Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Trials and the Shaping of Identity in Tom Jones

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Trials and the Shaping of Identity in Tom Jones

Article excerpt


On 14 November 1743, while residing near Bath after the summer's Western Circuit of the Assizes, Henry Fielding wrote to invite his friend James Harris to visit him at his house at Twerton and attend the Friday ball at Bath. His invitation took the form of a mock-summons from "our Vice Snash for the said city [Bath]" to answer a "Plea of Gallantry of Dame Margaret Brown Wife of Robert Brown Bart. wherefore he the Fan of the said Margaret in his Presence dropt did not take up" (Battestin, Life 376). And in 1745, in defense of his friend Dr. John Ramby, who had created a storm of controversy among prominent physicians by criticizing the medical treatment his colleagues provided the dying Sir Robert Walpole, Fielding published a satiric "Charge to the Jury; or, The Sum of the Evidence, on The Trial of A.B.C.D. and E.F. All M.D. For the death of one Robert at Orfud, at a Special Commission of Oyer and Terminer held at Justice-College, in W[arwi]ck Lane, Before Sir AEsculapius Dosem, Dr. Timberhead, and Others, their Fellows, Justices &c" (Battestin, Life 396). One private and playful, one public and satiric, these minor and casual examples suggest how easily and comfortably Fielding moved between his personal and professional selves and between his professions of lawyer and author. Fielding worked as both lawyer and writer throughout much of his adult life, of course, and very early in these careers he assimilated the discourses of the law into his imaginative repertoire, including his novels. (1)

In this essay, I examine four instances of literal, disguised, or substitute trials in Tom Jones. Some trials in the novel, that is, are literal and explicit legal events which are part of the action; in other cases, an event might contain or replace a trial, revealing its underlying legal identity through allusion or language linking it to literal trials. Put slightly differently, I argue that the trial is one of the important "voices" in Fielding's novel, and so I make use of M. M. Bakhtin's description of the novel as being made up of a "diversity of voices and heteroglossia" that the novelist "orchestrates" to fulfill his own intentions, and more specifically, his claim that the comic novel parodies those specialized languages (Bakhtin 300, 299, and 311-12 respectively). But an analysis of the trial discourses embedded in Fielding's novel must also take into account the particular historical circumstances of the development of trials in England, including their epistemological implications, and the relationship of novels to other writings about trials. Fielding's main concern--perhaps the main concern of most novelists--is the struggle of the individual character within, and sometimes against, his society to define himself as a moral entity. To this end, Fielding explores the trial as a measure of character, but one that proves unreliable. He finally moves beyond trials, while assimilating what they have to offer, to a more individualized, flexible, intuitive, and narrative epistemology. In the end, only the novel itself, not trials and the law, enables us to know Tom Jones.


Bakhtin's theory of the novel, specifically of the comic novel, can clarify how Fielding's careers in law and literature intersect and interact. He describes two features that distinguish the function of social voices in the comic novel:

(1) Incorporated into the novel are a multiplicity of `language' and verbal-ideological belief systems--generic, professional, class-and-interest-group (the language of the nobleman, the farmer, the merchant, the peasant); tendentious, everyday (the languages of rumour, of society chatter, servants' language) and so forth ...; these languages are not in most cases consolidated into fixed persons (heroes, storytellers) but rather are incorporated in an impersonal form `from the author,' alternating (while ignoring precise formal boundaries) with direct authorial discourse. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.