Nigel Fabb, Strathclyde University, U.K.
When we read Tom Jones for the first time, we may worry that Tom might engage in an impossible love—incest—because we do not know who Tom’s father is, but we seem to know who his mother is (see Hogan, “Impossible Love“). The two young women he sleeps with, Molly and Sophia, might either be the daughter of whoever his father is, and the theme of incest becomes overt when he inadvertently sleeps with the woman who is thought to be his mother, Jenny. We are misdirected into suspecting a narrative of impossible love which is stopped in its tracks when we learn not only that his real mother is Bridget but also that his father is the previously unmentioned man Summer. This revelation changes our understanding of the narrative so that it becomes a narrative of seasonal regeneration. Tom takes on his father’s role as Summer; Squire Western is interpreted as his primary antagonist and takes on the role of the season he alliterates with, Winter, and young summer must win a girl (Sophia) from old winter. Instead of the impossible romance of incest, we have a completely different impossible immortal-human romance where the personified seasons interact with humans.
How plausible a reading is this? Tom and Western are paired in opposition by their different ways of travelling in the natural world—Tom on foot, Western on horse. Tom is associated with birds, not only narratively via Sophia’s bird, but also in the characters of Nightingale and Partridge, perhaps also Jenny (Jenny Wren). Moreover, his own name is a bird name (Tom Tit). Though most of the birds can be associated with any season, we might associate life with summer, and indeed a nightingale is a summer visitor to Britain. Tom Jones thus manifests a pattern found in folklore and mediaeval romances: “Summer is often personified by a young hero who defeats an older, feebler opponent: Culhwch taking Olwen from her father Ysbaddaden…” (Gantz).
Murray has given us an alternative reading of seasonality in the novel: Tom’s father is Summer who has engaged in an “unnatural mating'” (another impossible love) with winter, now personified as Bridget, “no improper emblem” of “a winter’s morning.” Tom is Spring, the result of the mating, and Sophia is also Spring (“the goddess Flora”), which allows them to be matched without further impossibility, while the anti-Sophia Lady Bellaston is in “the autumn of life.”
Though we are offered two incompatible readings, the multiplicity of impossible loves which thus emerge—along with the incest theme—reinforce our sense that Tom Jones exemplifies this type of Impossible Love romance.
Gantz, Jeffrey, trans. The Mabinogion. London: Penguin, 1976.
Murray, Peter B. “Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn in Tom Jones.” Modern Language Notes 76.4 (1 April 1961): 324-326.