Study Guide

Tom Jones Gender

By Henry Fielding

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Miss Bridget Allworthy (for that was the name of this lady) very rightly conceived the charms of person in a woman to be no better than snares for herself, as well as for others; and yet so discreet was she in her conduct, that her prudence was as much on the guard as if she had all the snares to apprehend which were ever laid for her whole sex. Indeed, I have observed, though it may seem unaccountable to the reader, that this guard of prudence, like the trained bands, is always readiest to go on duty where there is the least danger. It often basely and cowardly deserts those paragons for whom the men are all wishing, sighing, dying, and spreading, every net in their power; and constantly attends at the heels of that higher order of women for whom the other sex have a more distant and awful respect, and whom (from despair, I suppose, of success) they never venture to attack. (1.2.3)

Bridget Allworthy is an "old maid," which is a (pretty offensive by today's standards) term for a woman who is unmarried and probably too old to find a husband. Bridget is really nervous about being tempted in the sinfulness of sex, and she is always super careful around men. But, the narrator tells us, Bridget is foolish to worry about men. Her "prudence" is unnecessary, because she isn't in any danger of getting seduced into sin—she's not pretty enough. The narrator's tone towards Bridget is really condescending. How does the narrator's characterization of Bridget Allworthy influence your sense of the narrator's views on women as a whole?

This Jenny Jones was no very comely girl, either in her face or person; but nature had somewhat compensated the want of beauty with what is generally more esteemed by those ladies whose judgment is arrived at years of perfect maturity, for she had given her a very uncommon share of understanding. […] This advantage, however, like most others of an extraordinary kind, was attended with some small inconveniences: for as it is not to be wondered at, that a young woman so well accomplished should have little relish for the society of those whom fortune had made her equals, but whom education had rendered so much her inferiors; so is it matter of no greater astonishment, that this superiority in Jenny, together with that behaviour which is its certain consequence, should produce among the rest some little envy and ill-will towards her; and these had, perhaps, secretly burnt in the bosoms of her neighbours ever since her return from her service.

Their envy did not, however, display itself openly, till poor Jenny, to the surprize of everybody, and to the vexation of all the young women in these parts, had publickly shone forth on a Sunday in a new silk gown, with a laced cap, and other proper appendages to these.

The flame [of envy], which had before lain in embryo, now burst forth. Jenny had, by her learning, increased her own pride, which none of her neighbours were kind enough to feed with the honour she seemed to demand; and now, instead of respect and adoration, she gained nothing but hatred and abuse by her finery. The whole parish declared she could not come honestly by such things; and parents, instead of wishing their daughters the same, felicitated themselves that their children had them not. (1.6.8-10)

Jenny Jones really has it rough: she is a woman in a sexist society, so the people around her think it is inappropriate that she has so much education. But even worse, the villagers also think that her sudden riches—her new silk gown and lace hat—are proof that she has done something sinful. Everyone turns against Jenny Jones, both because they are jealous of her good luck and because she refuses to behave like the other poor women around her.

Jenny Jones's trouble with her fellow villagers illustrates something really horrible about both class and gender inequality. It is not <em>only </em>the rich and the men who keep these systems going. Even though it appears to go against their own interests, women participate in gender discrimination and working class people also take part in class discrimination. When it seems like Jenny Jones is getting <em>too rich</em> for her position as a poor person and<em> too educated</em> for her role as a woman, everyone in the village gets jealous, angry, and mean.

"Well but, sister, what would you advise me to do; for I tell you women know these matters better than we do?"—"Oh, your humble servant, sir," answered the lady: "we are obliged to you for allowing us a capacity in anything. Since you are pleased, then, most politic sir, to ask my advice, I think you may propose the match to Allworthy yourself. There is no indecorum in the proposal's coming from the parent of either side. […] "Fear not," cries Mrs Western; "the match is too advantageous to be refused." "I don't know that," answered the squire: "Allworthy is a queer b—ch, and money hath no effect o'un." "Brother," said the lady, "your politics astonish me. Are you really to be imposed on by professions? Do you think Mr Allworthy hath more contempt for money than other men because he professes more? Such credulity would better become one of us weak women, than that wise sex which heaven hath formed for politicians." (6.2.5)

Mrs. Western's gender identity in this book is kind of puzzling. She does a lot of supposedly unwomanly things, including studying up on politics and history and traveling the world. In fact, the narrator even specifies that, "her masculine person, which was near six foot high, added to her manner and learning, possibly prevented the other sex from regarding her, notwithstanding her petticoats, in the light of a woman" (6.2.2). In other words, she looks and acts like a man (according to the assumptions of her time), even though she wears dresses. But she also spends a lot of time saying that women know much more about love than men do and using terms like "us weak women." She draws on some common stereotypes of women and of femininity while still not behaving at all like a typical lady of her time.

The morning in which Mr Jones departed, Mrs Western summoned Sophia into her apartment; and having first acquainted her that she had obtained her liberty of her father, she proceeded to read her a long lecture on the subject of matrimony; which she treated not as a romantic scheme of happiness arising from love, as it hath been described by the poets; nor did she mention any of those purposes for which we are taught by divines to regard it as instituted by sacred authority; she considered it rather as a fund in which prudent women deposit their fortunes to the best advantage, in order to receive a larger interest for them than they could have elsewhere. (7.3.1)

Mrs. Western dismisses the idea of marriage "arising from love." Instead, she tells Sophia that marriage is an investment for women, so that they can increase their own fortunes. Clearly, considering how foolish Mrs. Western is as a character, the narrator doesn't want us to agree wholeheartedly with this vision of marriage as a business transaction. But let's be realistic: marriage was a kind of job opportunity for ladies, at least in Fielding's day and age. At a time when it was not customary for women—especially upper class women—to work outside the home, how else were women supposed to guarantee their financial and social positions but through good marriages? And even if Fielding is pro-love, we can't help but notice that Sophia and Tom don't get married until after Tom's fortune has been settled.

"Yes, upon my truly was it," says she: "the gentleman speaks very much like a gentleman, and I see very plainly is so; and to be certain the house is well known to be a house of as good reputation as any on the road, and though I say it, is frequented by gentry of the best quality, both Irish and English. I defy anybody to say black is my eye, for that matter. And, as I was saying, if I had known your ladyship to be your ladyship, I would as soon have burnt my fingers as have affronted your ladyship; but truly where gentry come and spend their money, I am not willing that they should be scandalized by a set of poor shabby vermin, that, wherever they go, leave more lice than money behind them; such folks never raise my compassion, for to be certain it is foolish to have any for them; and if our justices did as they ought, they would be all whipt out of the kingdom." (9.4.8)

We can't help but notice that the landlady here imagines the same punishment for prostitutes (that they be "whipt out of the kingdom") that Mrs. Wilkins wants for the mothers of bastards (that they be "whipt at the cart's tail" (1.3.5)). When the landlady at Upton speaks to Mrs. Waters once she realizes that she's not a prostitute, her face is still scratched with the marks of Mrs. Waters's fingernails. And Mrs. Waters is still wearing a pillowcase across her chest. Nothing has really changed about either of them from one minute to the next, but the label that the landlady uses—from prostitute to "ladyship"—seems to transform Mrs. Waters into an entirely different species of woman in the landlady's eyes.

Mr Jones, of whose personal accomplishments we have hitherto said very little, was, in reality, one of the handsomest young fellows in the world. His face, besides being the picture of health, had in it the most apparent marks of sweetness and good-nature. […]

It was, perhaps, as much owing to this as to a very fine complexion that his face had a delicacy in it almost inexpressible, and which might have given him an air rather too effeminate, had it not been joined to a most masculine person and mien: which latter had as much in them of the Hercules as the former had of the Adonis. He was besides active, genteel, gay, and good-humoured; and had a flow of animal spirits which enlivened every conversation where he was present. (9.5.5-6)

It's interesting to contrast the narrator's description of Tom here with Squire Western's character. The squire loves hunting above everything else, he's constantly drinking, he has a furious temper, and he hates women. He associates himself with extremely stereotypical masculinity. What makes Tom so attractive, on the other hand, is that he doesn't go overboard with the whole manly man thing. In fact, his face is "rather too effeminate." But while his appearance may be filled with "delicacy in it almost inexpressible," his body is 100% beefcake. So Tom combines the sweetness associated with femininity with marked masculine strength. And it's this combination of feminine and masculine qualities that makes him appealing and likable to both women and men.

And hence, I think, we may very fairly draw an argument, to prove how extremely natural virtue is to the fair sex; for, though there is not, perhaps, one in ten thousand who is capable of making a good actress, and even among these we rarely see two who are equally able to personate the same character, yet this of virtue they can all admirably well put on; and as well those individuals who have it not, as those who possess it, can all act it to the utmost degree of perfection. (10.2.17)

Okay, we're just going to say it: ugh. There are so many obnoxious things about this passage that it's hard to know where to begin. let's start with "we" versus "they." Whenever the narrator talks about women, he always talks about "them." But when he addresses the reading audience, it's "we," as in "we men." Not all your readers are dudes, Fielding! Secondly, the narrator is basically calling women natural liars, because those who "have [natural virtue] not" can still "put [it] on" as well as those who "possess it." Thirdly, the tone of this whole passage is funny and sarcastic, as though the narrator is nudging us with an elbow and saying, "Huh? Huh? Am I right? Chicks, bro—I tell ya." We can take a joke, but after a while, this tongue-and-cheek teasing about women lacking virtue gets really, really old.

Notwithstanding the many pretty arts which ladies sometimes practise, to display their fears on every little occasion (almost as many as the other sex uses to conceal theirs), certainly there is a degree of courage which not only becomes a woman, but is often necessary to enable her to discharge her duty. It is, indeed, the idea of fierceness, and not of bravery, which destroys the female character; for who can read the story of the justly celebrated Arria without conceiving as high an opinion of her gentleness and tenderness as of her fortitude? At the same time, perhaps, many a woman who shrieks at a mouse, or a rat, may be capable of poisoning a husband; or, what is worse, of driving him to poison himself. (10.9.3)

And once again, Tom Jones reminds us that it was written a couple of centuries before feminism. The narrator's view on what kind of strength it is appropriate for women to have is pretty condescending. He says that women should be brave, yes, but not fierce. In other words, women's courage should be strong but not angry or confrontational. The ideal that the narrator invites us to admire is a woman who is definitely brave, but who uses her bravery strictly in support of the man she loves. What do you guys think of this model of womanly courage?

To clear, therefore, the honour of Mr Jones, and to do justice to the liberality of the lady, he had really received this present from her, who, though she did not give much into the hackney charities of the age, such as building hospitals, &c., was not, however, entirely void of that Christian virtue; and conceived (very rightly I think) that a young fellow of merit, without a shilling in the world, was no improper object of this virtue. (13.8.2)

This passage is actually pretty hilarious: Lady Bellaston may not be big on conventional charities, but she does like to support poor (and handsome) young men every now and again. Tom appears to be one of these lucky lads. In fact, it's thanks to her that Tom has been able to survive in London. Tom is Lady Bellaston's kept man. One reason why we find this darkly funny is that Squire Western keeps insulting his daughter by calling Sophia a prostitute. Yet, isn't it actually Tom who is the prostitute? He is the one who is having sex with Lady Bellaston for money!

Sophia, notwithstanding her fright, presently knew her father's voice; and his lordship, notwithstanding his passion, knew the voice of reason, which peremptorily assured him, it was not now a time for the perpetration of his villany. Hearing, therefore, the voice approach, and hearing likewise whose it was (for as the squire more than once roared forth the word daughter, so Sophia, in the midst of her struggling, cried out upon her father), he thought proper to relinquish his prey, having only disordered her handkerchief, and with his rude lips committed violence on her lovely neck. (15.5.3-4)

In this scene, her father's sudden appearance is what keeps Lord Fellamar from raping Sophia. But Squire Western is also the one who, by enthusiastically supporting Sophia's marriage to a man she despises, is putting his daughter in danger of sexual assault by Mr. Blifil. This confrontation between Squire Western and Lord Fellamar only emphasizes that Sophia's sexuality has been made into a pawn, to be traded among the men in her life. She has very little self-determination, though she fights hard to make her own choices.

I never heard anything of pertness, or what is called repartee, out of [Sophia's] mouth; no pretence to wit, much less to that kind of wisdom which is the result only of great learning and experience, the affectation of which, in a young woman, is as absurd as any of the affectations of an ape. No dictatorial sentiments, no judicial opinions, no profound criticisms. Whenever I have seen her in the company of men, she hath been all attention, with the modesty of a learner, not the forwardness of a teacher. You'll pardon me for it, but I once, to try her only, desired her opinion on a point which was controverted between Mr Thwackum and Mr Square. To which she answered, with much sweetness, "You will pardon me, good Mr Allworthy; I am sure you cannot in earnest think me capable of deciding any point in which two such gentlemen disagree." (17.3.9)

Squire Allworthy is praising Sophia's quietness and good nature in the company of men. He likes that she doesn't speak up for herself too much, and that she doesn't offer "profound criticisms" of the men around her. But we think this is another example where Squire Allworthy is being a terrible judge of people. Sophia may not be as outspoken as her aunt, Mrs. Western. But when she says that she can't resolve an argument between Mr. Thwackum and Mr. Square because she is unable to decide "any point in which two such gentleman disagree," we don't think she's being straightforward. We find that line completely sarcastic: Sophia can't decide anything between two such gentlemen (read: idiots).

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