Study Guide

Tom Jones Gender

By Henry Fielding

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There is a surprising amount of girl-fighting in Tom Jones: Molly Seagrim fights off a whole group of villagers with a human leg bone in her hand (seriously), Mrs. Honour and Mrs. Western's maid leave bloody scratches on one another, and Susan the chambermaid gives Partridge a bloody nose at the Upton inn.

No one in this book is saying that women can't be violent. But the narrator makes this surprising distinction between courage, which is appropriate to a woman, and fierceness (10.9.3), which is not. All of these girl fights we just mention? Those are fierce. Instead of putting up fists and resorting to hair-pulling, the narrator advises women to be more like Sophia: strong and committed to her own beliefs, but only passively resistant. What do you guys think: is Sophia Western a model of tough womanhood, or not?

Questions About Gender

  1. Does the narrator use different terms or images to describe men and women? Are there different kinds of comedy that attach to male and female characters?
  2. What kinds of rights and privileges do women have within Tom Jones? What kinds of restrictions do they have to obey? What can we say about the legal status of women in Britain in the eighteenth century from reading Tom Jones?
  3. The narrator describes Tom as "rather too effeminate" (9.5.6) in his facial expressions, while Molly Seagrim's beauty "had very little of feminine in it, and would have become a man at least as well as a woman" (4.6.15). So both of these characters have something slightly androgynous about them. How does this slight ambiguity of gender affect their characterization?

Chew on This

Although the narrator shows sympathy towards Molly Seagrim as the mother of a child outside of marriage, the novel's positive portrayal of Sophia Western's nonsexual virtue reinforces the eighteenth-century idealization of virginity for unmarried women.

The narrator uses Molly Seagrim's masculine nature to imply that she is the aggressor in her sexual relationship with Tom. By emphasizing Molly's unfeminine sexuality, the narrator takes the reader's focus away from Tom's moral responsibility in (supposedly) taking Molly's virginity.

Tom Jones Gender Study Group

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