The History of Tom Jones a Foundling
Virtue and the Man of the Hill in Tom Jones
Although Fielding’s Tom Jones isn’t written in an entirely linear style, by far the lengthiest of his digressions, and seemingly the least relevant to the plot, is the episode in which Tom meets the Man of the Hill. A misanthropic hermit whose unlucky early life caused him to abandon all efforts to remain a part of society, his pessimistic view of man’s potential for good and self-imposed isolation stand in direct opposition to the complex moral system and engagement with others that Tom represents. Just as Fielding uses figures like Thwackum to criticize the use of a religious front to mask the absence of actual goodness, the Man of the Hill’s decision to stand apart from the world and look down on it disapprovingly, much like a God figure, holds him back from self-examination and improvement. By serving as a foil to Tom, the Man of the Hill and his simplified view of humanity allow Fielding to criticize past conceptions of morality, and explain his own more complex approaches.
The Man of the Hill’s views on humanity and morality, as well as the reasons behind his decision to leave society and live an isolated life, are made explicit as he tells his story. When he explains his first encounters with the study of religion, it becomes clear that he views humanity as fundamentally less moral than the ideal set forth in Christian texts, telling Tom of his admiration for “that Divine wisdom which is alone to be found in the Holy Scriptures; for they impart to us the knowledge and assurance of things much more worthy our attention than all which this world can offer to our acceptance” (385). He goes on to further explain his decision to live apart from humanity, saying “I have only escaped [the madness of humanity] by living alone, and at a distance from that contagion” (392). Although Tom disagrees with the Man’s assertion that humanity is, at its core, immoral, the Man repeats his belief that, “human nature is everywhere the same, everywhere the object of detestation and scorn” (395). Through the Man of the Hill’s story, Fielding sets up an extreme religious viewpoint on morality, which he proceeds to contradict with Tom’s more nuanced personality and opinions.
The authorial decision to counterpoise Tom and the Man of the Hill makes sense primarily because of their similarly difficult backgrounds. The former, despite benefiting from Allworthy’s kindness, had to contend with Blifil, Thwackum, and Square throughout his childhood. The latter also seems to lack a strong connection with his family; he describes his mother as an “arrant vixen” and notes that his father refused to lend him money after he was expelled from school (367). Both men are portrayed as having been troublemakers when they were younger—Tom’s exploits are recounted at length in the book, and the Man of the Hill tells him about having gambled, stolen, and finally been sent to jail before he could graduate from school. Due to these similarities, Fielding can use Tom’s differing philosophies to contradict and point out the errors in the religious and pessimistic way of thinking that the Man of the Hill advocates. Furthermore, although this comparison is made less explicit, Fielding also reveals a stark difference between how Tom and the Man of the Hall act with regards to their own past indiscretions. While Tom eventually learns to take responsibility and make amends for his immoral actions, the Man instead tends to ascribe his actions as truly being the fault of others around him. When Tom finally returns home to Allworthy by the book’s close, he tells him, “I have had time to reflect on my past life… I can discern follies and vices more than enough to repent and to be ashamed of” (835). The Man of the Hill, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to admit accountability to the same degree, arguing that his misdeeds wouldn’t have occurred were it not for his college friend Sir George, who “had a great delight in destroying and ruining the youth of inferior fortune,” because “[the Man’s] reputation of diligence in [his] studies made [him] a desirable object of his mischievous intention (369). By the end of the novel, it is clear that Fielding intends this dialogue as a direct critique of moral and religious systems that views mankind as wholly good or bad, thus discouraging the urge towards self-improvement and personal responsibility that Tom’s journey exemplifies.
As mentioned earlier, Fielding’s inclusion of the Man of the Hill is a fairly lengthy digression from the overall plot of the novel—he isn’t mentioned again, and doesn’t really seem to impact the series of events in any major way. However, when readers consider the author’s treatment of religion as a larger theme in the novel, this episode’s purpose becomes more clear—it makes more explicit the consequences of a misguided religious morality that are only hinted at through Fielding’s treatment of characters like Mr. Thwackum, the reverend. Thwackum has much in common with the Man of the Hill, both in terms of religion and his opinion of mankind’s overall level of morality—upon his introduction, Fielding describes him as “[maintaining] that the human mind, since the fall, was nothing but a sink of iniquity, till purified and redeemed by grace” (82). Unlike the Man of the Hill, however, Thwackum isn’t isolated and readers can both see and judge how his beliefs cause him to interact with others. Fielding notes, “when [religion and virtue are] poisoned and corrupted with fraud, pretense, and affectation… they have enabled men to perpetrate the most cruel mischiefs to their own species” (85). Thwackum exemplifies this problem. Portrayed as vicious and hypocritical, he notably prefers Blifil to Tom. Following the incident in which Tom lies to protect Black George the gamekeeper, Thwackum beats him in order to get him to reveal the truth, rather than letting him go unpunished because of his benevolent motivations. Shortly after, Thwackum not only objects to Tom having sold his horse to further help Black George (because “the Almighty had marked some particular persons for destruction”), he recommends that Allworthy beat him for doing so (99). Once again, Thwackum’s religion serves as a misguided and cruel replacement for a fair set of values. This system of morality, in which the truly good is sacrificed in favor of that which only appears good, is one that Fielding argues against throughout Tom Jones, in particular during the Man of the Hill scene.
If Fielding is opposed to the idea that human nature is wholly bad, as well as the blind use of religion to mask personal failings while judging others, what system for determining morality does he try to advance? It’s clear through his portrayal of Tom’s transformation from a disobedient foundling to Sophia’s redeemed husband, as well as passages of narration directed specifically from Fielding to the reader, that he hopes to persuade his audience that mankind has no prescribed nature, and can exhibit both good and evil, yet must conform to a certain set of societal expectations if he wants that inner morality to be recognized externally. Fielding begins to make this clear early in the text. After a discussion of how Thwackum and Square’s differing philosophies can perhaps be resolved towards a less erroneous approach to virtue, he notes, “we do not pretend to introduce any infallible characters into this history; where we hope nothing has been found which hath never yet been seen in human nature” (91). Even Squire Allworthy, esteemed for his “goodness,” is led to make incorrect judgments precisely because of his love for others. Due to Fielding’s insistence on realism in his portrayals of his characters, his contention that every figure in the story is flawed to some degree reflects a similar view on humanity’s capacity for morality. Furthermore, he complicates his definition of virtue by acknowledging the potential for good acts to result in bad outcomes, saying, “if by virtue is meant (as I almost think it ought) a certain relative quality, which… seems as much interested in pursuing the good of others as its own; I cannot so easily agree that this is the surest way to human happiness” (668). Finally, Fielding draws a distinction between inner goodness and its outer manifestation. He acknowledges the societal impulse to reward conformity and good manners—“[t]he most formal appearance of virtue, when it is only an appearance, may… seem to be rather less commendable than virtue itself without this formality; but it will, however, be always more commended” (515). Through advice given directly from the narrator to the reader, he expands upon this point by clearly instructing that, “[i]t is not enough that your designs, nay, that your actions, are intrinsically good; you must take care that they appear so. If your inside be never so beautiful, you must preserve a fair outside also” (96). Even more strongly, he repeats, “no man can be good enough to enable him to neglect the rules of prudence; nor will Virtue herself look beautiful, unless she be bedecked with the outward ornaments of decency and decorum” (97). This brings the reader back to Fielding’s earlier point that virtue doesn’t automatically grant happiness. Rather, happiness can be achieved, as Tom Jones shows, through virtue that is accompanied by good manners. Then, not only will your inner desire to help others and perform good deeds be satisfied, but your good manners will put you in a position to be seen as moral by the world, which will cause society to grant you happiness within it. Through the moral framework that Fielding’s narrative voice reveals, we can go on to examine the virtue of characters within Tom Jones in a way much closer to what the author likely intended.
Tom himself follows Fielding’s prescribed journey to virtue over the course of the book’s plot, transforming from trouble making child of indeterminate parentage to the much more virtuous husband of Sophia. Clearly, he exhibits both good and bad traits, in keeping with Fielding’s efforts towards realism. This is exemplified in the actions he takes to support Black George and his family. When he says, “I could not bear to see these poor wretches naked and starving… I could not bear it, sir; upon my soul, I could not,” his motive to help them is clearly deeply held and admirable in its generosity (98). However, what would otherwise be a moral action (providing the hungry with food) is compromised by the lengths Tom goes to—stealing and lying about where the money and food have come from. In this case, the morality of his choices is portrayed as dubious; although his internal motivations are moral, his actions disrupt the decorum of his household, which functions as a parallel to society as a whole. Fielding is careful to note that, were Tom not “deficient in outward tokens of respect,” he likely would meet with significantly less trouble from Thwackum (89). However, as Tom grows up, he conforms more and more closely to what society expects from him. Once he is released from jail, the first aspect of his redemption is his reunion with Allworthy, which occurs because of a letter from Square, which reads, “When you lay upon your supposed deathbed, he was the only person in the house who testified any real concern… this young man has the noblest generosity of heart” (804). In this case, Fielding shows that Tom’s love for Allworthy is not enough—his actions, which were in keeping with what society expects from one whose loved one is ill, are what return him to Allworthy. Finally, not only is Tom legitimized as Allworthy’s heir, he is rescued from his state of unknown parentage through the revelation that Bridget Allworthy is his mother. This new, more acceptable place within society mirrors his new tendency to take responsibility for his actions, and focus on the social implications of his decisions rather than solely his moral motivations. Due to these personal changes, Tom can finally marry Sophia. In this way, Fielding confirms that his protagonist has succeeded in manifesting his inner goodness externally, which allows him to achieve happiness in a societally sanctioned way. Tom has finally overcome the problem that the Man of the Hill represents—the difficulty of being virtuous within society, instead of virtuous to its exclusion.
Tom Jones as a Study of Human Nature
Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones, states in the Chapter 1 of Book 1, “…nor can the learned reader be ignorant, that in human nature, though here collected under one general name, is such prodigious variety, that a cook will have sooner gone through all the several species of animal and vegetable food in the world, than an author will be able to exhaust so extensive a subject.” Fielding, as a man of learning and of healthy acquaintance with eighteenth century London society, observes that while ‘Human Nature’ as a subject is well-used but never well-expressed. Thus, he tries to express the nature of the different characters in Tom Jones and through them, the temper and the sensibilities of the British Society. Also, this mode of representation is subjective to Fielding’s thought process as we can see through his of irony at different points in the story.
Fielding tends to ‘reveal’ a character instead of describing it. In this way, we learn about the character subjective to other people. The characters in the novel could be easily placed on a gradation scale. Some like Squire Allworthy and Sophia Western are virtuous and genteel, while some like young Blifil and Lady Bellaston are evil and spiteful, both kinds being on the extreme ends of the scale. Then there are characters with varying levels of goodness. Characters like Jenny Jones, Partridge, and Tom deviate along the path and go under considerable development through the course of the book. Many of these characters are motivated by money and personal gain but they use different methods to attain those, which the author uses to show hypocrisy in England. People like Blifil’s tutors abhor and even physically abuse Tom to get in good terms with Allworthy and his sister. People at inns judge Tom on the basis of his attire and hence try to con him in paying more for his lodgings. Blifil approved of violence for marrying Sophia so he could get her money. Surroundings play a huge part in this. Tom grows under the tutelage of Allworthy and is thus, genteel and innocent. Blifil grows up in Tom’s shadows and feels jealous of him for all the attention Tom gets. This is true in other cases too. Bridget grows in the shadows of her brother with no hopes of a fortune unless she marries, making her disapproving of her brother and dismissive of marriage. Jenny who shows scholarly talent from her younger years has to resort to prostitution to make ends meet and grows more street-smart. Nightingale grows in the London societies and learns the ways of shrewd women like Bellaston, as he uses in getting rid of her. The local people also become a part of this.
Within the novel, people in the country are judgmental and more prevalent in spreading rumors than in knowing the truth, so much so that they label Tom as Allworthy’s bastard son. People at inns, too, are judgmental of Tom’s bastardry and so refuse him lodgings. When they don’t, it’s just because they don’t want to lose favor with Allworthy. Mrs. Fuller is also judgmental of Tom and asks him to leave but then discovers his charitable nature and her views about him are changed. One thing common about these people is that they all are bound by the shackles of the society and are afraid of doing anything that might bring ill-repute to them. Another thing to note that Fielding rarely describes the temper of a character, it’s usually through the eyes of some other character that we discover him, but when he does, it leads to a staticity. Characters like Allworthy and Sophia are synonyms for virtue and righteousness. But, so little of their real motivations is described. Both Sophia and Allworthy are said to be born in privilege, learn of city manners in London and are sure of their place and so, have no insecurity. They have little or no flaws and no character change throughout the story, while a lot of major characters go through some significant changes, including Blifil who gets spiteful enough to conspire against Tom’s life. It is also worth noting that Allworthy and Sophia are based on real people who Fielding knew during his time, thus we see them almost through Fielding’s eyes than Tom’s.
Another feature of the narrative worth noting that Fielding keeps people as close to their characters as possible and uses prose exceptionally in this scheme. This is evident from Partridge’s Latin ramblings, Honour’s misspelt letters, and Western’s abusive tongue. And, while doing so he may not agree with the character’s opinion and may use irony and satire boldly while patronizing those. The author uses a number of literary devices to create a most engaging narrative and thus creates some of the most memorable characters. Jenny Jones who undergoes a complete change in her character from a talented and learned young girl to a cunning woman who uses her street smart ways to avoid getting trampled in the judgmental society. She is not married and solicits for money but, takes the salutation of a wife to evoke respect from others. She stays true to her word even in the end and reveals Tom’s parentage, in spite of her hardship and a promise of a hefty sum to get Tom executed. We learn a bit about Fielding’s temperament too. He twists the plot to give a comic ending. In the last chapters, the characters have no role in all the occurrences, it is completely because of a plot twist that Tom is deemed worthy enough to marry Sophia.
Even though Fielding criticized hypocrisy and used satirical elements all throughout the novel is unable to imagine a plot where Tom can ‘become’ worthy. He must be ‘born’ worthy. He is unable to break class barriers, either because he can’t think of such a society or because he didn’t want to irk the readers. Maybe, this outcome was to ‘nullify’ the promiscuity but the book gained notoriety anyway. While the use of irony thus used, exposes hypocrisy in human nature, but in some cases, it also makes one realize the weakness in the protagonist. Jones is a highly flawed character. Even though, he is genteel and sensitive, he has no intelligence, no talent to speak of. He learns nothing to make his ends meet during his travels, he sleeps with other women while he speaks of loyalty to Sophia. He keeps landing himself in one trouble after another, from which other people rescue him. It’s always some external medium that saves him, which somehow contradicts the author’s beliefs on deux ex machina, he mentions in Book 18 Chapter 1. “This I faithfully promise, that, notwithstanding any affection which we may be supposed to have for this rogue, whom we have unfortunately made our heroe, we will lend him none of that supernatural assistance with which we are entrusted, upon condition that we use it only on very important occasions.” While the incidents that saved Tom’s life were not supernatural, but were out of his or anybody else’s means to achieve. It was a sheer coincidence that medical aid was available for Fitzpatrick, another coincidence that Mrs. Waters was staying with him. Yet another coincidence is that Partridge sees Mrs. Waters as she left. Although this scenario satisfies the comic nature of the novel, one can’t deny how well everything plays out.
While Jenny who had had academic talent and has to resort to prostitution to make ends meet is met with ridicule for seducing Tom and other men, Tom is waved off as an innocent when it comes to his affair with Lady Bellaston, just because he feels indebted towards her. Fielding’s bias towards him is highly obvious. Fielding strongly patronizes those who he feels are doing behaving immorally, but Tom’s promiscuity is always overshadowed by his greatness. Yet, it is no doubt a feat the way Fielding creates a rich amalgam of characters who are not just figments of his imagination, but who live and thrive. While they are riddled with Fielding’s subjectivity, it’s only through their motivations and that we can try to understand them.
Tom Jones and the Wisdom of Discernment
Tom Jones is a comedic novel by Henry Fielding that relays moral messages in an entertaining format, often demonstrating the downfalls of making assumptions, and of not questioning someone else’s motives in certain situations. Tom himself repeatedly is lied to and lied about, and at the novel’s beginning, and in Tom’s most youthful state, he often fell for these deceptions. Considering the novel a bildungsroman, Tom goes through the growing process of being deceived to mature into a wiser character who has a better understanding about misconceptions and how humans deceive to get ahead. Though Tom sometimes must learn these lessons the hard way, he ultimately ends the novel having developed wisdom and discernment that other characters always seem to lack. Through Tom’s discernment skills, Fielding encourages readers to develop their own critical thinking as not to fall prey to the schemes and misjudgments of other man.
Many adults that Tom encounters have also failed to develop skills in correctly judging another man’s motives, Benjamin Partridge included. Patridge is full of misconceptions, starting with the idea that Tom Jones is Squire Allworthy’s son. He furthers his error in believing that Tom ran away from Squire Allworthy. According to the text, “He concluded, therefore, that the whole was a fiction, and that Jones, of whom he had often from his correspondents heard the wildest character, had in reality run away from his father” (370). Not only does Partridge wrongly assume that Tom ran away from home, but he further spins the yarn in his favor, concluding that by sending him back home to his incorrectly presumed “father,” then he would find himself back in the good graces of Allworthy. According to the narrator, “If he could by any means therefore persuade the young gentleman to return home, he doubted not but that he should again be received into the favour of Allworthy, and well rewarded for his pains; nay, and should be again restored to his native country” (410). Partridge constructs this scheme and fictionalized reward based on a false understanding of the situation.The reader is cued in to the idea that this person may not entirely have things figured out, as the scene is introduced with Partridge being “one of the most superstitious of men” (409) and the reader is told he is a believer in “omens.” The ironic tone clues the reader in; imparting a lesson in discernment to the reader and to Tom simultaneously. Fielding uses irony here to allow the reader themselves to become more discerning of situations, to be smarter than Partridge while being less naive than Allworthy.
Like Partridge, Allworthy misjudges characters in the novel and does not think to be suspicious of a person’s motives. This is because he is so altruistic and blameless that he never thinks of how he may be being deceived. Fielding uses these foils of one another in hopes that both the reader’s and Toms skills of discernment will develop to the point that they fall somewhere in between the two extremes. In this way, they will not be taken advantage of or make false assumptions of others, they will critically think through scenarios and come out ahead. According to the narrator, “As for Jones, he was well satisfied with the truth of what the other had asserted, and believed that Partridge had no other inducements but love to him.” Unfortunately for Tom, not only does Partridge have ill intentions towards him, but several characters throughout the novel manage to lie to and about Tom, and some deceive Tom regarding his class and lineage. In many ways, the novel is Tom’s journey from naievity to learning to question others and detect deceit, as he fails to do with Partridge in the above passage.
The narrator goes on to describe Jones as someone who possesses “a blamable want of caution and diffidence in the veracity of others” (410), which does imply that Tom has trouble with believing people with false intentions, as is the case with Partridge in the above passage. Of the characteristics that allow people to read someone else, the narrator explains, further in the passage, “To say the truth, there are but two ways by which men become possessed of this excellent quality. The one is from long experience, and the other is from nature; which last, I presume, is often meant by genius…” (410), This moment is an interjection from the narrator, who presumes that a man is either born with this skill in discernment, making them a rare genius, or they learn the hard way, by falling victim to dishonest persons. The narrator explains, “a man who hath been imposed on by ever so many, may still hope to find others more honest; whereas he who receives certain necessary admonitions from within, that this is impossible, must have very little understanding indeed, if he ever renders himself liable to be once deceived” (410). Thus we have a lesson from Fielding, as the old saying goes, ‘fool me once, shame on me, fool me twice, shame on you.’ Fielding does not deny that dishonest people exist or that they will ever cease to exist, but he does encourage readers, through Tom’s journey, to become more wary, to be less easy to deceive and manipulate. To fall prey multiple times is one’s own fault, because they are not learning from their experiences or gaining discernment skills.
As far as Tom Jones is concerned, Fielding has not given him the gift of this “genius,” which is clear to the reader at this point, since he is repeatedly falling prey to deception. The narrator states, “As Jones had not this gift from nature, he was too young to have gained it by experience; for at the diffident wisdom which is to be acquired this way, we seldom arrive till very late in life; which is perhaps the reason why some old men are apt to despise the understandings of all those who are a little younger than themselves” (411). The last line may have been directed to both Squire Allworthy and Benjamin Partridge, both of whom have failed to learned necessarily skills of discernment or understanding their fellow man. Whereas these two men are older than Tom and still have not learned the aforementioned lessons, there is still hope for Tom. By the end of the novel, Tom has learned from the experience of being deceived, and by the novel’s conclusion, he has become wiser in the motivations of man. His development of the skill of understanding others leads his virtues of discernment and wisdom to surpass the two older men mentioned in the passage, Partridge and Allworthy. Tom being the transformative character, the reader is therefore encouraged to model his behavior in their own lives.
Compulsory Heterosexuality and Male Power in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones
According to 18th-century feminist writer Mary Montagu, “Men, biased by custom, prejudice, and interest, have presumed boldly to pronounce sentence in their own favor, because possession empowered them to make violence take place of justice.” Over two centuries after Montagu published Woman Not Inferior to Man, the source of these words, feminist writer Adrienne Rich published her essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” In writing this essay, Rich intended to explore the ways in which the same male violence, power, and heterosexuality that Montagu describes disempower women in addition to challenging the erasure of non-heterosexual experiences from literature. Although it is unlikely that the non-heterosexual experience was within the scope of Montagu or any other 18th-century writers, the characteristics of male power that Rich identifies in this essay are applicable to a wide range of literature from that era, including Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. According to literary scholar Ian Watt, the novel as a literary form established by 18th-century writers such as Fielding is rooted in realism, which attempts to capture the rawest aspects of the human experience, from sexual appetite to the need to steal to blind and overwhelming hypocrisy, and this includes the portrayal of compulsory heterosexuality––or the assumed heterosexuality and desire for heterosexual sex enforced by the patriarchy ––being forced on female characters (Watt, 364). The methods Rich lists that Fielding presents include controlling women’s sexuality, their children, their labor, their movement, their purpose, and their knowledge and understanding of the world. In some scenarios, this novel’s comedic tone suggests that Fielding is critical of these behaviors, such as the use of Sophia as an object of her father’s business transactions, but the way in which he presents certain conflicts, such as Bridget Allworthy abandoning her child, suggests that this is not always the case. In this essay, I intend to explore which of the characteristics of male power Henry Fielding satirically condemns and which he accidentally or intentionally supports in Tom Jones.
The first two characteristics of male power on Rich’s list are first to deny women of their own sexuality or, secondly, to force male sexuality upon them (638). Rich includes several examples of these, including rape, incest, deprival of what is desired (such as a partner), the public idealization of heterosexual relationships, and punishment for female indiscretion, which are all present in Tom Jones. Perhaps the most obvious example of male sexuality being forced upon a female character is when Lord Fellamar and Lady Bellaston’s orchestrated attempt to sexually assault Sophia Western. Lord Fellamar, an evil aristocrat infatuated with the sweet, innocent daughter of Squire Western, falls victim to Sophia’s vengeful cousin Lady Bellaston, who convinces him that he must force himself on Sophia so that she will have to marry him. Additionally, this will eliminate Sophia as Lady Bellaston’s competition for the affection of protagonist Tom Jones. Rich would likely argue that in attempting to assault her, Lord Fellamar is trying to confuse sexuality and violence for Sophia, which is a method of reinforcing his male power (642). Rich quotes that:… taking rape from the realm of “the sexual,” and placing it in the realm of “the violent,” allows one to be against it without raising any questions about the extent to which the institution of heterosexuality has defined force as a normal part of “the preliminaries.” Never is it asked whether, under conditions of male supremacy, the notion of ‘consent’ has any meaning. 642.
When applied to Tom Jones, this quote highlights Lord Fellamar’s attempted assault as an attack not only on Sophia herself, but on female agency in the novel as a whole. The fact that he did not complete Lady Bellaston’s questionable instructions suggests that Henry Fielding condemns this type of behavior and consequently needs to criticize it without completing the act. This may also be the case in the novel’s lone suggestion of incest. When Partridge, a bumbling school teacher, waltzes into Tom’s cell only to discover that he has slept with Mrs. Waters, who was formerly known as Jenny Jones and Tom’s birth mother. It is shortly after revealed that the two are not related, but the suggestion that Tom pursued his Oedipal complex and that she did not recognize her own son robs her of the knowledge typically associated with motherhood. It is also logistically unlikely that a mother and son would accidentally sleep together in the 18th century, so by criticizing behavior that is both problematic and infeasible, Fielding is reiterating his critical views of male power. Although acts of sexual violence are easiest to identify as overwhelming forces of male power, depriving female characters from their desires is another method of asserting dominance that Fielding criticizes.
Sophia is not the novel’s only victim of deprival, but hers is the most aggressive and intentional: when her desire to be with Tom becomes public, the majority of male characters present at this point in attempt to prevent her from being with him. Most notably, Squire Western refuses to let her leave the house as a result of her affections and attempts to force her into another marriage, and Lord Fallamar’s attempt to assault her is rooted not only in his desire to force her to be his bride, but also his aggressive desire not to see her with Tom, who he believes is below him. Additionally, although Lady Bellaston is not a male character and therefore it is challenging to view her as an enforcer of male power, much of her vengefulness towards Sophia comes from her desire to be with Tom and therefore for Sophia to be with anyone else. Because she is somewhat sexually motivated, this may be another instance in which Fielding is criticizing the dictation of women’s partners by mocking it with Lady Bellaston’s interest in Tom, whereas a “good-natured” attempt to keep him away from Sophia may instead suggest that Fielding believes that others, especially men, ought to be able to control who women love. In addition to literally controlling female sexuality, the constant public idealization of heterosexual relationships is a method of asserting dominance over all of the female characters, especially the ones who are unsatisfied in their current romantic or sexual situations.
Molly Seagrim, Tom’s on-again-off-again lover described as “bold and forward” and extremely masculine in personality and behavior, has more sexual partners than nearly all of the other female characters combined and in doing so makes them look prude in comparison (Fielding, 190). According to Rich, this is a force mechanism that is used both in and by literature to surround women with the male sexuality so heavily that it becomes their duty and priority to fulfill it. She writes that “heterosexual romance has been represented as the great female adventure” so much that women believe it is the only way they can find fulfillment in addition to it being a role they must fill (654). Although Fielding does not seem to write Lady Bellaston and Sophia as characters to be pitied in this regard, they seem to be especially impacted by this. Although she has jealousy as a motive for her behavior, Lady Bellaston is crushed by the revelations of Tom’s sexual escapades. While this could be because she desires to be with Tom, the problem may be deeper than that: it is possible that the constant presence of sex reminds Lady Bellaston of her failure to fulfill her sexual duty. However, Fielding contradicts himself by both idealizing and punishing the same character to reinforce the complexities of male power: although the depiction of Molly’s sexual freedom forces male sexuality onto the other female characters, it also reminds them that males still have the power to reprimand them for being too sexually liberal. Molly’s pregnancy, although perhaps not surprising to a contemporary reader, creates an uproar among those around her. After Molly points at that her mother, too, was “guilty” of fornication, Mrs. Seagrim says to her daughter:“Yes, hussy,” answered the enraged mother, “so I was, and what was the mighty matter of that? I was made an honest woman then; and if you was to be made an honest woman, I should not be angry; but you must have to doing with a gentleman, you nasty slut; you will have a bastard, hussy, you will; and that I defy anyone to say of me.” (Fielding, 198).Her mother’s verbal brutality expresses the severity of shame associated with pregnancy and foreshadows the challenges which Molly will face having been impregnated premaritally. The greatest criticism comes from the other women in town, which is also how Sophia learns of Molly and Tom’s relationship. Sophia’s maid, Mrs. Honour, tells her after seeing Molly at Church that:… [Molly] 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. (Fielding, 210).
In saying this, Mrs. Honour is not only shaming Molly for her behavior, but she is completely excusing Tom’s even though he is, himself a bastard, which opens him up for criticism throughout the novel. It is unclear in these circumstances whether Fielding is using comedy to point out the sexual double-standard or if he is lightly offering a warning about the repercussions of living too carefree a life. The fact that he presents numerous characters forgiving Jones or suggesting that he merely deserves a slap on the wrist (which is ultimately all he gets for his indiscretions) while Molly should be shamed and punished suggests that he finds the dichotomy in treatment of males and females as sexual beings peculiar. Considering the time in which he was writing, it is unlikely that he was intentionally supporting female sexual liberation or the destruction of compulsory heterosexuality, but it is possible that he is using his characters’ contradictory yet ridiculous behavior to criticize the frigidity of 18th-century Englishmen.
As Montagu wrote, 18th-century English society collectively behaved as if “Women [were] never to be indulged the sweets of liberty; but ought to pass their whole lives in a state of subordination to the Men, and in an absolute dependence upon them.” However, this dependence that results in overwhelming male power, which is reiterated throughout the novel, is not only expressed throughout the sexual control, but is also expressed by the ways in which male characters control female characters in their daily lives. As Rich explains, denying women of their own sexuality and forcing male sexuality upon them are perhaps the most prominent domination tactics, but they not the only ways to assert male power: controlling or robbing women of their children is another strategy for enforcing compulsory heterosexuality since it is by extension a method of controlling female reproduction. This seems to be the characteristic of male power which Fielding is the least critical of, since he does not seem to criticize it or satirize it at all at any point in the novel. For instance, several of the female characters express dislike of their children, if they are unable to keep them. Bridget Allworthy is the first female character to be impacted by the reinforcement of male power in this way, although it is not revealed until the end of the story that societal pressure and shame for the father caused her to abandon Tom and allow Squire Allworthy and the rest of the town to believe that the child belongs to Jenny Jones.
Likewise, Mrs. Blifil expresses dislike or discontent with their children, which is another technique for asserting male power since here, the male author is taking controlling and robbing the female characters of their children. For instance, it is said of Mrs. Blifil that she:… was not over and above pleased with the behaviour of her husband; nay, to be honest, she absolutely hated him, till his death at last a little reconciled him to her affections. It will not be therefore greatly wondered at, if she had not the most violent regard to the offspring she had by him… that in his infancy she seldom saw her son, or took any notice of him; and hence she acquiesced, after a little reluctance, in all the favors which Mr. Allworthy showered on the foundling; whom the good man called his own boy, and in all things put on an entire equality with Master Blifil. This acquiescence in Mrs. Blifil was considered by the neighbors, and by the family, as a mark of her condescension to her brother’s humour, and she was imagined by all others, as well as Thwackum and Square, to hate the foundling in her heart; nay, the more civility she showed him, the more they conceived she detested him, and the surer schemes she was laying for his ruin: for as they thought it her interest to hate him, it was very difficult for her to persuade them she did not (Fielding, 120). The way in which she describes her serious dissatisfaction with her son implies that is dissatisfied with her husband and life her life in general, but here, Fielding is also taking her child away from her as a writer. Since producing an heir was one of the requirements of a valid marriage in the 18th century, this the ultimate blow, which suggests that he is not too concerned and does not find the need to be critical on issues with children.
In addition to controlling women’s reproduction, male power sometimes takes the form of fathers controlling their daughters, as Squire Western controls Sophia. This is nearly the opposite of what Fuelding does with Mrs. Blifil and her son, but both have the same impact. Squire Western is guilty of having two of the characteristics of male power in his control of his daughter: he confines her physically and prevents her movement, and he uses her as an object in his inter-male transactions. … 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. (Fielding, 329) This suggests that the need to control his daughter is so great, even his sister agrees with it, despite the fact that it is something she does not want. His male power permeates his daughter through his sister, the same way male power permeates Sophia through Lady Bellaston. As the narrator states, “her father treated her in so violent and outrageous a manner, that he frightened her into an affected compliance with his will; which so highly pleased the good squire, that he changed his frowns into smiles, and his menaces into promises” (Fielding, 354) The final way in which male power is asserted over female characters is not one that Rich identifies as a quality of male power, but is no less significant: the absence of female-to-female relationships. If they were present, they would be the greatest challenge to male power and overwhelming compulsory heterosexuality as is demonstrated in novels like Daniel Defoe’s Roxana, which is filled with platonic but potentially homoerotic undertones.
In Tom Jones, there is no room for these relationships because female characters are isolated from one another by the other male characters. Several female characters openly conflict with each other over Tom, such as Lady Bellaston unhidden discontent with Tom and Sophia’s relationship, while Sophia internally stews over his relationship with Molly Seagrim and his many other indiscretions. Relationships characterized by jealousy over men reiterates the power that they have over women. Additionally, there are no female-to-female relationships that are not mediated through male characters or do not exist as reference to male characters: the female characters in Tom Jones exist primarily between the mothers, sisters, and daughters of their fathers, brothers, and sons. Tom’s oldest friend and the widow of a clergyman, Mrs. Miller’s life is described with an obvious lack of personal, non-familial, female relationships. She says:We were three sisters. One of us had the good luck to die soon after of the small-pox; a lady was so kind as to take the second out of charity, as she said, to wait upon her… she likewise died within a twelvemonth after my father. Fortune thought proper to provide better for me, and within a month from his decease I was married to a clergyman, who had been my lover a long time before, and who had been very ill used by my father on that account: for though my poor father could not give any of us a shilling, yet he bred us up as delicately, considered us, and would have had us consider ourselves, as highly as if we had been the richest heiresses… Five years did I live in a state of perfect happiness with that best of men, till at last—Oh! cruel! cruel fortune, that ever separated us, that deprived me of the kindest of husbands and my poor girls of the tenderest parent. (Fielding, 663) In describing the ways in which she has lost women around her and is now isolated from society since her husband has died, she is reminding the reader of the fact that her family is her life and she has nothing outside of it, which is the doing of her husband and her father. This ultimately suggests that these are extremely important relationships and that Fielding may be leaving them out in order to isolate his female characters.
In conclusion, although it is unlikely that Fielding’s goal in writing Tom Jones was to portray the expression of male power as completely problematic in nature, he did so by exploring the raunchiest parts of human life that Ian Watt describes as characteristic of the novel, which set a precedent for honesty in literature to come. In satirizing and criticizing male power and the ways in which compulsory heterosexuality is forced upon women, he is also exploring the feminine deviant: in some way, most of Fielding’s female characters fail to adhere to societal norms and fail to meet the needs of the men in their lives, which is why male power must be reinforced in the ways that Rich describes. Although Rich and Fielding would probably disagree on the best ways to improve or inform their contemporary readers with literature, and although the roles and “labours” of women changed dramatically between the publishing of Tom Jones in 1749 and the publishing of “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” in 1980, they would probably both agree with Montagu’s statement that “Surely Women were created by heaven for some better end, than to labour in vain their whole life long.” The few goals they shared continue to appear in literary criticisms and will continue to be explored by writers and scholars in the future.
Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. Oxford University Press, 2008.
Montagu, Mary. Woman Not Inferior to Man. John Hawkins, 1739.
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” Signs Vol. 5, No. 4, Women: Sex and Sexuality (Summer, 1980), p. 631-660.
Watt, Ian. “From The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding.” The Theory of the Novel: a Historical Approach, ed. Michael McKean. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.