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Prior,-KarenI am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.

Karen Swallow Prior (PhD, State University of New York at Buffalo) is Professor of English at Liberty University.

Dr. Prior is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me and the forthcoming Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (releasing in November).

She is a Research Fellow with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

TomJonesTitleMost of us who read novels today can’t imagine a world without novels and may not realize that the novel is a relatively recent literary invention, a product, in fact, of modernity. While its history is long and complicated, literary critics usually point to two particular works that gave rise to the novel. Samuel Richardson, the author credited as the “father of the novel,” published a series of letters purportedly written by a young servant girl named Pamela (the title of the work) whose virtue overcomes the unscrupulous pursuits of her rich master. Pamela, published in 1740, took the British nation by storm and was so popular that it was the first novel to be published across the pond here in America.

Enter Henry Fielding, a classically-schooled playwright and aristocrat who was scandalized that an upstart middle-class printer took center stage in the world of letters with such a low work. The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling is Fielding’s literary rebuttal to Pamela.

Tom Jones is a masterpiece. Like Richardson, Fielding did not use the term “novel.” The sorts of works called “novels” at this time were disreputable tales of illicit love and adventure; no serious author would seek to adopt the label until the nineteenth century. Instead, Fielding modeled Tom Jones after the classical epic: the book is epic in length and structured into volumes, books, and chapters. It tells an expansive tale of a foundling boy who traverses from the English countryside to London and back again in search of his rightful identity and home—and, of course, love, for it’s a comic as well as an epic story.

Tom Jones is also influenced by the allegory of John Bunyan. Tom’s journey is an allegorical one, although not nearly as obviously so as in Pilgrim’s Progress. His adoptive father, Squire Allworthy, for example, is a very worthy man, and serves as a benevolent deity over his estate, named Paradise Hall (from which Tom is expelled for a time). Tom’s main love interest (there are many—this novel is not for the prudish reader!) is named Sophia. As Tom pursues her, he is also pursuing wisdom (the meaning of the Greek word sophia).

In addition to the grandness of the story and the richness of its layers of meaning, Tom Jones offers a veritable crash course in this period of church history. In his latitudinarian Anglicanism, Fielding takes on the rising Methodism (which would birth evangelicalism) of the day (particularly manifested in the pietistic Pamela). In Tom Jones can be seen the seeds of theological liberalism, yet at the same time, the correction it offers to extreme pietism—as well as other extremes such as deism and asceticism—instructs by delighting: Tom is a good-hearted rogue who errs and learns as he encounters countless scoundrels, ladies, less-than-ladies, and lessons on his way.

And this is the most important point: Tom Jones  is a fun novel. The reader has to work a little (actually, a lot) to gain the novel’s rich rewards—the novel is long, erudite, meandering, and of a very different age—but the investment is well worth the effort. I highly recommend the Wesleyan edition for its copious footnotes which will not only assist in the reading but increase understanding so as to produce even more laughter. After you’ve read the novel, treat yourself to the 1963 Oscar-winning film adaptation (which, while very good, does not come close to conveying all that the novel holds).

The History of Tom Jones is the best kind of novel: one that provokes both wisdom and laughter and invites many re-readings.

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4 thoughts on “Karen Swallow Prior: A Novel Every Christian Should Consider Reading”

  1. Curtis Sheidler says:

    Man, it’s been far too long since I’ve read this, but I wholeheartedly second the recommendation: Tom Jones is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Another worthwhile pick might be Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

    1. KSP says:

      Oh, Tristram Shandy is another great novel! Glad my post brought back some good memories.

  2. Clark Palmer says:

    Thanks for taking the time to describe Tom Jones to us. I just added it to my ‘wishlist.”

    1. KSP says:

      It was my great pleasure!

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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