Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much . . .
-- Alexander Pope [1]

Tom Jones

The Comedy of Knowledge

by John Unsworth

Modern Language Quarterly, 48.3 (September 1987)

Pope's couplet expresses a dilemma that was of particular importance during the Augustan Age -- the inadequacy of reason to the discovery of design. Mortals forced by circumstances to judge and to act, we use inference and interpretation in what we realize is a futile attempt to bridge the gap between our limited perspective and a creator's omniscience.

In Tom Jones, Fielding raises this dilemma in a humorous way:

This Work may, indeed, be considered as a great Creation of our own; and for a little Reptile of a Critic to presume to find Fault with any of its Parts, without knowing the Manner in while the Whole is connected, and before he comes to the final Catastrophe, is a most presumptuous absurdity.[2]

Fielding's creation is one that relies on its readers for -- and to some extent involves them in -- its realization. As R.S. Crane noted in 1950, "we may be said to have grasped the plot in the full artistic sense only when we have analyzed [our] interplay of desires and expectations sequentially in relation to the incidents by which it is produced."[3] But Crane himself failed to follow the method he suggested, and thirty-five years later, most accounts of Tom Jones, even those in the reader-response vein, are still synchronic -- they make no consistent attempt to follow the stages by which out "superior knowledge" is acquired.[4] Such analyses fail to acknowledge the extent to which the judgments we make as readers implicate us in the same "final Catastrophe" that envelops the characters; the analyses allow us to judge with impunity and without remorse.[5]

John Preston was the first to note the importance of difference between a first and second reading of Tom Jones, pointing out that on a second reading

we have a sense of duality not only in the book itself, but in our own response to it. We recognize our "blindness" just because we no longer suffer from it. We know and do not know simultaneously: we are both outside and inside the pattern of events. . . . [The reader] is the observer of his own ironic mistakes.[6]
Preston, like Crane, argues that Fielding's plot was meant to reflect the chaotic nature of experience rather than, as has more often been suggested, universal order. Like Crane he nonetheless believes that the novel offers a "clarification of the process of understanding" -- that it can teach us how "to judge well" (pp. 114, 116).

More recently, the argument has come to something of an impasse. On one side, the optimism concerning the didactic efficacy of the novel seems to have waned: one author's recent assertion, for example, that "if anyone learns to judge better, the reader learns" is accompanied by this caveat: "But even that may be too broad a conclusion, for what the reader learns best is caution. . . . the reader of Tom Jones comes to realize that experience resists analysis."[7] On the other side, critics such as Wolfgang Iser (who takes seriously Fielding's repeated attribution of sagacity to his readers) argue that the experience of reading Tom Jones is intended to "serve as training for the reader's sense of discernment."[8] I would argue that although Fielding does believe in the value of judging carefully, he does not believe it is possible to judge entirely well -- doing so would require bridging the gap, playfully acknowledged by Fielding in the passage quoted, between judgment from within events and judgment after the fact.

Critics have disagreed over how we should read Fielding's comparison of his novel with Creation: those who focus on the chaos of the "Parts" tend to see the comparison as ironic; those who stand back to admire the "Whole" tend to take it at face value.[9] Whatever we decide about the tenor of Fielding's remarks, in both the novel and the Augustan universe, chaotic elements are ultimately harmonized. And the author's essential power, both to create and to order this chaos, is his control over knowledge. Nothing is more important to the comedy or the drama of Tom Jones than the discrepancy between what we know and what the characters know in any given situation, and our awareness of the extent to which a character is ignorant is always a determining factor in how we evaluate his or her action. But what raises Tom Jones above the level of simple farce is that involves the reader as well as the characters in what we may call the comedy of knowledge, and it implicates the reader in the condition of ignorance and partial awareness that it portrays. If the "final Catastrophe" is to the novel as Apocalypse is to Creation, then like the Apocalypse it brings everyone to judgment, including the reader.

Though its repercussions are widespread, the problem of knowledge has a focal point in Tom Jones: Jenny Jones, alias Mrs. Waters, and alias, quite appropriately, Mrs. Supple (wife of the gormandizing Parson Supple). Though Jenny herself is a minor character, she nonetheless is the primary agent of epistemological chaos in the novel, both in her interactions with other characters and in what she conceals from the reader; she is the wellspring of ignorance. Her appearances in Book 1, Books 9 and 10, and Book 18 respectively begin, complicate, and resolve Tom's adventures and play a pivotal role in developing the didactic implications of the plot. An outline of the shifting territory of the known in and around Jenny should help to illuminate the full significance of Fielding's "final Catastrophe."

At its most basic level, the problem of knowledge is a problem of facts. Characters are revealed to us in how they choose and evaluate evidence, and our understanding of personality in turn determines what we will consider causal when we reconstruct their motivations.

Allworthy's housekeeper, Mrs. Wilkins, and her friend, the "elderly Matron," are excellent examples of that lower order of characters whose reasoning is transparent to the reader and is clearly flawed both morally and logically. In their attempt to determine who is the foundling's mother, the women "scrutinize the Characters of several young Girls" in the neighborhood and agree that Jenny is "the likeliest Person to have committed this Fact" (p. 48; 1.6). This conclusion, the narrator discloses, seized upon by Mrs. Wilkins, of Jenny's having been seen about Allworthy's house before the baby was left there (p. 49; 1.6).

Although the "sagacious" Mrs. Wilkins recognizes the significance of these visits only in the light of the matron's malicious suspicions, she confronts Jenny and proceeds "rather to pass Sentence on the Prisoner, than to accuse her" (p. 49; 1.6). Allworthy, and the reader, "might have required some stronger Evidence to have convicted her; but she saved her Accusers any such Trouble, by freely confessing the whole Fact with which she was charged" (p. 50; 1.6). Jenny's confession we regard as a lucky coincidence for Mrs. Wilkins, since we consider her evidence not only unsatisfactory but even comically inadequate. But the whole comedy of this sequence becomes clear only after we learn that Mrs. Wilkins's inadmissible evidence was indeed significant, though utterly misinterpreted (Jenny was at the house to take care of Bridget during her lying in), and that Jenny's new clothes, the object of the matron's envy, were bribes from Bridget to silence Jenny (pp. 941-42; 18.7). our "understanding" of character -- of both Mrs. Wilkins's and Bridget's -- has assured our ignorance of fact.

Allworthy's arraignment of Jenny in Book 1, Chapter 7, is a somewhat subtler treatment of evidence and inference. Since Jenny's guilt is not at issue (she has confessed), Allworthy is primarily concerned with assessing rather than ascertaining facts. As he does so, we see the effect of prejudice on his interpretation. Allworthy's principal prejudices, all in Jenny's favor, are three. First, as he has lost three children of his own and feels tenderness for Tom, he is inclined to view Jenny's disposition of the child as an altruistic act. Second, since he has heretofore considered Jenny sensible, he is inclined to think her susceptible to reasonable treatment. And third, the "Openness and Sincerity" of her confession persuade him of her capacity for reform (pp. 53, 54). Even when Jenny refuses to divulge the identity of the father, her appeals to "Honour" and "Religion" convince him of her integrity, especially since she risks his displeasure to preserve it. In all of these particulars, Allworthy's interpretation of Jenny's behavior reflects his values more than it fixes hers. Indeed, though we do not feel superior to him the way we did to Mrs. Wilkins, we are likely to commend his humanity rather than his discernment of human nature, and we may find amusing his reasoning regarding the relative influence of vice and virtue on human behavior. Nevertheless, his determinations prove to be essentially correct, despite his ignorance, and it is important to note that he relies in this scene not on discernment or even prudence but on a generous heart. He leaves Jenny's ultimate judgment to God, and by this humility he is saved later humiliation when the truth is revealed.

Evidence is again the issue when Bridget Allworthy appears in the next chapter (1.8), although here it is our selection of the facts, rather than hers, that is significant. Bridget Allworthy surprises Mrs. Wilkins and us when, after eavesdropping on the interview between Jenny and her brother, she defends Jenny. In the ensuing exchange, we see what looks like a reason for her behavior. Mrs. Wilkins's remark that at least Jenny is not "vain of her Face" and Bridget's condemnation of the "wanton Behaviour" of pretty girls (p. 57) remind us that Bridget has an inordinate suspicion of men and is herself "so far from regretting Want of Beauty, that she never mention'd that perfection (if it can be called one) without Contempt" (p. 36: 1.2). If we care to reconstruct her motivation, these are the facts we will choose. We simply do not recognize her "violent Fit of Illness" (p. 49; 1.6) or Allworthy's concomitant three-month absence (p. 38; 1.3) as evidence, because the characterization of Bridget we have been given supports no such inference.[10] In contrast to our encounter with Mrs. Wilkins and her friend, in this instance our ignorance of character leads to ignorance of fact.

As matter progress in Tom Jones, the plot becomes increasingly complicated: in addition to knowledge of facts, knowledge of identity becomes a functional problem. As we have seen, our knowledge of facts is subject to the distortions of the intervening narrator. Our knowledge of identity is even more tenuous and problematic: we piece together a character's identity based not on what the narrator tells us but also on how that character interacts with other characters -- and each of these crossings introduces its own element of distortion and uncertainty. Noscitur a socio is Partridge's motto (p. 542; 10.5), and foolish as it is, it admirably expresses the tenuous and contingent nature of the knowledge of identity.

Books 9 and 10 take place at Upton and introduce us to Mrs. Waters -- or rather, to a "Woman stript half naked, under the Hands of a Ruffian" (p. 496; 9.2). We discover almost immediately that the ruffian is Ensign Northerton (Tom's erstwhile antagonist, slanderer of Sophia and now seducer of Mrs. Waters), but it is several chapters before the woman acquires a name. Rescued providentially by Tom, she is escorted to the nearest inn, where her state of undress arouses suspicion in the proprietors. The landlady will have no "Whores in Rages" in her establishment (p. 500; 9.3). Appearance and the "Ignorance of her Quality" (p. 506; 9.4) prejudice the landlady against Tom's companion and precipitate the Battle of Upton.

Mrs. Waters's name is introduced not by the narrator but by the "Serjeant," who recognizes her as the wife of Captain Waters: "I am certain I am not deceived," he says, "you can be no other Person than Captain Waters's Lady" (p. 505; 9.4). This affirmation by negative statement, called an Irish Bull, is brought to the level of art in Maclachlan, Fitzpatrick's fortuitously appearing friend: "What Wife? . . . do not I know Mrs. Fitzpatrick very well, and don't I see that the Lady, whom the Gentlemen who stands here in his Shirt is lying in Bed with, is none of her?" (530; 10.2).

The narrator subsequently refers to the woman as Mrs. Waters, but in questions of identity the source of one's knowledge determines its value. What the sergeant says in his further disclosures about Mrs. Waters and Ensign Northerton adds to the credibility of his identification, but when we accept what he know we adopt his ignorance as well.

After introducing the woman, the narrator concedes that we might be "very eager to know who this Lady was, and how she fell into the Hands of Mr. Northerton" (p. 499; 9.3). Having satisfied our curiosity on matters of more pressing interest -- the seduction -- he finally gives us "a fuller Account of Mrs. Waters" (p. 518; 9.7) in the last chapter of Book 9. Following an animadversion on curiosity and vanity, the narrator explains that, concerning Mrs. Waters's history, good breeding has rendered Tom "contented to remain in Ignorance, the rather as he was not without Suspicion, that were some Circumstances which must have raised her Blushes, had she related the whole Truth" (p. 519; 9.7). Counting on no such delicacy in his readers, and being "very desirous to satisfy them all," the narrator proposes to relate to us "the real Fact" of the matter. What we learn is not more than we, and Tom, have already suspected. And though there are some new details of itinerary and of perfidy, most of what we are told consists of known information, plus a few aporetic gestures -- "we shall not at resent . . . . resolve." "it is not so extremely clear" (p. 519), "I cannot determine" (p. 521) -- all of which are transparent to the sagacious reader. But, by professing to take us into his confidence, and by divulging facts that fit our expectation, the narrator promotes a sense of reliable awareness in us and leaves us feeling that we know Mrs. Waters.

If we are therefore inclined to feel superior to Tom, we might be chastened to discover that we have overlooked a number of clues as to the real identity of Mrs, Waters. One of these, "there were some Circumstances which must have raised her Blushes, had she related the whole Truth," already has been quoted: like most of the clues, it echoes the sense of Allworthy's sermonette, after which Jenny says, "As to my Concern for what is past, I know you will spare my Blushes of Repetition" (p. 54; 1.7). Others are even more obvious: "Women, to their Glory be it spoken, are more generally capable of that violent and apparently disinterested Passion of Love, which seeks only the Good of its Object, than Men" (spoke by the narrator, p. 520; 9.7) versus "Love . . . can never be violent" and "Love . . . always seeks the Good of its Object" (spoken by Allworthy, pp. 52, 53; 1.7); the narrator's gallant refusal "to do a Violence to our Nature by any Comments to the Disadvantage of the loveliest Part of the Creation" (p. 520; 9.7) versus Allworthy's stern epiplexis, "How base and mean must that Woman be . . . who can bear to level herself with the lowest Animal, and to sacrifice all that is great and noble in her, all her Heavenly Part, to an Appetite which she hath in common with the vilest Branch of the Creation!" (p. 52: 1.7).

As I have suggested, the primary or base appeal of the whole of Book 9, chapter 5, depends on the reader's possessing the very appetite associated by Allworthy with that "vilest Branch"; further, throughout the seventh chapter of Book 9 the narrator justifies his concealment of Jenny's true identity (and beneath that, an doubly obscured innocence) with language and reasoning that run directly contrary to the warning Allworthy issues to Jenny in our presence (1.7). In light of this, it is interesting to note that immediately following Book 9, chapter 7, at the beginning of Book 10, Fielding launches his attack on critics who presume to understand the parts without having comprehended the whole. Tom at least has the excuse of good breeding for his ignorance, and that of having met Jenny; we can only plead that we were misled by the company she keeps.

Book 10 exhibits the comic possibilities of mistaken identity in incidents centered on Mrs. Waters. Fitzpatrick mistakes her for his wife (p. 530; 10.2), Maclachlan for Tom's (p. 531; 10.2), and Squire Western thinks she might be Sophia (p. 552; 10.7). Clearly the most important of these mistakes is Fitzpatrick's: it is the occasion of his resentment towards Tom ("for you have bate me"), resentment that will later issue in the duel; and it is a comic presentiment of sorts, since Jenny, shortly after departing Upton, will become Fitzpatrick's wife, in which capacity she will make a crucial discovery or two in Book 18. Such is the coherence of accident and universal confusion.

In addition to the number of incidents in which identity is mistaken, there are several instances in the Upton sequence in which people do know each other fail to meet. Sophia and the real Mrs. Fitzpatrick come and go without being apprehended and without running into each other (they are cousins); Western arrives hours after Jenny has seen to it that Sophia has left, and he departs "without taking the least Notice of his Nephew Fitzpatrick" (p. 553; 10.7). But the pivotal meeting that does not take place is the one between Partridge and Mrs. Waters, who both know what we do not, though one knows more than the other.

As Martin Battestin has noted, "The adventures at Upton, where the lines of the plot converge and separate again, stand as the keystone" of the novel's structure (p. 149); one could be even more specific and say that, inasmuch as the plot of Tom Jones is predicated on misunderstanding, Mrs. Waters herself is the keystone. We have noted that the landscape of identity as it develops around Jenny is composed almost entirely of negative elements and occurrences. She is not Captain Waters's wife, not Fitzpatrick's wife, not Tom's wife, and not Sophia; Tom meets but does not know her, Partridge knows but does not meet her; she is described in the language of negation, characterized by aporia, and she functions essentially to frustrate apprehension.

In dealing with different aspects of knowledge and ignorance in different books, I do not mean to imply that Fielding restricts himself similarly. Identity is obviously a problem in Book 1, and fact has its day, in the courtroom scene in Book 10. The "final Catastrophe" of Book 18 is, in simplest terms, a revelation of the true facts of identity. In setting up his conclusion, Fielding artfully combines and distributes ignorance and awareness of these two forms of knowledge.

Mrs. Waters's farewell performance actually begins in the last chapter of Book 17, when she visits Tom in prison after she has discovered his whereabouts from the man he impaled, Mr. Fitzpatrick. The interview does little to advance knowledge, however. Tom informs her of "many Things which she well knew before," and of "several Facts of which she was ignorant, as the Adventure of the Muff" (p. 911; 17.9), of which we already know. In Book 18, chapter 2, the first surprising discovery is made. Partridge overhears Tom and Mrs. Waters discussing Upton, and for the first time, he sees the Lady (they have been side by side, in the Battle of Upton, but not face to face). Taking great care to ascertain the facts, Partridge makes sure that she was the woman Tom went to bed with at Upton and then cries, "Why then the Lord have Mercy upon your Soul, and forgive you, . . . but as sure as I stand here alive, you have been a-Bed with your own Mother" (p. 915). We now know what Partridge knows, and we share his ignorance; that is, we know who Jenny is, but now who she isn't.

The second important encounter occurs off stage but is (partially) reported in a letter Jenny sends Tom: "I have seen a Gentleman, from whom I have learnt something concerning you which greatly surprizes and affects me" (p. 916; 18.2). The letter arrives as Partridge returns from his unsuccessful search for Jenny. We then accompany Partridge to Mrs. Miller's where he encounters Mr. Allworthy. Partridge relates his history, some of which reflects poorly on Allworthy, and then divulges that Tom is commiserating with his "mother" in the prison. We stay with Partridge, whose peculiar complex of ignorance is essential to Fielding's purpose at this point, until the end of chapter 6, when Mrs. Waters arrives and, in the next chapter, reveals the true facts identity for Allworthy and for us.

The man Jenny met, referred to in the letter, was Dowling. As Bridget's attorney and Blifil's accomplice, Dowling actually knows more than Jenny does, but he is ignorant of her identity, mistaking her for Mrs. Fitzpatrick. Through Dowling, Jenny learns who Tom actually is, and the moment we have left him alone she arrives to relieve Tom's (mis)apprehension. Finally, she lets loose one more vital piece of ignorance -- her assumption that Dowling is working against Tom by Allworthy's order -- an error of fact that Allworthy hastens to correct, and from which he deduces Blifil's complicity in Tom's misfortunes.

Either Dowling's ignorance or Partridge's awareness of Jenny's identity might have been sufficient to bring about an unraveling of the truth, and Jenny herself could have resolved the matter of Tom's identity. But it is the interplay of all three characters that produces the dramatic extremes of Tom's reversal of fortune. Tom is brought to his lowest point by Partridge's factual ignorance and triumphs over Blifil when Dowling's awareness of fact is exposed through Jenny's mistake. Again, Jenny is the sine qua non in the comedy of knowledge.

Jenny wraps up Tom's story and provides the closure she has on two other occasions denied us, but there is a loose end. The character undone by Jenny's revelation, Bridget Allworthy, we knew as a prude, an old maid, and a man hater. What now of her illicit love affair, her secret travail, her life of deception? Issues enough to fill another novel arise -- or would arise, if Bridget were not dead and buried many books ago.

In retrospect, the territory of our ignorance expands so significantly at the novel's Apocalypse that we have larger and more personal deficits to address than the forfeit of a passionate Bridget. The understanding we thought we had reached with Fielding, our mastery of what Iser calls the "virtual standpoint" (p. 53), must now be reassessed. Iser and others who discuss the reader in Tom Jones often seem to regard our perspective as privileged and stable, even as autonomous. Iser says with confidence:

As Fielding so frequently reminds us, [the] realization of human nature requires our own sagacity. . . . by uncovering the immanent motive, we can assess and correct the situation, and through the resultant judgment show that human nature is characterized by its independence of, and superiority to any given situation. . . . the esthetic pleasure lies in the opportunity for the reader to discover things for himself; the didactic profit lies in his availing himself of this opportunity, which is not intended by the author as an end in itself, but is to serve as training for the reader's sense of discernment. (p. 54)[11]

What Iser says about the aesthetic pleasure of the novel is true of a first reading: as Preston points out, we often enjoy a position of epistemological superiority to the characters, or suppose we do, and we often have the feeling that we are finding things out for ourselves, albeit things that Fielding has put there.[12] But only by doing violence either to Iser's or to Fielding's intent can we agree that the didactic purpose for the novel is to provide "training" for our "sense of discernment." That is, we can agree only if we make Iser out to be saying that it is not our discernment, but only our sense of discernment that is developed, or if we suppose Fielding to be teaching us that reason, properly trained, is indeed superior to "any given situation." Iser clearly does not mean to say the first, and Fielding equally clearly does not believe the second.

All knowledge, and thus all reasoning and discernment, is limited and situationally determinate, and all superiority is relative. To say otherwise is to miss the most engaging implication of the novel's climactic disclosures, to ignore the fact that they involve us as well as the characters in a comic reevaluation. Subsequent to the "final Catastrophe" we, or we as first readers, are revealed to have had an epistemological status, a fallibility and a dependency, no different from the characters'. We do not mind this demotion, and may not even notice it, because in the instant of our finding out the truth we cease to occupy our previous position, and we distance ourselves from the character of ignorance that we as first readers have acquired. But in the distance between a superior and a more superior epistemological position, and in the instant of our translation from one to the other, lies the real lesson of Tom Jones -- a lesson in humility.


  1. An Essay on Man, 2.11-12, ed. Maynard Mack, Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, vol. 3, pt. 1 (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1950), p. 55. Back

  2. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, ed. Fredson Bowers, Wesleyan Edition of the Works of Henry Fielding, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 524-25: 10.1. Subsequent quotations from Tom Jones are from this edition: page numbers are followed by book and chapter numbers. Back

  3. "The Plot of Tom Jones, JGE, 4 (1950): 115; rpt. with alterations and additions as "The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones," in Critics and Criticism, Ancient and Modern, ed. R.S. Crane (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), pp. 616-47. Back

  4. Crane, p. 637. Crane does, at one or two points, reason from within the plot (for example, see his discussion on p. 635 regarding the grounds of the reader's security), but for the most part he takes a bird's-eye view. Back

  5. For example, Ian Watt argues that "if we identify ourselves with the characters we shall not be in any mood to appreciate the humour of the larger comedy in which they are risible participants: life, we have been told, is a comedy only to the man who thinks, and the comic author must not make us feel every stroke of the lash as his characters squirm under his corrective rod" (The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957], p. 273). It is true that the reader of Tom Jones squirms only in hindsight, but it also must be said that the novel makes a point of providing us with that perspective. Back

  6. The Created Self: The Reader's Role in Eighteenth Century Fiction (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1970), p. 109. Back

  7. Malinda Snow, "The Judgment of Evidence in Tom Jones," SoAR, 48 (1983): 48. Snow discusses the logical characteristics of Fielding's narrative in detail and concludes, "Tom Jones is not so much about learning to judge in general as it is about learning to judge inductively. . . . the author of Tom Jones chides the public for its naivete and complacence in trusting its own conclusions as far as it does" (p. 41). Snow errs in her analysis by not equating the public and the reader, and she fails to see the extent of the evidence available to the reader (see my discussion of Book 10, chapter 7, below). Back

  8. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), p. 54. Back

  9. For examples see Martin Battestin, The Providence of Wit: Aspects of Form in Augustan Literature and the Arts (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 143-49; and Preston, pp. 99, 101. Such disagreements reflect but do not address the conflicting responses made available by the text. Rather than choosing one response over the other, we should explore the significance of their opposition. Back

  10. Snow, however, argues that it is impossible to solve the puzzle of Tom's identity in advance of the revelations at the end, because until then we "learn nothing of young Mr. Summer, Tom's father, nor of Bridget Blifil's letter to Allworthy" (p. 40). But we suspect Jenny before we know of a possible father, and as for the letter, the details to support an inference of Tom's true parentage are in fact available without it, as I note -- the narrator simply has not given any indication of the real importance of those details, and we are already relying on him to do our work for us. Back

  11. See also Wolfgang Iser, The Act of Reading (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), pp. 186-87. Back

  12. Furthermore, Preston says we enjoy a feeling of superiority to the narrator on a second reading (p. 111), and talks later in terms of our being taken behind the scenes with the author (p. 122). Back