Female Characters in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones

We are struck by a great variety of women characters in the novel. It is indeed surprising, how Fielding assigns such clear and distinctive traits to each one of them. He must have had a large fund of social experience to draw upon and a keen eye to set apart one type of female existence from another. I say this because unlike men, who have a share in the power structure at different levels in the world of the novel, women have to be largely restricted to their sexuality.

Bridget as an Intelligent User of Skills

Bridget Allworthy, despite her superior social status, is ‘wooed’ (a mild form of being sexually approached) by several people at different points in time. She is not good-looking. Still, marriage with her can be planned by aspirants such as Captain Blifil, and the senior Blifil. Square and Thwackum, too, consistently try to win favour with her. What is clear is that these four have always hoped to attain money or power through sexually exploiting, and more pertinently, subjugating her. Bridget knows it quite well and thinks of using it to further her ends — a quite ‘legitimate’ way in the circumstances to use her position as a woman. In Fielding’s view, “So discreet was she in her conduct, that her prudence was much on the guard as if she had had all the snares to apprehend which were laid for her whole sex”. She cleverly manipulates the philosopher and the clergyman and reduces the two to the level of abject seekers of sexual favours. We should also not forget that it is Bridget who is the first woman in the novel to violate the code of matrimonial sanctity, by which her great brother swears so much, and gives birth to a bastard who, as we see, raises her role of committing ever-new violations of the sexual matrimonial code to a different level altogether. And ironically, the dead Bridget has had her way in the end in so many different senses. She can do so largely because social privilege protected her from crude encroachment by any of the males. Also, she is less gullible because of her superior upbringing and education than other women in the novel. Be that as it may, we are presented through her with an attitude of counter-violation of the all-suppressing patriarchal code by a woman. This planned act of negation by her can be appreciated ‘comically’ and ‘heroically.’

Molly Seagrim and Mrs Waters

Molly Seagrim attracts the reader’s attention more compellingly as a symbol of aggressive female sexuality. Fielding seems to be deriving a great deal of fun from her depiction, but the laughter of ‘comedy’ is seldom at her cost. Instead, he upholds Molly as a powerful symbol of human vigour and raw sexual power. Molly has none of the prudish, hypocritical sense of chastity of which Fielding accused the heroines of Richardson’s novels. In fact, Fielding visualises Molly in excessive animalistic terms. It occurs to us later that this wild, unrestrained, almost overflowing sexuality becomes in the novel a sharp comment on Lady Bellaston’s promiscuous behaviour. We see Lady Bellaston planning her affairs cynically with different men on the strength of skills and homework. In the latter’s case, sexuality changes into a sick routinised behaviour. Tom himself loses much of his dynamism and gusto as he interacts with her. Her morally debilitating influence upon Tom is comprehended quite well by Sophia herself. This is reflected in her certain rejection of Tom till things reveal themselves in a radically different light at the end.

Mrs Waters offers yet another variety of female behaviour. She has a long history of sexual and social harassment. The two harassments can’t in fact be separated. But we discern in her a distorted sense of values regarding relationships. Perhaps, her affair with Captain Waters, a military officer with no rootedness in settled existence, has left an indelible mark upon her — a mark of easy utilitarian relationship. Any new male can catch Mrs Water’s fancy and a series of such happenings may eventually land her in a hopelessly shocking situation.

On the surface, we may note a few similarities between Mrs Waters and Tom in their attitude to sexual morality. But a close look would reveal that insofar as the relationship between the two is concerned, Tom is an object of seduction, to which he undoubtedly succumbs rather easily, while Mrs Waters is the seducer. More, we have seen Tom behaving innocently in all situations, unlike Mrs Waters who can’t be called innocent. Fielding’s purpose seems to be to confront the reader with the disastrously unsettling idea of incest at a later stage. In fact, we do not become entirely free from the horror of Tom having possibly gone to bed with his mother. In this case, chance only helps. But chance or no chance, the situation is such, with Tom’s recklessness and lack of serious perspective and Mrs Waters’s worse than amoral ways (we have to distinguish between the two), that the protagonist of the novel might as well have been his mother’s partner in sex. Still more than chance, it is the omnipotent narrator who rejects the option and decides to make the novel an epic and, therefore, pull Tom out of the possibility of incest. If the author decided to make the work a tragedy, the novel would be a repetition of Oedipus. But that is not the genre to which Tom Jones belongs in its basic spirit and attitude. However, Mrs Waters helps us see the enormity of unscrupulous sexuality — it becomes crude and excessive in her case over time. In this way, the purpose behind the introduction of Mrs Waters in the novel is not merely to contribute to the complexity of the plot but to offer another variant of female behaviour. With its help, we can judge the insanity of Mrs Fitzwater, whose sob story appears episodic and narrow in scope as well as the cynical disregard for ethics and scruples behind Lady Bellaston’s well-orchestrated operations.

Lady Bellaston’s Degradation and Vacuity

Fielding considers Lady Bellaston in strictly moral terms and finds her deficient in ‘nature’ as well as ‘education.’ She is presented as actively participating in masquerades where the men and women of the upper stratum of society entertain themselves. The scene is typically the eighteenth century and reflects a growing amount of laxity in morals among people in higher London circles. When Tom, innocent as he is, is exposed to this atmosphere, he does not see the moral degradation and vacuity underlying it. On her part, Lady Bellaston is struck by the looks of Tom and plans to keep him as her lover. A cool player of games in fashionable London, Lady Bellaston employs clever stratagems to keep Tom away from Sophia and uses her social standing as well as money to ensure that he remains firmly in her grip.

However, there is one aspect of her personality in which this projection of Lady Bellaston is questioned in the novel. Here, I refer to Lady Bellaston’s inherent fears as an insecure woman in the presence of Sophia’s sweet and dignified ways. Lady Bellaston is highly individualistic, self-centred and mean. We hardly see any idealism or moral sense left in her. On the other hand, Sophia is driven by a superior sense of love. We perceive an intense urge in her to self-question. Sophia is tom apart between her lover and filial duty. These things have all along remained alien to Lady Bellaston. In this clash of values, Lady Bellaston is bound to lose. The presence of a superior sensibility has made her still more jealous of a woman reassured of winning Tom’s love. The sense of jealousy in Lady Bellaston points towards that whole boredom of the stagnant life (the particular social formation) into which the upper stratum of the English society has fallen and which denies its women the pleasures of being honestly and loyally the members of the opposite sex. If we look back from the scenes of London life to the way people went about their business in Somersetshire, we realise that the high and mighty as well as the poor and helpless remained firmly rooted in a life of relative stability and honesty there. On the other hand, the London atmosphere is too cynical and cold to allow simple pleasures of a natural give and take. Lady Bellaston becomes acutely aware of the growing loneliness and uncertainty in her existence as a woman. This is specifically caused by her watching Tom as absorbed in the thought of joining with his beloved Sophia. The only way Lady Bellaston can assert herself in the situation is to thwart the efforts of the two lovers to join each other. Where does the novel come to an end — in Book seventeenth or eighteenth? It is again a difficult question to answer. Fielding seems to be keeping the two options open and inviting the reader to make his/her own choice. Looking at the novel from a close realistic angle (words such as convincing, acceptable and logical come to mind in association with ‘realistic’), we feel that Tom has become too helpless and weak (he cannot fight the whole structure single-handed) to even wriggle out of the situation in the given circumstances. The ‘logic’ of events in the novel strongly suggests that Tom is destined to fail, which in his specific case means losing Sophia as well as all connections with Mr Allworthy. This points towards the likely success of Blifil’s sinister plans, who operates in the novel in the manner of Fate, out to systematically destroy Tom’s prospects of fulfilment at the end of his journey.

The narrator says as much in the seventeenth book and calls Tom’s situation desperate. But this kind of ‘realism’ does not seem to go well with the spirit of the novel. Instead, Fielding sets much store by the ‘comic approach’ which stresses the significance of human intervention moved by the urge to change. It is this urge and attitude which inspires the narrator to continue into the eighteenth book and tell the reader confidently that Tom and Sophia were not born to fail.

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