Study Guide

Tom Jones Sex

By Henry Fielding

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"For by [the loss of virginity] you are rendered infamous, and driven, like lepers of old, out of society; at least, from the society of all but wicked and reprobate persons; for no others will associate with you.

If you have fortunes, you are hereby rendered incapable of enjoying them; if you have none, you are disabled from acquiring any, nay almost of procuring your sustenance; for no persons of character will receive you into their houses. Thus you are often driven by necessity itself into a state of shame and misery, which unavoidably ends in the destruction of both body and soul.

Can any pleasure compensate these evils? Can any temptation have sophistry and delusion strong enough to persuade you to so simple a bargain? Or can any carnal appetite so overpower your reason, or so totally lay it asleep, as to prevent your flying with affright and terror from a crime which carries such punishment always with it?" (1.7.8-10)

Tom Jones is all about sex. This is an amazingly raunchy novel (if you sort through all of the old-fashioned language, that is). So why does Fielding start off the book with this long moral lesson from Squire Allworthy on the evils of sex outside of marriage? Why rain on everyone's parade before the novel has really gotten started?

There are a couple of reasons we can think of: maybe Fielding wanted to show that he knows<em> </em>what good moral behavior looks like, even if 99% of his characters don't follow a code of conventional morality. Or maybe Fielding is trying to set up a contrast between Squire Allworthy's super-strict ideals and the sympathetic way he actually treats Jenny Jones. Squire Allworthy reads Jenny the riot act for her sins, but then he treats her with great kindness. So maybe Fielding wants to show that codes of morality need to be softened with compassion for human weaknesses.

"La, ma'am, what doth your la'ship think? the girl that your la'ship saw at church on Sunday [Molly], whom you thought so handsome; though you would not have thought her so handsome neither, if you had seen her nearer, but to be sure she hath been carried before the justice for being big with child. She seemed to me to look like a confident slut: and to be sure she hath laid the child to young Mr Jones. And all the parish says Mr Allworthy is so angry with young Mr Jones, that he won't see him. To be sure, one can't help pitying the poor young man, and yet he doth not deserve much pity neither, for demeaning himself with such kind of trumpery. Yet he is so pretty a gentleman, I should be sorry to have him turned out of doors. I dares to swear the wench was as willing as he; for she was always a forward kind of body. And when wenches are so coming, young men are not so much to be blamed neither; for to be sure they do no more than what is natural. Indeed it is beneath them to meddle with such dirty draggle-tails; and whatever happens to them, it is good enough for them. And yet, to be sure, the vile baggages are most in fault." (4.12.3)

It's so weird that the women in this novel often turn all the blame on other women for their sexual wrongdoing. We find this bizarre because, obviously, it takes two to tango. Why is it more Molly's fault than Tom's that they had sex? Just because Molly physically has to have the kid doesn't mean she is solely responsible for its production. But Mrs. Honour (Sophia's maid) seems happy to call Molly a "confident slut," while Tom is "[doing] no more than what is natural." This suggests that Tom's sexuality is natural but that Molly's sexuality is immoral—a division that, from our twenty-first century perspective, seems really messed up.

Certain, however, it is, that [Tom] saw [Molly] in the light of compassion; and though his love to her was not of that kind which could give him any great uneasiness at her inconstancy, yet was he not a little shocked on reflecting that he had himself originally corrupted her innocence; for to this corruption he imputed all the vice into which she appeared now so likely to plunge herself.

This consideration gave him no little uneasiness, till Betty, the elder sister, was so kind, some time afterwards, entirely to cure him by a hint, that one Will Barnes, and not himself, had been the first seducer of Molly; and that the little child, which he had hitherto so certainly concluded to be his own, might very probably have an equal title, at least, to claim Barnes for its father. (5.6.2-3)

Fielding seems pretty open and accepting of sex, but he also presents the basic social reality of his time and place, which is that a woman who loses her virginity before marriage has to pay much harsher public consequences than a guy does. Tom appears to think of Molly's loss of virginity as an event that can entirely change her ethical world, making her "plunge" into "vice." A dude can afford be less worried about his own chastity (though it's not unimportant, as Squire Allworthy reminds us in his speechifying to Tom), but he has to worry a heck of a lot about his partner's virtue. Why would a lady's chastity be so much more important to these people than a man's?

Though Mr Blifil was not of the complexion of Jones, nor ready to eat every woman he saw; yet he was far from being destitute of that appetite which is said to be the common property of all animals. […] Now the agonies which affected the mind of Sophia, rather augmented than impaired her beauty; for her tears added brightness to her eyes, and her breasts rose higher with her sighs. Indeed, no one hath seen beauty in its highest lustre who hath never seen it in distress. Blifil therefore looked on this human ortolan with greater desire than when he viewed her last; nor was his desire at all lessened by the aversion which he discovered in her to himself. On the contrary, this served rather to heighten the pleasure he proposed in rifling her charms, as it added triumph to lust. (7.6.12)

When Tom first thinks of sleeping with Molly, he worries a lot about her reputation and her innocence. Tom has a lot of lust in his character—as this passage says, he is "ready to eat every woman he saw." But Tom's desire depends on the consent of his partner, which clearly makes a huge moral difference. Mr. Blifil wants Sophia because she doesn't want him, which obviously makes him the complete ethical opposite of Tom. Where a lot of people might condemn Tom for giving in to his lusts all the time (and it does get him into a lot of trouble), the narrator is saying, hey, hold up—the problem isn't lust itself. It's the kind of lust. Mr. Blifil's desire to hurt Sophia is morally wrong, where Tom's sexuality is just kind of undisciplined.

Now it required no very blameable degree of suspicion to imagine that Mr Jones and his ragged companion had certain purposes in their intention, which, though tolerated in some Christian countries, connived at in others, and practised in all, are however as expressly forbidden as murder, or any other horrid vice, by that religion which is universally believed in those countries. The landlady, therefore, had no sooner received an intimation of the entrance of the above-said persons than she began to meditate the most expeditious means for their expulsion. (9.3.6)

This passage is kind of ambiguous, but it also appears pretty critical of laws and customs that label sexuality as bad. We say that it's ambiguous because it's unclear if the "certain purposes" the narrator mentions here mean sex in general (outside of a marriage and not for reproduction) or something more specific, such as prostitution. Whichever it is, the narrator points out that you can find people having sex in every country, no matter how much of a "vice" it is supposed to be. The narrator points out that Tom and Mrs. Waters's activities are "practised in all" Christian countries. What is the point of declaring something "as expressly forbidden as murder" when it continues to happen all the time, everywhere? Isn't that just an invitation to hypocrisy and deception?

"La, madam," cries Honour, "you will make a very bad examiner. Hark'ee, child," says she, "is not that very young gentleman now in bed with some nasty trull or other?" Here Susan smiled, and was silent. "Answer the question, child," says Sophia, "and here's a guinea for you."—"A guinea! madam," cries Susan; "la, what's a guinea? If my mistress should know it I shall certainly lose my place that very instant." "Here's another for you," says Sophia, "and I promise you faithfully your mistress shall never know it." Susan, after a very short hesitation, took the money, and told the whole story, concluding with saying, "If you have any great curiosity, madam, I can steal softly into his room, and see whether he be in his own bed or no." She accordingly did this by Sophia's desire, and returned with an answer in the negative. (10.5.6)

The main problem with Tom's sleeping around is that he almost ruins his relationship with Sophia, the woman he claims he loves. So it seems like Fielding is arguing that the difficulty with totally giving in to your physical desires isn't what it does to "society" or abstract ideas like that. The issue is that, by being unfaithful, you can hurt the person you love (especially if that person expects you not to sleep around). And the one who ultimately almost pays for his lustfulness is Tom himself. After all, if Susan hadn't spotted him with Mrs. Waters at the inn at Upton, his issues with Sophia might have been resolved right then and there.

O my Sophia! my only love! you cannot hate or despise me more for what happened there than I do myself; but yet do me the justice to think that my heart was never unfaithful to you. That had no share in the folly I was guilty of; it was even then unalterably yours. Though I despaired of possessing you, nay, almost of ever seeing you more, I doated still on your charming idea, and could seriously love no other woman. But if my heart had not been engaged, she, into whose company I accidently fell at that cursed place, was not an object of serious love. Believe me, my angel, I never have seen her from that day to this; and never intend or desire to see her again. (13.11.5)

Tom tries to defend himself to Sophia about sleeping with Mrs. Waters by saying that his heart "was never unfaithful." It was just his pesky body that was getting some action. And actually, this excuse seems to hold some water with Sophia. (And honestly, since their relationship is so undecided and up in the air, maybe it's not fair to expect that Tom be monogamous?) Do you buy Tom's excuse here? Is it possible to be faithful at heart but unfaithful in body?

There is not, indeed, a greater error than that which universally prevails among the vulgar, who, borrowing their opinion from some ignorant satirists, have affixed the character of lewdness to these times. On the contrary, I am convinced there never was less of love intrigue carried on among persons of condition than now. Our present women have been taught by their mothers to fix their thoughts only on ambition and vanity, and to despise the pleasures of love as unworthy their regard; and being afterwards, by the care of such mothers, married without having husbands, they seem pretty well confirmed in the justness of those sentiments; whence they content themselves, for the dull remainder of life, with the pursuit of more innocent, but I am afraid more childish amusements, the bare mention of which would ill suit with the dignity of this history. In my humble opinion, the true characteristic of the present beau monde is rather folly than vice, and the only epithet which it deserves is that of frivolous. (14.1.13)

The narrator thinks it is kind of funny that so many people believe that there is a lot of immoral sex going on these days. In fact, the narrator believes that most upper-class families now train their daughters to believe that personal relationships and marriage should be about what they can get financially speaking. The idea of love matches seems completely out of fashion to the narrator; in fact, upper-class women appear mostly driven by vanity and love of money, rather than physical lust. Do you guys observe a class difference in how this novel portrays sexuality among poor people and among richer people?

Nightingale never once interrupted the narration, though he discovered violent emotions at many parts of it. But when it was concluded, after fetching a deep sigh, he said, "What you tell me, my friend, affects me in the tenderest manner. Sure there never was so cursed an accident as the poor girl's betraying my letter. Her reputation might otherwise have been safe, and the affair might have remained a profound secret; and then the girl might have gone off never the worse; for many such things happen in this town: and if the husband should suspect a little, when it is too late, it will be his wiser conduct to conceal his suspicion both from his wife and the world." (14.7.4)

Mr. Nightingale is usually a fun-loving guy who resembles Tom in his manners. But he has this London-y side of him (London meaning, in the context of Tom Jones, concerned mainly with appearances). When he first hears of Nancy's public shaming over his letter, he doesn't appear to regret knocking her up in the first place. What causes him guilt is that the secret is now out, so she can't go "off never the worse" for her affair. After all, "many such things happen in this town [London]." Mr. Nightingale does seem to love Nancy, but his first thought is for her reputation, and not for her baby or her desperate love for him. This response makes Mr. Nightingale seem kind of lame and unfeeling.

"Sure," cries Jones, "Fortune will never have done with me till she hath driven me to distraction. But why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the cause of all my misery. All the dreadful mischiefs which have befallen me are the consequences only of my own folly and vice. What thou hast told me, Partridge, hath almost deprived me of my senses! And was Mrs Waters, then—but why do I ask? for thou must certainly know her—If thou hast any affection for me, nay, if thou hast any pity, let me beseech thee to fetch this miserable woman back again to me. O good Heavens! incest——with a mother!" (17.2.5)

Tom's realization that he may actually have slept with his own mother is enough to scare him into regretting all of his self-indulgence and bad behavior of past days. He seems genuinely upset about the poor sexual decisions he has made over the course of the novel, particularly since he really doesn't think he can ask Sophia to marry him now, not when he has slept with his own (blegh) mother. This moment of Tom's incest fears may seem a little over-the-top and even contrived. But it does convince us that Tom has finally learned his lesson that he has been, in many ways, "the cause of all [his] misery."

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