Henry Fielding: Joseph Andrews

The title page of Henry Fielding’s first novel reads as follows: ‘The history of the adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his friend Mr. Abraham Adams. Written in imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote. The allusion to Cervantes and his masterpiece Don Quixote as well as the explicit definition of his own writing later in the preface as a comic epic poem in prose, shows Fielding deeply aware of being the originator of a new genre which, as he wrote in the same preface, he did not remember to have seen attempted in the English language.

As to the first point, the acknowledged debt to the Spanish writer, Parson Adams is indeed a truly Quixotic figure and the structure of the book also follows Cervantes. Joseph Andrews is a novel of adventures met while travelling on the road. Joseph loses his employment in Lady Booby’s service in London for refusing her attempts to seduce him as well as those of her maid Mrs. Slipslop. On his way home to the country to his sweetheart Fanny, he meets Parson Adams, whose teaching had so fortified his virtue, walking to London in the hope of getting his sermons published; but Adams has forgotten to bring his sermons with him and so returns with Joseph. Together they run all kinds of adventures meeting a host of characters from low and middle-class layers of society: innkeepers, chambermaids, country squires and clergymen.

The plot is a parody of romantic plots in general, with missing heirs, babies stolen and exchanged at birth and birth marks to be discovered, and foundlings restored to their heritage in the last chapter. Initially, it was also an explicit parody, or at least Fielding started his novel with that aim in mind, of Richardson’s extraordinarily popular novel Pamela, whose so far unquestioned virtue Fielding strongly despised having already published a burlesque under the name of Shamela.

Fielding’s affinity with Cervantes appears first of all in the keen perception of the ridiculous in character and action. Secondly, in the humorous style which often takes a mock-heroic turn, and in the geniality of temperament. Thirdly, in the portrait of characters of certain lower classes of men and women. And finally, in the humorous or satiric descriptions of the contents of the chapters and the introduction of side stories or episodes into the main narrative.

Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, nevertheless, has not the air of romance which is so pervasive in Don Quixote, but pictures rather the ordinary life of his time, giving faithful portraits of men and women in ordinary life. There is also a number of similarities not just in manner but in incident as well, among which we could mention the night adventure in the inn involving Don Quixote, Maritornes and the mule driver with the confusion in Mrs. Slipslop’s bedchamber; Maritornes’ charity with Sancho with that of Betty, the chambermaid, to Joseph; Don Quixote and Sancho’s frightened bewilderment at the strange lights of the funeral cortege with the reactions of Adams, Joseph and Fanny to the lights of the sheepstealers, and so on.

But much as he admired Don Quixote, Fielding regretted its diffuseness of structure which allowed a looseness and unconnection of adventures the order of which could well be altered without any injury to the whole. In the Preface he wrote to his sister Sarah’s novel David Simple, he implied that the ultimate formal model of Joseph Andrews was the Odyssey, a kind of writing, he observed, consisting of ‘a series of separate adventures, detached from and independent of each other, yet all tending to one great end, for which reason it may not be criticised for lack of unity of action’.

Thus, the journey in Joseph Andrews is not a mere picaresque rambling, a device solely for the purpose of introducing new adventures such as we find in the classic picaresque story, the comic romances or Don Quixote, but an allegorical journey, a moral pilgrimage, as Martin Battestin puts it, from the vanity and corruption of the Great City to the relative naturalness and simplicity of the country.

The two heroes of Joseph Andrews are more than merely comic characters; more than a prudish young footman and a naive parson. They embody the essential virtues of the good man: chastity, and generosity and good nature. The careers of Joseph Andrews and Abraham Adams comprise brilliantly comic analogues to those of their biblical namesakes. The use of biblical analogues is surprisingly subtle contributing to the mock-heroic character of the novel while at the same time reminding the reader of the function of Joseph and Adams as exemplars.

Characters and plot mutually function to illustrate the dominant thematic motifs of the novel, namely the exposure of vanity and hypocrisy in society and the recommendation of their antithetical virtues, charity and chastity, and the classical ideal of life.

Cervantes and the picaresque novel, and Homer’s epic poems are not the only conspicuous influences in Fielding’s novels in general and in Joseph Andrews in particular. For methods of planning, developing and unfolding his plots and presenting his characters, Fielding turned to the drama. He is particularly indebted to the comedy of manners, the light, gay, and burlesque Restoration Comedy. His early career as dramatist had given him practice in the direct presentation of character and the management of plot and these he employed in his novels, making them at once novels of character and dramatic novels.

Certain of his characters: the town fop, the country squire, the hypocritical and immoral great lady, as well as the boisterous scenes and the construction of his plots, their arrangements in separate, dramatic, comic scenes are reminiscent of Restoration comedy which he had clearly initiated himself in his own plays.

Fielding’s familiarity with the Greek and Latin poets, historians and critics played a considerable part in forming his conception of the novel. He was an admirer of Homer and his theory of the comic epic poem in prose stated in the preface to Joseph Andrews is founded, he says, upon Aristotle’s criticism of Homer in the Poetics. He frequently cites Homer and Aristotle in support of his critical theories, and burlesques Homer in his mock-heroic battles.

But for all his classical reading and serious reliance on critical principles derived from the classics, Fielding often made fun of the ancients’ and of those who took them too seriously. His burlesques of Homer and his flippant references to Aristotle show that his attitude toward them is a mixture of respect and good-natured amusement.

In his preface to Joseph Andrews Fielding declares his satirical purpose. ‘The ridiculous only (...) falls within my province in the present work’, he says, proceeding to explain the term and how often it has been mistaken. ‘The only source of the true Ridiculous’, he goes on, ‘is affectation... Now, affectation proceeds from one of these two causes, vanity or hypocrisy’.

The discussion which follows is highly important as it describes the theoretical basis for Fielding’s satire. Fielding undertook his sweeping satire of English society with the Horatian design to instruct as well as to delight the reader. It is easy to laugh with Fielding at his Hogarthian gallery of vain and hypocritical innkeepers, squires, justices parsons, beaux and coquettes; but as the theory of the Ridiculous implies, Fielding’s laughter is corrective. His satire is not unkind or merciless except to the blackest hypocrisy, and his laughter is usually sympathetic.

Eighteenth century novelists were deeply conscious of their interplay with the reader who is invited to take an active part in the composition of the novel’s meaning. The role which Fielding assigns to his readers, as Wolfang Iser discloses in his perceptive study The Implied Reader, is not confined to a willingness to be persuaded but to undergo a kind of transformation, through an active participation in bringing out the meaning of the novel. This participation is an essential precondition for communication between the author and the reader and for the success of the former’s satiric purpose.

Fielding’s aim, as he himself explains to the reader, is ‘not to expose one pitiful wretch to the small and contemptible circle of his acquaintance, but to hold the glass to thousands in their closets, that they may contemplate their deformity, and endeavour to reduce it, and thus by suffering pivate mortification may avoid public shame’.

For Fielding, the novel is then a kind of mirror in which the reader can see himself, as it were, through the characters he has been laughing at in apparent superiority. Looking in the glass gives the reader the opportunity for selfcorrection.

Fielding’s novel is no longer confined to the presentation of exemplary models as Richardson’s Pamela was inviting emulation. Instead the text offers itself as an instrument by means of which the reader can make a number of discoveries for himself. The right mode of conduct is not presented explicitly, but is extracted from the novel through the interplay of attitudes and discoveries.

In this way the meaning of the novel is no longer an independent objective reality; it is something that has to be formulated by the reader.

Though Fielding was indeed a moralist, what is most memorable about him is not so much his morality as his comedy. The comic romance, Fielding tells us in his Preface, differs from the serious one in that its fable and action are ridiculous, its characters are sometimes of inferior rank and manners and its sentiments and diction are ludicrous.

And indeed in Joseph Andrews the comic point of view is sustained throughout. Joseph’s virtuous resistance to the advances of Lady Booby is light ridicule of Richardson’s Pamela and his letters to his sister parody those of Pamela to her parents. The sentiments and diction are mainly ludicrous. Although he respects and admires the virtues of Parson Adams he makes him a laughable figure. He makes his worldliness, his book learning and ignorance of mankind, and even his kindness and honesty, the subject of gentle sympathetic laughter. Similarly he makes Joseph’s virtue amusing and Lady Booby’s amorousness ridiculous. Even when Joseph is stripped naked by thieves and left dying in a ditch he makes his plight ludicrous as he describes the rescue by the party in the stage-coach.

But behind the ludicrousness of the sentiments and of diction there is, of course, Fielding’s purpose of laughing vice out of the world. The key to the satire of Joseph Andrews lies in the ethos of the novel, a standard held up as a contrast setting off the moral degeneracy of the age and embodied very especially in the innocent quixotism of Parson Adams who, in spite of his eccentricities and laughableness, embodies the traits which Fielding considers the highest human virtues: generosity, kindness, honesty, idealism and a truly Christian attitude towards life.

Though Fielding gives us a realistic and accurate portrait of eighteenth-century England, his greatest skill is the portrait of character. Parson Adams is one of the greatest in English fiction. Joseph and his sweetheart are not meant to be much more than lay-figures, but the host of minor characters, though not drawn so completely as Adams are fully alive, having the distinctive individuality of Hogarth’s prints.