Discuss the genre of Joseph Andrews. What is “the comic Epic-Poem in Prose”? According to Fielding, what distinguishes comedy from burlesque, and why is the distinction important?
The comic epic poem in prose is a work of prose fiction with elements of comedy, epic, and romance. It is epic in length and in variety of incident; the quest format of the plot is typical of both epic and romance, as are the many quixotic battles and adventures and the hero’s love motive. Fielding presents his characters comically in that they are primarily “low” characters whom he has drawn from everyday life rather than idealizing them; though his “Sentiments and Diction” are humorous, however, he does not mock or travesty his characters, as in burlesque, but preserves their humanity. The burlesque differs from comedy in that it displays “monstrous” characters and vices that do not occur in real life; Fielding rejects it because his aim is to use humor constructively by exposing real-life failings.
Discuss Fielding’s representation of goodness. What are its positive attributes and its possible limitations?
Fielding understands true goodness as expressing itself in active social benevolence rather than in adherence to the particularities of any doctrine, whether Christian or otherwise. This kind of goodness is potentially very effectual in promoting the welfare of mankind, but it is also prone to subversion. Since goodness arises from spontaneous, sociable feelings of benevolence, it involves the assumption of good faith in others; when that assumption is mistaken, the good man can be exploited and his good intentions thwarted, as the case of Adams demonstrates.
Discuss the tone of the novel. Does the ironic presentation of the characters undermine the novel’s moral message of active benevolence?
By poking fun at his characters and narrating the story in the third person, Fielding puts an ironic distance between his reader and his characters. This distance prevents our identifying with the characters, so that, in the words of one critic, “we focus on [a given character], not through him.” Perhaps one might argue that this objectification of the characters prevents our sympathizing with them, and since sympathetic identification with others is precisely what Fielding’s moral message enjoins, his narrative method would seem to be encouraging just the wrong kind of outlook. At the same time, however, one should remember that Fielding says explicitly that he does not want readers to consider his characters real human beings: he describes “not an Individual, but a Species,” and the characters are exemplary types, not slavish imitations of reality. Seen in this way, Fielding’s distanced and sometimes harsh view of his characters does not contradict his injunction of interpersonal sympathy.
Consider Mr. Adams as an alter ego of the novelist. What characteristics does he share with Fielding? What might their likeness suggest about the moral message of the novel?
Fielding evidently views Adams as being somehow in a different class from the rest of the characters, as he is the only character whom Fielding mentions in the Preface. Adams also epitomizes the qualities that Fielding most values, such as generosity, sociability, courage, and classical erudition. The identification between novelist and parson should not, of course, be overstated, particularly in light of Fielding’s delight in humiliating Adams. Insofar as Adams is ridiculous, though, he discredits not himself nor Fielding’s values but the world around him, which is so corrupt that it will always make the practice of virtue appear foolish.
What role does providence play in the novel?
Fielding’s “good” characters attract trouble like magnets, but the novelist always rescues them before they have incurred any irreparable damage. Their troubles multiply because in Fielding’s moral vision, it is in the nature of goodness to make the good person vulnerable to the selfish acts of vicious people. If he is skeptical about the ability of good people to get by in the world, however, Fielding nevertheless is no pessimist: the apparently divine protection that his plot affords to Adams and his companions is Fielding’s way of indicating that whatever meager impact individual goodness may have on the world is providential, a contribution to the betterment of the condition of mankind.
Discuss Fielding’s presentation of character. Are the characters naturalistic, “round” personalities, or does Fielding take a different approach?
Fielding’s characters are for the most part two-dimensional; in describing “not Individuals, but a Species,” Fielding creates his characters as universal types. The logic behind this method of characterization is didactic: Fielding uses his characters to embody abstract concepts and principles because “It is a trite but true Observation, that Examples work more forcibly on the Mind than Precepts.” The characters are exemplary in the sense that they are more significant for being examples of certain eternal features of human nature than for the determinate personalities with which a more naturalistic presentation would endow them. Mr. Adams and Joseph may be at least partial exceptions to this rule, depending on one’s interpretation of them.
How does the novel evince Fielding’s affinity for classical learning? What is the significance of this affinity?
Fielding’s interest in the classics manifests itself above all in the epic format of the novel but also in Parson Adams’s erudition, which leads him to sprinkle his conversation with Latin words and haul around a Greek volume that others mistake for a treasonous document written in code. Adams’s advocacy of the moral beauty of Homer and other ancient writers vindicates classical values as a source of moral philosophy to complement the Bible. On a literary level, Fielding seems determined to lend some erudition to the heretofore popular and vernacular genre of the novel; as his primary allegiance is not to the modern world and its values and cultural artifacts but rather to the classics and tradition, so he seeks to infuse the new genre of the novel with more venerable literary forms and echoes.
How does the novel present human justice and its official representatives?
Fielding shows the failure of the English judicial system to address the problem of violence abroad in the land. Justices are inattentive and pawns of the local gentry; lawyers like Scout supply legal pretexts for powerful people to execute their predatory whims. The nominal enforcers of law and order, then, are just as corrupt and self-interested as the criminals, though perhaps they are more decorous about it.
Is Joseph Andrews a novel of education, and if so, of whose education? Does Joseph learn and develop in the course of the story? Does Mr. Adams?
Joseph’s moral formation, seen primarily in his perfect commitment to his chastity, is apparently complete before the commencement of the plot proper. During the course of the novel, however, he does grow cannier about the motives and character of others, so that hypocrites such as the false-promising Squire become less able to fool him. Joseph contrasts with Mr. Adams in this regard, as it is characteristic of Adams’s ingenuous brand of goodness that he should be incapable of learning from experience.
Discuss Fielding’s presentation of class and birth.
Fielding exposes social snobbery as a form of vanity in such characters as Mrs. Grave-airs, Mrs. Slipslop, Beau Didapper, Leonora, and so on. He is not, however, so opposed to social snobbery that he is above using high birth as a shorthand for moral worth. Joseph would be an upstanding young Christian man no matter his class status, but Fielding chooses to reveal at the end that the hero has all along been the son of a gentleman.