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Tom Jones | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


How do the female characters in Tom Jones depart from typical portrayals of women in the 18th century?

The female characters in Tom Jones are portrayed as having the full range of emotions and the capability of the good and bad behavior usually reserved for male characters in 18th-century novels. First the novel contains two thoroughly bad female characters: Mrs. Western and Lady Bellaston. Mrs. Western is selfish, self-righteous, and narcissistic, having an exaggerated view of her own abilities and her physical attractiveness and, like her brother, thinking other people exist to do her bidding. She is vindictive when crossed, which is why she leaves her niece Harriet to fend for herself even after she makes several attempts to mend fences with her aunt. But Mrs. Western cannot forgive the fact that Fitzpatrick preferred Harriet to her, and she doesn't care what happens to her young niece. Similarly when Sophia crosses her and refuses to marry Lord Fellamar, Mrs. Western abandons the niece she claims to love and simply turns her over to her father. Lady Bellaston is a villainess and narcissist. She is a promiscuous rake who preys on younger men and drops them when they ask for commitment. When she is outsmarted and rejected by Tom, she does her best to destroy both Tom and Sophia out of spite—first attempting to have Sophia raped so she must marry Lord Fellamar and then attempting to have Tom kidnapped and put on a naval vessel. Fielding also shows women as having sexual desire equal to that of men—and this includes not only a villainess like Lady Bellaston or a promiscuous girl like Molly Seagrim but also a chaste widow like Mrs. Hunt, who falls in love with Tom. Even Sophia expresses sexual desire when she realizes she has feelings for Tom the first time he grabs her hands in the garden and kisses them (Book 4, Chapter 5) when she agrees to help Black George get the gamekeeper's job on her father's estate.

Why do Lady Bellaston and Mrs. Western prefer to remain single in Tom Jones?

Lady Bellaston and Mrs. Western prefer to remain single so they do not have to give their power up to a man and can continue as their own mistresses. The two women are cousins and similar in their character, although different in their sexual desire. Both are wealthy women, and under English law their wealth would come under the control of their husbands once they were married. Thus they could be at the mercy of someone like Mr. Fitzpatrick, who runs through his wife's fortune and even takes a mistress. He then locks her in her room and refuses to release her until she agrees to give up the rest of her property. Both Lady Bellaston and Mrs. Western are not about to fall into a trap like that, although the author does not sanction their independence, which is necessarily coupled with their inability to love a man and settle into a life of marriage, which is unnatural in Fielding's view. Thus their need to maintain power by avoiding matrimony is unusual according to the moral vision of the novel.

In what ways does Fielding demonstrate how women are at the mercy of their male protectors in Tom Jones?

Fielding holds a traditional view of men and women, and Allworthy praises Sophia's deference to the men when he tests her—asking for her view on a subject, as he explains in Book 17, Chapter 3, just to see if she would assert herself. Thus Sophia, who is a female exemplar, only goes so far in asserting her will and remains adamant in her refusal to marry anyone not approved by her father. Still Fielding clearly sees that a woman's role as subordinate to a male can put her at the mercy of a man and leave her with no room to maneuver. This happens to Mrs. Fitzpatrick, who, after making one grievous mistake of eloping with a fortune hunter can never recover because she has been cast off by her relatives. Left with no one in the world to protect her against her husband, she must turn to another man to protect her, the Irish peer who helps her escape but who demands in return that she become his mistress. This is not Harriet's first choice, and she attempts to get back into the good graces of the Westerns, but when she cannot she is forced to live a disreputable life. The same thing happens to Jenny Jones (Mrs. Waters), who is betrayed by her first lover; as a result she goes from man to man, since, lacking material resources, it is not possible for her to be financially independent. Mrs. Miller is much luckier; when she loses her husband and has to raise two young girls Mr. Allworthy steps in to help her and does not demand anything in return—but he is the exception rather than the rule.

What is the significance of the names of the characters in Tom Jones?

The names of the characters in Tom Jones are often symbolic in that they reveal one or more aspects of the character's personality. For example, Mr. Allworthy is extremely worthy as the exemplar of true Christianity. Rev. Thwackum believes corporal punishment teaches virtue and he beats Tom regularly. Mr. Square abuses Greek philosophy with his odd geometry he calls "the rule of right." Sophia, "wisdom," is the wisest character in the novel and represents the wisdom Tom must reach, both literally and figuratively. A man who chased women for sexual purposes was called a tomcat, which is recorded as early as 1760, and this could be why Fielding named his hero "Tom." Lady Bellaston is warlike, and her name is related to the world bellicose. Lord Fellamar is a fellow who is "marred" or lacking in moral restraint, allowing himself to be talked into an attempted rape. Black George is so named because of his beard, but his character is also "black" in the sense that he is bad or sinful. The Man of the Hill never gets a name because he represents a principle more than a character—he is the spirit of cynicism.

How does Tom Jones prove he has changed by the end of Tom Jones?

Tom proves he has changed by the end of the novel because he turns down three women without regret and he also admits he has no one but himself to blame for his bad fortune—even up to and including the possibility that he has slept with his mother. Shortly after Tom breaks it off with Lady Bellaston and becomes penniless again, he receives a letter from Mrs. Hunt proposing marriage, and he turns her down in Book 15, Chapter 11, telling her truthfully his heart is elsewhere. Mrs. Fitzpatrick also gives him the eye, and Mrs. Waters would gladly resume their relationship if Tom were willing. But when she sees him in prison in Book 17, Chapter 9 Mrs. Waters is disappointed to realize he is a very different fellow and not up for a continued affair. Tom has gotten past the idea that gallantry and honor require him to satisfy any woman's passing desires, and he commits himself unconditionally to Sophia, learning the value of prudence.

Why does Fielding include introductory chapters to preface the action in each book of Tom Jones?

Fielding uses the "bill of fare" metaphor to preface the first book, mimicking popular formal and informal entertainments of his day so as to parody and ridicule the convention and leading the reader to think each "preface" or introductory chapter will be related in some way to the book that follows. This in fact is not the case since the prefaces cannot be related to the contents of each book. Rather these 18 prefaces (Books 1–18, Chapter 1) are primarily used by the narrator to develop a relationship with the reader and to persuade the reader over the course of the novel to believe the moral universe as created by the author. The narrator also works to help the reader understand and sympathize with the characters in the way in which the author intends. Finally, because Fielding was self-consciously aware he was creating "a new province of writing" he also feels called upon to explain to the reader what he is doing, which is why the narrator spends much of his time in each preface explaining how a novel (which he calls a "history") ought to be written, what it ought to contain, and who is most qualified to write one.

In what ways does the narrator trust or mistrust the reader in Tom Jones?

The narrator doubts the reader's capacity to understand the action of the novel without his skillful intervention, even though with verbal irony he calls the reader sagacious on numerous occasions and even invites the reader at times to fill the blanks. This occurs, for example, in Book 3, Chapter 1 when the narrator skips over the uninteresting parts of the hero's history and leaves several years unaccounted for, which he feels sure the reader can imagine. At other times the narrator both notes the reader can entirely understand his meaning and then immediately jumps in to explain it, as he does in Book 1, Chapter 6, where he feels called upon to lend "the reader a little assistance in this place" to explain that Mrs. Deborah Wilkins tyrannized "over the little people." Clearly the narrator believes the reader cannot fully appreciate the author's genius without explaining, as he does in Book 9, Chapter 1, what qualities are required of "historical writers who do not draw their materials from records." Nonetheless the narrator ultimately trusts the reader will enter in a mutually sympathetic relationship with him and embrace his work with the full appreciation it deserves. For example, the narrator lays bare his heart in Book 13, Chapter 1 when he confides to the reader that Sophia is based on his beloved wife, Charlotte, now dead, and that he hopes some woman in some future generation will be able to appreciate the real worth of a person who existed in life. He uses his memory of perfection in his wife, but he is aware of what he is doing by making use of that memory.

In what ways does the characterization in Tom Jones favor the view that people are shaped mostly by their inherent nature or by their upbringing and experience?

Tom Jones favors the view that people are shaped mostly by their inherent natures rather than by their upbringing or experience. Blifil and Tom Jones are half brothers, and they have exactly the same influences growing up—raised by the same mother and uncle and tutored by Thwackum and Square. Half of their genetic material is shared, but Blifil's father is the greedy Captain Blifil while Tom's father is the son of a clergyman. Tom also seems to have inherited more of Allworthy's nature (his mother's brother) than did Blifil. While Fielding and his contemporaries probably wouldn't consider genetics in assessing character, they would have believed that people were born with predispositions and temperaments. Tom is honest and open-hearted from childhood, while Blifil is circumspect, secretive, and greedy. Their temperaments are reflected in the incident of the bird Tommy (in Book 4, Chapter 3), in which Tom trains a bird for their playmate Sophia while Blifil spitefully lets it go because he envies Tom. While people may be at the mercy of their natures to some degree, all people have the opportunity to improve themselves by practicing their religion, particularly Christian virtues. While Blifil pays lip service to these virtues he doesn't practice them, while Tom naturally has many of these virtues—particularly love, compassion, and mercy.

How do letters function as a literary device in Tom Jones?

The letters in the novel function as alternative voices to provide counterpoint to the ubiquitous and sometimes overpowering voice of the narrator. For example, the first letter Tom Jones writes to Sophia, in Book 6, Chapter 12, expresses his passionate love: "everything here flows from a heart so full, that no language can express its dictates ... O Sophia! it is hard to leave you; it is harder still to desire you to forget me; yet the sincerest love obliges me to both." Tom's letter gives the reader direct access to his voice. In another example the depth of Blifil's spite toward Tom is expressed in a letter that appears in Book 7, Chapter 3: it will be "always out of your power to cause the least alteration in his resolution. He expresses great surprise at your presumption in saying you have resigned all pretensions to a young lady ... [whose] birth and fortune [have] made her so infinitely your superior." Thus the many voices of the characters expressed in letters add another dimension to the story and enable Fielding to portray a depth of emotion in characters that would not be possible through narration.

How does Fielding use parent-child relationships in Tom Jones to illustrate the responsibilities parents have to their children?

Fielding shows the bad consequences of parents who abandon their children or who do not properly care for them. For example, Tom Jones is somewhat abandoned by his mother, and he ends up growing up in Mr. Allworthy's house under false pretenses. Although Allworthy treats him like a son no one else thinks he deserves a place at Allworthy's table, and he is the target of spite for many people. This false start in life affects what happens to Tom and creates unnecessary hardship for him both before and after he is thrown out by his uncle. Thus Bridget's refusal to take responsibility for Tom casts a long shadow on his life until the time his true background is revealed. Squire Western is another type of bad parent. While he showers his daughter Sophia with affection, praise, and material possessions when she is perfectly obedient, he treats her like a slave when she objects to being married to a man she hates. While Western is right to expect duty and respect from his daughter, he doesn't have a right to expect her to ruin her life to satisfy his whim about marrying Blifil. Thus he shirks his responsibility as a protector, which forces Sophia to run away and puts her into danger (for example, she is almost raped) until she is reunited with him and Tom. Other examples of bad parenting include Allworthy (when he abandons Tom), the Nightingale fathers, and Mrs. Western in her role as a parent substitute.

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