A Double Standard For Men And Women

In Tom Jones Essay, Research Paper


For this project, I will be summarizing three different articles that pertain to the argument that there is an apparent double standard for what is acceptable behavior in men versus women in Tom Jones. In addition to summarizing these articles, I will also be adding my own views and comments throughout this paper.

The first article is by April London, entitled Controlling the Text: Women in Tom Jones. London begins by stating that Fielding uses a metaphor between property and women throughout the text in Tom Jones. She states that “Fielding plays with the multiple meanings of property, undercutting the equation of female and helplessness, to offer versions of power unconstrained by gender which are. . . contradicted by . . . Sophia’s subordination [at] the novel’s happy ending” (323). London argues that although Fielding seems to put aside the gender bias, he actually enforces it by the way his character Sophia changes at the end of the novel. I think this is an interesting observation that has some merit. London does a good job of providing examples to reinforce her argument.

London claims that throughout the novel Sophia steps over the bounds of authority in order to maintain her own integrity, something rather uncommon for women to do back in the 18th century. The most outright example of this, of course, is when Sophia refuses to marry Blifil and runs away after her father locks her in her room, intending to keep her there until the day of the wedding. London says that “the structure of authority . . . arose from property” (325) and that Sophia is testing her father’s power of acquisition of that property. Because she decides to place herself in her aunt’s care, Sophia takes control of her own life.

According to London, throughout most of this novel, the female characters sort of control the plot and course of action, which is really unusual for its time. Furthermore, a few of them, Lady Bellaston in particular, actually demonstrate assertiveness and determination, which is again, unusual for the time period. London states that “female power, although most richly evoked in negative terms as an expression of carnality, also has its positive embodiment in the person of Sophia” (329).

This seeming rise of feminine power stops abruptly, however, with Sophia’s concession and marriage to Tom. According to London, “Sophia . . . is correspondingly diminished as she becomes part of the property relations that now define her husband” (331). She goes on to say that this development brings the 18th century values concerning land (and women through the use of the property metaphor) back into line: symmetry, stability, and continuity. London finishes by stating that in all of Fielding’s novels, including Joseph Andrews, Amelia and Tom Jones, women are given power only so that they can later give it up through the ceding of their property to their male counterparts once the men have “revealed themselves as prudential” (331). She argues that “Relinquishing the possibilities of character, they are absorbed into the ethic of property relations, becoming metaphoric attributes of the constitutional order Fielding defends” (331-2).

It is apparent that while Fielding does attribute a certain power to the women of this novel, he finishes by adhering to the traditional views of the time and almost implies that Sophia was really a means to an end: she ultimately cedes her property and wealth to Tom, which allows Tom to establish himself and his position in society.

The Mitigated Truth: Tom Jones’s Double Heroism by Peter J. Carlton is the second article. Carlton argues that Tom gets away with a variety of actions, especially illicit sex, with very little punishment and even less guilt. Tom’s actions are always minimized by the actions of other characters, very often female characters, as well as by the convenient surrounding circumstances. For example, Tom is involved with Molly Seagrim, but his involvement is minimized by a character sketch of Molly that Sophia’s maid Honour shapes when she states that Molly was always a forward, willing wench and that when wenches are so coming, men are not so much to be blamed, for it’s only natural to act on this forwardness (398). This double standard is actually stated and “justified” by another woman, which accurately highlights the way of thinking in the 18th century that Fielding evidently recognized.

Later, when Molly is found to be pregnant, Allworthy lectures Tom much in the same way he lectured Jenny Jones years ago, but according to Carlton, Fielding “minimizes its impact in Tom’s case” (399). These two instances are a few of many examples of this double standard for men and women. Carlton sums up the view of women when he states,

Fielding relies on . . . the traditional view of women, implicit in the fact that it is always the woman who is the aggressor in Tom’s affairs . . . women are perceived as either “purer” than they are or more sexually ravenous than they are (the familiar ‘virgin/whore’ polarization), but never simply as they are. At one extreme, they are seen as semidivine beings . . . at the other, women are portrayed as insatiable sinks of lust (399-400).

Sophia and Lady Bellaston seem to represent these two extremes precisely. Sophia is often referred to with heavenly and divine inferences, while Lady Bellaston is the instigator of an on-going affair with Tom. Tom is viewed as an innocent bystander who falls victim to ‘an evil temptress’ of sorts.

Carlton tells us that another critic, Battestin, remarks that “at a time when the double standard was widely accepted, Fielding strove to define the morality of sexual relationships for men as well as women” (402). Carlton refutes this, however, by saying that rather than trying to make an ideal judgment about sexual behaviors of men and women, Fielding simply compares Tom’s actions to those of Nightingale and Will Barnes and demonstrates that Jones’s behavior is not as loose in morals as is his peers (402).

Carlton goes on to discuss the depiction of heroism in Tom, most of which does not apply in the scope of this paper. However, he does argue that one facet of Tom’s heroism is a “Cavalier heroism, a dashing blend of sexual and martial prowess” (403) which seems to excuse Tom’s promiscuous behavior and even adds to his attraction. While the women involved in these affairs are looked upon as evil and tempting, Tom is actually looked upon as a dashing cavalier hero. This development speaks volumes about the double standard apparent in Tom Jones.

To further support these arguments is a third article by Gene S. Koppel entitled Sexual Education and Sexual Values in Tom Jones: Confusion at the Core? Most of this article talks about the sexual education and lack thereof in Tom, focusing on inconsistencies throughout the novel. Again, most of this is not within the scope of this paper, but Koppel does make one statement that completely supports the double standard argument. He says, “After all, it is quite obvious that Fielding accepted, at least partly, the traditional Western ‘double standard,’ which considered males to be sexually ‘grosser’ than females and allowed them (unofficially, at least) more sexual freedom than it permitted women” (7).

Again, Fielding seems to maintain a double standard for what is acceptable behavior in men versus women. This is highlighted through endless examples and situations throughout the novel which would provide formidable arguments for anyone who sought to argue otherwise.

Carlton, Peter J. “The Mitigated Truth: Tom Jones’s Double Heroism.” Studies in the Novel XIX, no. 4 (Winter 1987) : 397-409.

Fielding, Henry. Tom Jones. New York: Bantam. 1997.

Koppel, Gene S. “Sexual Education and Sexual Values in Tom Jones: Confusion at the Core?” Studies in the Novel XII, no. 1 (Spring 1980) : 1-11.

London, April. “Controlling the Text: Women in Tom Jones.” Studies in the Novel XIX, no. 3 (Fall 1987) : 323-333.

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