Tom Jones, a bastard of infamous parentage, is nevertheless raised by the kind Squire Allworthy as a gentleman. He loves the neighboring Squire's daughter, Sophia, but has no problem sleeping around with the less scrupulous common girls while waiting for his chance with her. His foster father loves him and has him educated alongside his nephew and heir, Master Blifil. Jones inspires the friendship and ire of those around him and, when he is seen as a threat to Blifil's inheritance of the estate, is framed as eagerly anticipating his foster father's death. Squire Allworthy reluctantly casts him off and Tom must go out to seek his fortune in the world. At the same time Squire Western wishes to force his daughter to marry Blifil so that their estates can be combined. Sophia flees with her maid. Her father and Blifil in pursuit.
Of the handful of 18th century novels I've read in the past two years, 'Tom Jones' is the first I've enjoyed with the fewest qualifications to that word. Fielding is the first English novelist to understand how a story is supposed to work.
Fielding throws a lot in the air over this nearly 900 page novel and, with a notably boring exception (I'm looking at you Man of the Hill), the characters and their stories contribute towards the goal of illustrating Tom and Sophia's separate journeys to London with all the misunderstandings, plot twists and gross-out surprises that keep a reader interested. Here is a comic novel that is still capable of real humor and sustaining it. The plot is dense with pratfalls and fists and mistaken identities - a lie told by one character causes misfortune for another which prevents a third from bringing one of the pins from crashing to the floor.
On a serious note, the novel is concerned with hypocrisy more than anything else. Master Blifil and Thwackem in the eyes of the world are respectable, but their platitudes have no feeling behind them, their greed is so blinding they fail to see any other motivation in those around them. Hypocrisy towards sexual desire is thornier territory, but the message can be a simple as its natural, everyone wants to do it anyway, and if all participants have honest expectations and intentions and, erm, no one gets pregnant, its a good time for everybody. Thorny.
The novel works. There are a few moral wrinkles and unnecessary asides and structural problems, but 'Tom Jones' works. I'd recommend it over many others.