Fielding’s Irony in Tom Jones to Castigate Vice and Encourage Virtue

Irony is a figure of speech in which the actual meaning and intent is expressed in words which seem to imply the opposites. Although it is sometimes confused with sarcasm it differs from this in that it is actually lighter in tone and less harsh in wording. One of the chief purposes of Fielding in Tom Jones is to castigate vice and encourage virtue. This is best achieved by the ironic mode. Fielding’s irony – authorial irony – pervades the novel. Although this irony is often verbal irony as in Mark Antony’s words about Brutus – ‘And Brutus is an honourable man’ – implying that Brutus is not honourable at all; there are also many instances of situational or dramatic irony. Situation, irony occurs when a character, usually a hypocritical character, professes one thing and is latter revealed to practicing another. A dramatic irony occurs when a person ignorant of the real situation makes a wrong assertion about the situation. In this case the readers share with the author a knowledge of which the speaker is ignorant.

The chief purpose of Fielding’s irony is to satirize certain aspect of human nature and certain social conventions. His irony is in apart derived from Cervantes Don Quixote in which the Spanish author persists with ironic tone throughout the novel in order to ridicule the contemporary romanticism regarding knighthood; similarly, fielding always makes the corrective purpose of his irony clear. Unlike Swift’s irony in Gulliver’s Travels Fielding’s irony does not criticize all aspects of society, but rather only those aspects which he finds particularly distasteful. Fielding was himself a magistrate and therefore could observe at first hand the hypocrisies and duplicities that are endemic in society irrespective of social or aristocratic status. As a rhetorical device , Fielding’s irony in Tom Jones convey a moral by a sharply distinguishing between what a man is form what a man ought to be. Such irony is in part a psychological device because it presents the difference between that a man is and what he thinks himself to be. It is also a Metaphysical device because it establishes the right by demeaning the wrong.
The chief attack against hypocrisy is directed towards the characters who are prudent and polite but basically bad-natured. Thwakum and Square are those hypocritical characters who do not possess the ‘good nature’ that fielding so desires. The Worthy Square one day preaches to the injured Tom the inconsequential of pain.  He is a temporary affliction which is beneath a responsible man’s notice and it should be treated with contempt. Unfortunately, however during one of those highly instructive monologues he bites his tongue. His subsequent actions weaken somewhat his wise and stoic advice. Rater, when Molly weeps a flood of tears and accuses Tom of being a faithless lover, Tom makes a discovery which weakens her argument. He discovers the ‘philosophy’ Square hiding behind in Molly’s closet. These two instances of irony of situation both operate to undermine the readers’ faith in those characters. Sometimes the irony is directed towards characters that are not all bad. One example is Squire Western, an otherwise good man being excessively concerned about wealth. When Squire Western violently abuses his sister over a dispute about the management of Sophia, however, unknowingly stops this criticism with a few simple words…………if my aunt had died yesterday. I am convinced she would have left you her whole fortune the remark prompts Western to run after his sister and to persuade her to remain.
Sometimes Fielding’s irony as a genuine criticism of certain aspect of socially. One such case is Fielding’s irony against the social victimization of the poor. He satirizes by calling the brutal attitude of a mob a ‘good nature disposition’. The good nature disposition consists in ‘their compassion to work on the person of poor Jenny, whom, in order to pity, they desired to have been sacrificed to ruin infancy by a shameful correction in Bridewell’. In such a passage one senses the outraged moral indignation of the author at the sight of brutal conduct. Similarly Fielding points out – through irony of situation – the native grade of most characters. Fielding exposes how the inn – keepers praise Tom when they think him to be rich, and how they criticize him when they come to know of his present poverty.
Fielding’s irony often consists of a mock – heroic treatment of a particular characters or episode. Trivial things are treat as ‘if they were matters of great significance. The chief target of such a mock – heroic style is affectation. In a sense affectation is the adoption of heroic stances by persons not entitled to them. An example is the description of the relation between Mrs. Waters and Jones. Tom’s animal desire, for illegitimate sex is almost always described in terms of ‘appetite’ and apparently something to boast of. One recollects that in Jonathan Wilde, he had spoken of ‘those Eating – houses where Female flesh is deliciously drest and served’. The entrance of Sophia is described in a similar mock – heroic manner.
Thus Fielding’s mock – heroic manner, one which never dwindles who sarcasm, allows his novels to be at once a critique of society and admirable literary artifacts.