Comment on the depiction of female characters from different societal strata in Tom Jones.

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Because Tom Jones himself is a foundling, he is a liminal character who is enacting self-fashioning through his encounters with people of various classes and situations in life. His interactions with these other characters serve as steps in his process of self-definition.

The first variation in types of female character is the urban versus rural divide. Many of the women in the novel live in the country and are either members of the gentry or domestic servants. Other women are encountered by Tom in London and range from tradespeople to servants.

English society at this period was highly stratified, with the nobility at the pinnacle of wealth and power and the gentry one rung below the nobility. Next were professionals, yeoman farmers, and tradespeople. Laborers, servants, and criminals were at the bottom of the pyramid.

Lady Bellaston is a member of the nobility. Among the members of the gentry portrayed in the novel are Bridget Allworthy, Mrs. Harriet Fitzpatrick, Mrs. Western, and Sophia Western. Among the examples of women in the professional and middle classes are Nancy Miller, Mrs. Miller, and Mrs. Partridge. Lower on the social hierarchy, readers encounter Molly Seagrim (a "fallen woman"), Jenny Jones, and Honour Blackmore.

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In Tom Jones, Fielding exposes the reader to women from a wide strata of society, in contrast to a writer like Jane Austen, who focuses on the gentry class. Characters in Tom Jones range from upper-class women, such Sophia Weston, the squire's daughter, Lady Bellaston, and Squire Allsworthy's sister Bridget, who is Tom's mother, to servants such as Jennie Jones and Mollie Seagram. Despite class differences, however, women are primarily understood in sexual terms. For example, the chaste Sophia can be seen as a classic "angel" or "Madonna" figure of almost spiritual purity, whereas Lady Bellaston is depicted as a loose woman or "whore" in the novel's madonna/ whore dichotomy. Further, women of all classes are held to a more rigid sexual standard than a man like Tom, who more or less gets a pass for his sexual escapades. Women who pursue men, such as Lady Bellaston, are seen as aggressive sexual predators, but when Molly finds out she is pregnant, Fielding does not treat Tom's sexual behavior as a serious problem. It should be noted that women can show strength and agency, such as when Sophia stands up to her father's plan to marry her to Blifel.

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Fielding shows a range of attitudes and characterizations through the women in Tom Jones. The point which is most clearly illustrated is that characters who are innately good are not made so by their social position.

The higher class women include Bridget Allworthy, Lady Bellaston and Arabella Hunt. Each of these ladies has money, and each proves to have immoral leanings. Bridget is the mother of the hero Tom Jones, though chose to pay her nurse, Jenny Jones, to take the responsibility and blame for the illegitimate birth. Lady Bellaston and Arabella Hunt both pursue Tom in unseemly ways.

Sophia Western, however, is a squire’s daughter like Bridget, but is chaste, loyal, moral and virtuous throughout the text. She seems to be an exception to the group in which che operates.

The lower class women include Jenny Jones, Honour Blackmore and Molly Seagrim. Jenny is revealed to be a loyal servant as she takes the blame for Bridget’s child, and Honour engineers to stay at her mistress’ Sophia’s side despite the challenges to her own position. Molly is more of a passionate individual, who is revealed to be having sexual relations with both Tom and Mr Square. She has less restraint and decency than the others.

Mrs Wilkins (Allworthy’s housekeeper) and Mrs Partridge both enjoy gossip, scandal and cruel judgments on those they choose to condemn – rightly or not. Mrs Wilkins pursues the unfortunate Jenny and Mrs Partridge ruins her husband with her misguided jealousy.

Fielding illustrates through the women that virtue and vice are not confined by sex, class or upbringing: each individual is guided by their own morality. These characterizations are what makes the novel such an engaging study in “Human nature”.




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