The 18th century society was one characterized by social stratification which took the form of class divisions, political upheavals and the consideration of acceptable gender roles in the society. It was a known fact that men and women were different and therefore held different positions in society. Generally, men were considered superior to women and therefore took up the role of a leader, whether in the public domain as the leader or commander of the army, or in the private sphere, as the leader of the household. Women on the other hand were expected to fulfill their role in the family as the submissive wives and doting mothers to their children. This attribution of roles was mainly based on the nature of respective genders where men who are mostly aggressive and strong hence leaders while women being lovable and nurturing in nature hence securing their role in the family setup.
The novel The History of Tom Jones, a foundling, by Henry Fielding illuminated this fact. The plot of the story is set in the 18th century and the characters are representative of society at the time. This essay will therefore seek to discuss the issue of gender difference and its prominence in the 18th century as in the History of Tom Jones, a foundling.
It was, and also now, a stereotype to categorize women as the weaker gender. This was apparent especially in the 18th century that saw women being restricted from joining the army or fighting battles. However, the book portrays women in a different light according to the author Fielding. This is proven when Mrs. Partridge, the wife of the school teacher assaults her husband physically based on her assumption that he was involved with Jenny and whose relationship resulted to the birth of a bastard. Furthermore, Mrs. Waters managed to withhold her attacker at the time Tom Jones found her. The author describes her as her not being the same as the weaker females at the time. The aspect of physical strength is therefore predominant in the 18th century setting in the consideration of the role of different genders in the society. On the other hand, Tom lives up to society’s expectations from a man by taking part in the Jacobite rebellion (the Forty Five), led by Bonnie Prince Charles as a volunteer.
Lust of the flesh
It is a well known fact that men are naturally weaker when it comes to lust than compared to their women counterparts, who are more emotionally attached rather than physically. This aspect comes out clearly in the book, in the role of Tom Jones. Tom is gullible when it comes to sexual advances which the women he is involved with, use as their ‘artillery’. In the first case, Tom falls for Molly, one of Black George’s daughters and is thought to be the father of the bastard child she is about to receive, only to realize later that she was involved with multiple partners. In another instance, Tom also falls in the trap set by Mrs. Waters who intend to seduce him, by first laying bare her chest for Tom to admire and even dropping her handkerchief in an attempt to encourage him sleep with her, a feat she achieved at the end.
Sexual purity and promiscuity
Virginity was a prized possession during the 18th century. Women who maintained their virginity before marriage were considered pure, dignified and ladylike. On the other hand, those who were promiscuous were labeled ‘loose’ and looked down upon by society. This is reflected in the characters of Sophia Western and Molly Seagrim. Sophia is regarded as a lady of high standards, inherited from her last name as well as her personal values. On the other hand, Molly is seen as promiscuous having had a child out of wedlock and as a result is almost arrested before Tom comes to her rescue. She manages to fool Tom by convincing him that he is the father at first but is latter told on by her sister. Her lie comes to an end when Tom finds her in the arms of Mr. Square, Tom’s teacher.
It is well acknowledged that men are more rational than women. They tend to look at facts as they present themselves and are able to draw appropriate conclusions. Women on the other hand do analyze the situation, but also manage to give an afterthought to the entire situation. With this, they are able to draw more credible and in-depth conclusions to the topic and also tend to allow their own feelings to weigh in their decisions. In this case, this makes men better decision makers than women. However, this does not come out clearly in the History of Tom Jones, with regards to Squire Western. This is because he does not allow Tom to present his side of the story as in the case of Molly’s pregnancy. He is irrational when he concludes that Tom is the father of Molly’s child after Tom rises from his place in the dinning table having heard the news from the parson.
Deception and conniving
It was a common practice in the 18th century to describe women as deceptive. This trait comes out in the character of Lady Bellaston. Since she is aware of Sophia’s feelings for Tom, she attempts to force her to get married to a Lord. She manages this by conniving with the Lord to rape her. She is ruthless and wicked, stopping at nothing to get her way with Tom, her lover. In fact, she plans to keep Sophia away from Tom, with the letter of marriage promised to her by Tom, “This letter Lady Bellaston thought would certainly turn the balance against Jones in the mind of Sophia, and she was emboldened to give it up, partly by her hopes of having him instantly dispatched out of the way, and partly by having secured the evidence of Honor, who, upon sounding her, she saw sufficient reason to imagine was prepared to testify whatever she pleased” ((Davidson and Moore, pg 78).
This characterization is also relevant to Master Blifil. He is a hypocrite, selfish and inconsiderate. The book first introduces him as upright and pious only to end up as a hypocrite at the end. Firstly, he has no desire for Sophia but still insists to get married to her as a result of her wealth. Secondly, he is the opposite of Tom Jones and is only interested in himself. He is also envious of Tom and seeing that Sophia is fond of him, he acts jealously as in the case of the bird. He released the bird which was given to Sophia by Tom with the pretense that he dislikes seeing things confined, “I had Miss Sophia’s bird in my hand, and thinking the poor creature languished for liberty, I own I could not forbear giving it what it desired; for I always thought there was something very cruel in confining anything” (Davidson and Moore, pg 38). Thirdly, he is already aware of the fact that Tom Jones is his half-brother, Mr. Allworthy’s son but chooses to keep it to himself in order to prevent Tom’s recognition as an honorable man in society and future heir of Mr. Allworthy’s inheritance.
Bridget Allworthy also falls in this category. The mere fact that she did not reveal that she had a son prior to her marriage to Captain Blifil makes her deceptive. She did this with the intention of protecting her dignity as well as her standing in society.
Men are generally considered violent in comparison to women. This was also the case in the 18th century. They resulted to either physical or verbal assaults to settle scores.As in the case of the book, the aspects of violence comes out, mostly physical and sexual violence. Squire Western resorted to physical violence upon learning that his daughter, Sophia, was interested in Tom Jones. He also locked her up in her room and intended to force her to get married to Master Blifil, had she not escaped. Sexual violence manifests itself widely in the book, first from Mrs. Water’s rape attempt with the Man of the Hill and also Sophia’s rape encounter with the Lord, as planned and instigated by Lady Bellaston.
Though of peaceful nature, Tom also finds himself caught up in a brawl at the inn he was staying. One of the soldiers, Ensign Northerton abuses the respectable name of Sophia and Tom reiterates by rebuking him as ‘one of the most impudent scoundrels on Earth’ (Davidson and Moore, pg 62). As a result of this, Northerton responds by smashing a bottle on Tom’s head.
The History of Tom Jones the foundling was first published in 1749. This was around the time the Marriage Act of 1753 came to be enacted. Before the enactment of the Act, for a marriage to be considered legal, it had to be governed by the Canon Law that was set forth by the Church of England. In this case, it required that a marriage ceremony be preceded over by an Anglican clergyman.
Following the enactment of the Marriage Act, it sought to ban clandestine marriages at the time. This required some regulations to be enforced to make a marriage legal. For instance, the marriage ceremony had to be presided over by a church minister and two or more witnesses to validate it. In addition, the Act put more power on the influence of parents over the choice of marriage partners. This particularly affected couples from different social classes who intended to wed. Although the law could not prevent such marriages from taking place in cases where parents did not approve, parents had the right to withhold property or gifts as inheritance. This could apply in the case of Tom Jones and Sophia as Tom was a bastard before the revelation of his status hence in the lower spectrum of society while Sophia was in the upper class in the society.
Parents also had the right to choose appropriate spouses for their children in the form of arranged marriages. For instance, according to the book, an arranged marriage had been planned for Sophia and Master Bilfil’s engagement by Sophia’s aunt, Mrs. Western.
The Marriage Act therefore had a profound effect on the marriages intended to take place at the time of enactment.
The characterization of the book’s characters by Henry Fielding was sought to represent the society. However, as discussed above, this did not live out in the end. For instance, the aspect of violence came across as being exhibited by both genders, as in the case of Mrs. Partridge and the other violent men discussed above. The 18th century was a time when women were submissive to their husbands and therefore would be preposterous to assume them fighting with their husbands. Henry Fielding provides a twist to the actual happenings in the society by presenting different character behavior as represented in the book. The book provides an interesting read following the intelligent unraveling of the plot.
Davidson, Kenneth and Moore, Nelwyn. (2001). Speaking of sexuality. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishers. Printed.