The term “picaresque’ has been derived from the Spanish word ‘picaro’, which means a rogue or a villain. Originally a type of romance that deals with the rogues or villains is called ‘picaresque’. Traditionally, a picaresque novel presented, in an extravagant style, a series of adventures and misadventures, mostly on the highways. With the development, it was no longer considered essential to take only a rogue or a villain as the central character. This picaresque form offered enough scope to throw light on the life, culture, and morality of the age and to criticize the evils infesting it.
From this view, Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones cannot be called a regular picaresque novel. But it incorporates in its structure the major characteristics of the picaresque form. The first six books depict Tom’s adventures in the countryside. The poaching incident, Molly’s battle in the churchyard, Tom’s escapade with Molly in the bushes are all in the same tradition. But speaking strictly, it is with Book VII when dismissed by Squire Allworthy, Tom takes the road to Bristol, that the really picaresque nature of the novel becomes evident henceforward, for the next six Books. Tom is involved in some breath-taking, swashing adventures on the roadside. In Book VII, piqued by some scurrilous jests at Sophia’s expense by Ensign Northerton, Tom picks a quarrel with him and gets hit on the head with a bottle of wine. Moreover, Fielding provides the hero with an English counterpart of Sancho Panza – the pedantic garrulous – cowardly Partridge.
Besides Tom, Sophia and Mrs.Honour are put on the road to London. Tom’s next halt is at the Bell, which he is forced to leave on account of the rude and insulting behavior of the landlady, though it is 5 O’clock in the midwinter, and the cowardly Partridge is little inclined to give up the security of the inn. The same evening. Tom rescues the Man of the Hill from being strangled by Ensign Northerton. After a night’s stay at the Upton Inn, where some hilarious comedy takes place, Tom is again on the roadside now to meet beggars, highwaymen, and gypsies. The novelist even inserts a puppet show. In London itself, there is a masquerade, an attempted rape with a timely rescue, and intrigue followed by a ghastly duel and the arrest of Tom and the final resolution.
The hero is thus evidently a rambling waif with certain flaws in his character. There is no doubt that Fielding depicts his hero as a more or less licentious person who finds it impossible to resist a woman’s charm or her advances. In spite of his love for Sophia which always remains chaste, Tom is sexually involved with three other women: Molly Seagrim, Mrs. Waters, and Lady Bellaston. In the process, Tom comes in contact with different strata of the society country squires, divines, and philosophers, lawyers, and military officials, landladies, beggars and highwaymen, gypsies, and finally the aristocrats – and the novel expose the contemporary social evils as well as human follies and foibles of a more general nature. Among these, the worldly-minded priests and the corrupt aristocrats seem to have aroused him to the maximum indignation. General human weaknesses that Fielding holds to ridicule are the envy, malice, selfishness, and hypocrisy of saint-like figures like Square, Thwackum, and Blifil.
But its narrative is nowhere rambling & discursive. Moreover, it offers an organically growing plot. “No plot has ever been carried through with more consummate skill”. Its adventures are not arbitrarily designed and inserted to adorn the narrative. Their incidence derives from the character of the hero and their course is not totally unpredictable.
Thus, one may say that Tom Jones is a novel in the picaresque tradition, but not quite perfectly, acquiring many major qualities while lacking some others. It shows the protagonist as a sexual fanatic, it shows a sense of the random uncertainty of life, freedom, or free sex, and depicts both social and spatial mobility. But the last phase of Tom’s life – as a true lover and gentleman in the true sense, with his triumph over all the moral infidelity, – largely deviates from the picaresque tradition. In the novel, Fielding preaches moral lessons through his threefold intention – the pursuit of virtue, avoidance of vice, and the need for virtue to be guided by discretion. Thereby, we see, Sophia ultimately gives her consent for marriage, only when she is thoroughly convinced of Tom’s moral sanctity. Thus, it is right to call it a “quasi-picaresque novel”.