) erases his youthful, transgressive experiences, seeing the actions of gentlemen as purgative and temporary. Character is, then, theorized in the novel not as a process of formation but instead as a kind of social prestidigitation: an act of construction that activates an inherent formal truth while functioning independently of individual experience.
Stephanie Insley Hershinow; When Experience Matters: Tom Jones and “Virtue Rewarded”. Novel 1 November 2014; 47 (3): 363–382. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-2789084
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