The narrator sets up a contract with the Reader, casting himself as a Restauranteur, his work as a "Feast," and the Reader as his patron. Since the Reader must pay for what he eats—the book—the narrator invites the Reader to mull over the menu, which he promises to provide in the way of an introductory clause at the opening of each Book and each Chapter. The type of cuisine is none other than "human nature," a topic which has been written about in the cheaper kind of literature, —thought it has been grossly bandied about in stall-bound "Romances, Novels, Plays and Poems"—may have refinement depending on the "Cookery of the Author." The narrator intends to mimic the cookery of Heliogabalus, a Roman emperor who initiated his guests with simple fare, slowly building to more sophisticated delicacies. After serving up his simple fare of country characters, the narrator will present the Reader with the "high French and Italian Seasoning of Affectation and Vice which Courts and Cities afford."
In the western domain of England lives a retired gentleman, Mr. Allworthy, blessed by Nature with good looks, robust health, understanding, an altruistic disposition, and one of the most prosperous estates in the county of Somersetshire. Five years before the story begins, Allworthy's beautiful and virtuous wife passed away, following their three children, who died as infants. Allworthy, however, still considers himself married—a sentiment that inspires the praise of his neighbors. Allworthy lives with his only sibling, his beloved sister, Miss Bridget Allworthy, who is called an "old Maid" because she is thirty years old and unmarried. Miss Bridget is one of those "very good sort of Women," which is the description women give to other women who are deprived of beauty.
The reader may assume, based on the previous chapter's description, that Allworthy does nothing other than perform benevolent deeds. But if this were the case, the narrator says, he would not have wasted his time producing a work of such epic length. If the Reader would rather read such matter, he can peruse instead one of those boring books called The History of England.
An exhausted Allworthy, returning from business in London, retires to bed. On pulling back the sheets he discovers a baby boy, swaddled in linen, sleeping sweetly. Although greatly surprised, Allworthy cannot help but feel empathy for the little being, and awe at its beauty. Allworthy rings his bell to summon his old-time servant, Mrs. Deborah Wilkins. Mrs. Deborah takes some time to preen herself, in spite of the urgency of Allworthy's summons, and it should therefore come as no surprise, the narrator says, that she is shocked to find Allworthy, who in his haste has forgotten to dress, wearing only his nightshirt. After delivering a long monologue on the indecency of unchaste women—whom she calls "wicked Sluts", Mrs. Deborah advises Allworthy to discard the baby at the parish door. But, during Mrs. Deborah's speech, the baby has clasped Allworthy's finger in his tiny hand, winning the man's heart. Allworthy orders Mrs. Deborah to carry the boy to her bed, prepare food for him, and to seek out appropriate clothes the next day. Mrs. Deborah, always loyal to her master, now calls the boy a "sweet little Infant" and whisks the child away in her arms.
Allworthy's Gothic-style house, which resides on a hill beneath a grove of old oaks, is on a property that stretches out beyond lawns, meadows, and woods, and out to the sea. Allworthy takes in this view during a mid-May morning walk, in which his mind stews over the noble question of how he "might render himself most acceptable to his Creator, by doing most Good to his Creatures." At breakfast, Allworthy tells Miss Bridget he has a gift for her, which she suspects will be a gown, or jewelry. She is therefore speechless with surprise on first being presented with the baby boy Allworthy found in his bed the night before. Miss Bridget calls the unknown mother every vile name she knows, but she nevertheless shows some compassion for the child. All the female servants in the house are suspected, but all are "acquitted" by Mrs. Wilkins, to whom the task of inspecting all the women in the parish is given. Miss Bridget agrees to take care of the child, at her brother's request.
Once Allworthy departs, Mrs. Deborah waits for contradictory orders from Miss Bridget, since she knows that the brother and sister's opinions begin to differ as soon as they are apart. Miss Bridget, after staring for a little while at the baby sleeping in Mrs. Deborah's lap, cannot refrain from kissing it and praising its beauty. She then sets about ordering "Necessaries" for the child, and appoints one of the best rooms in the house to be its nursery. This is not without a sly and contradictory quip at her brother, however, whom she scorns for desiring to support Vice by adopting "the little Brat."
Mrs. Deborah hurries to the parish in pursuit of the mother of the baby. Due to her habit of treating the parish inhabitants with disdain and ill will, none of the matrons there look forward to Mrs. Deborah's visit, but one old woman, who is equal to Mrs. Deborah in age and ugliness, likes her better than the others. The two women discuss the characters of various young women, and decide that a certain Jenny Jones must have committed the crime.
Though Jenny is not beautiful, she has been endowed with "Understanding." She has developed this quality through study, as she is the servant of a schoolmaster who has undertaken to teach Latin to Jenny. The narrator grants that Jenny is "perhaps, as good a Scholar as most of the young Men of Quality of the Age," but, because of her superior intellect and accompanying pride, Jenny has become the envy of her neighbors. This is why the elderly woman suspects Jenny to be the mother of the foundling. Mrs. Wilkins, has additional reason to suspect Jenny, because Jenny has recently spent time at Allworthy's house nursing Miss Bridget out of an illness.
Summoned to face Mrs. Deborah, who dubs her an "audacious Strumpet," Jenny confesses to being the mother of the child. Even though Jenny shows remorse, Mrs. Deborah upbraids her even more, backed up by a chorus of female on-lookers who have gathered around. Mrs. Deborah conveys the news to Mr. Allworthy, who is greatly surprised, since he intended to reward Jenny's diligencet self- improvement by arranging for her a decent living and a marriage with a neighboring Curate. Mrs. Bridget is sent to summon Jenny to a conference with Allworthy.
Jenny meets Allworthy in his study, where he delivers an effusive monologue on the crime of a woman's spoiling her Chastity. Allworthy reminds Jenny that fleeting pleasure can overwhelm reason, which should remind one of the dire consequences of passion. He argues that a woman cannot invoke love as an excuse for her behavior, since no man who truly loved a woman would use her in so base a way.
On a more positive note, Allworthy expresses admiration for Jenny's decision not to abandon the child, as some callous mothers might have. He appreciates her judgment in leaving the child to his care. When Allworthy asks the name of the child's father, Jenny pleads with him, claiming she is "under the most solemn Ties and Engagements of Honour, as well as the most religious Vows and Protestations" not to reveal the father's name. Allworthy asserts that he does not desire to know the man's name out of curiosity, but so that he may at least know who to avoid doing favors for in the future. Jenny assures Allworthy that the man is "entirely out of his Reach." Allworthy therefore respects Jenny's wish that the man's name remain private and bids her to seek forgiveness from God.
Miss Bridget and Mrs. Deborah, who have used the keyhole of the adjoining room as a conduit to eavesdrop on Allworthy and Jenny's conversation, debate the proceedings. Mrs. Deborah speaks out first, shrilly proclaiming that Mr. Allworthy should have been harsher in his treatment of Jenny. She swears that if she had been in his position, she would certainly have extracted the name of the father. At this Miss Bridget smiles, a rare occurrence. Miss Bridget contradicts Mrs. Deborah's outburst by praising Jenny for confessing to her crime and hypocritically chastises Miss Bridget for prying into other people's business. Mrs. Deborah, who normally reserves her judgment until her mistress has spoken, now retracts all she said earlier. The women essentially take Jenny's side because, like them, she is not beautiful, and the conversation ends with "a general and bitter Invective against Beauty, and with many compassionate Considerations for all honest, plain Girls, who are deluded by the wicked Arts of deceitful Men."
When the neighbors learn that instead of sending Jenny to a House of Correction, Allworthy has simply banished her from the parish, they unleash invectives against her. Jenny's distance prevents her from being the recipient of their animosity, so the neighbors begin directing their maliciousness toward Mr. Allworthy himself and spread rumors that he is the father himself. The narrator assures the Reader that "Mr. Allworthy was, and will hereafter appear to be, absolutely innocent of any criminal Intention whatever."
Although he favors "Men of Merit" and "Men of Genius and Learning," Allworthy opens his house and heart to anyone. Men flock to Allworthy's company not only because they are certain of being showered with hospitality, but because Allworthy allows every guest to spend his time according to that guest's inclination. The gentleman Dr. Blifil, one such visitor, has won Allworthy's pity. This is due to the fact that Dr. Blifil's father forced him to study medicine or "Physic" against his will and Allworthy pities anyone who has found misfortune because of the "Folly or Villainy of others." Since he detests his profession, Dr. Blifil hardly practices and, thus, has accumulated very little fortune. Dr. Blifil's one shining quality, which is his "great Appearance of Religion," attracts Miss Bridget to him. A romance springs up between the two based on their particular "sympathy" of religious views. The narrator expresses no surprise at this event, since he wryly observes that "Sympathies of all Kinds are apt to beget Love; so Experience teaches us that none have a more direct Tendency this Way than those of a religious Kind between Persons of different Sexes."
One obstacle stands in Miss Bridget and Dr. Blifil's way: Dr. Blifil is married. There is nothing for Dr. Blifil to do but try to conjure a match between Miss Bridget and his brother. The narrator muses as to the reason for such a decision, especially since Dr. Blifil "had no great Friendship for his Brother." The narrator speculates that Dr. Blifil might just have an evil nature, or that he wishes to be an accomplice in the "Theft" of a wealthy lady, or that he hopes his status will vicariously be raised through his brother's marriage.
Captain Blifil, Dr. Blifil's brother, arrives at Allworthy's house almost immediately after receiving the summons from his brother. The thirty-five-year- old Captain is well built and has a scar on his forehead. His demeanor and voice are rough, yet he is "not ungenteel, nor entirely void of Wit." The Captain's father wanted his son to become a priest, but died before the ordination, and the Captain became an army man instead. After an argument with his Colonel, however, the Captain was forced to resign his commission and has since been devoting himself to Biblical study in the countryside. Only a week after his arrival at Allworthy's estate, Captain Blifil begins to make an impression on the "Saint-like" character of Miss Bridget, thus fulfilling his brother's hopes for him.
Miss Bridget falls for Captain Blifil, even though the Captain is not good- looking, which the narrator ascribes to Bridget's search for something profound and meaningful. Bridget is not beautiful either, making it unnecessary for the narrator to "draw her Picture." Moreover, the narrator relates, a better artist—the famous Mr. Hogarth—has already undertaken that task. Once the Captain catches scent of Bridget's passion for him, he returns it. The Captain, however, has actually fallen in love with Mr. Allworthy's estate. He harbors a fear that Allworthy will not approve of a match between his sister and a man who is so much poorer than her, so he attempts to conceal his brief courtship from Allworthy. The Captain proposes and is rejected twice before Miss Bridget finally submits.
Dr. Blifil takes the task of breaking the news of Dr. Blifil and Miss Bridget's marriage to Allworthy upon himself. Finding Allworthy strolling in the garden, Dr. Blifil greets him with a bitter speech about men's self- interestedness and women's debauchery. Mr. Allworthy, however, already knows about his sister's marriage and wholeheartedly supports it in spite of Captain Blifil's lack of finances. Allworthy stops Dr. Blifil mid-sentence with his angelic philosophies about marriage being based on love. Allworthy does not believe that physical attraction and financial concerns should be renounced entirely, but he also believes that they should not be the sole basis for matrimony.
Dr. Blifil tells his brother about how he pretended to be angry when he met Allworthy in the garden, saying that he wanted to dismiss any suspicions Allworthy might have that Dr. Blifil set up the marriage. The narrator says that the Captain will later make use of this disclosure. Now that the Captain possesses Miss Bridget and her money, he treats his brother with the utmost disdain. No one can help noticing this behavior, not even Allworthy, to whom the Captain confides that he can never forgive his brother for a past injury. Allworthy protests so loudly against not forgiving that the Captain affects a pretense of goodwill toward his brother when they are in company, but in private his contempt continues. Dr. Blifil appeals to his brother, but the Captain rudely tells him to quit the house if he is not content. The narrator hints that Dr. Blifil is indeed guilty of some former crime, and submits to his brother's behavior because he does not want the Captain to reveal this secret to Allworthy. Moreover, the Captain, who is proud and fierce, has long resented his brother's intellectual capacities. The narrator concludes that envy mangled with contempt and obligation tends to breed indignation rather than gratitude. Dr. Blifil can no longer bear his brother's cruelty and departs for London, where he dies of a broken heart.
By beginning Book I with some self-conscious reflections on the role of an author, Fielding immediately incorporates his "Reader" into the novel. In Chapter I, Fielding refers to the reader in the third person, and in the rest of Book I he addresses the reader directly—a form of address known as apostrophe. Fielding's deep concern for establishing a relationship between author and reader reflects on the context in which he was writing: with the "novel" as a newly emerging form of literature, the act of reading was shifting from a public to a private experience, which explains why Fielding always refers to a single reader, not to a group of readers. Fielding's concern is not without irony, however, since Fielding often makes the reader aware of how little power he or she has. While the narrator promises in Chapter I to provide a menu at the beginning of each chapter, the reader soon realizes that this menu is not to be as lucid and useful as promised.
By involving the Reader in the novel, Fielding invites us to reflect on the construction of the work and on the reading process itself. By relentlessly alluding to writers and figures from Classical Antiquity and Mythology, Fielding reminds the reader of the strong intellectual foundation on which this work has been built. Yet Fielding greets even these references with some irony. Indeed, Fielding questions the very definition of a "novel" by creating a pastiche of various styles of writing. He expresses scorn towards the "Romances, Novels, Plays and Poems, with which the Stalls abound" and implies in Chapter III that his work deserves to be placed among the more reputable "History" genre.
Yet the plot that drives Book I—Mr. Allworthy's discovery of the foundling in his bed, and the marriage of Miss Bridget Allworthy to Captain Blifil—suggests that Fielding is trying to revolutionize the very notion of "History," by rejecting dour political histories and trying to construct a set of personal histories instead. Instead of probing into his characters' psychologies, as a more traditional novel might, Fielding insists on presenting "scenes" to the reader—faithful transcriptions of their actions and dialogue that read like historical facts.