“The only Source of the true Ridiculous (as it appears to me) is Affectation.”
In the Preface to the novel, Fielding rejects burlesque as the depiction of “the monstrous,” whereas he, as a comic writer, seeks to depict “the ridiculous”; that is, while burlesque heightens distortions of value into a sense of unreality, comedy depicts only the forms of absurdity that exist in real life. The phenomenon of “the true Ridiculous” in literature arises from the exposure of “Affectation,” which is itself the source or sanction of much of the evil in the world. Thus, in his preference for comedy over burlesque and for the ridiculous over the monstrous, Fielding has a didactic and ethical purpose in addition to his simply humorous one.
“It is a trite but true Observation, that Examples work more forcibly on the Mind than Precepts.”
Fielding explains in Book I, Chapter I the moral utility of the novel: it has this advantage over sermons and works of moral philosophy, that it can embody virtue in the biographies of exemplary characters, thereby “inspir[ing] our Imitation” of virtue rather than merely enjoining it. He goes on to cite Richardson’s Pamela and Cibber’s autobiography as examples of recent works of literature that have moved readers to the imitation of virtue; while the examples are obviously sarcastic, the principle and its enunciation are not.
“Mr. Joseph Andrews, the Hero of our ensuing History, was esteemed to be the only Son of Gaffar and Gammer Andrews, and Brother to the illustrious Pamela, whose Virtue is at present so famous.”
In introducing the title character, Fielding makes explicit the connection between his hero and Richardson’s heroine: he has made them not only sister and brother but, implicitly, original and spoof. The reference to their parents as “Gaffar and Gammer,” dialect terms of respect for older people of low social rank, emphasizes the (ostensible) low birth of the hero, which in turn signals the “low” or comical nature of the action, and is perhaps a satiric glance at the many rusticisms that characterize the diction of Richardson’s Pamela. The detail of Joseph’s being “esteemed” the son of his parents will take on obvious importance in light of later developments.
“He was generous, friendly and brave to an Excess; but Simplicity was his Characteristic.”
Fielding introduces Parson Adams, the novel’s great innocent, succinctly and with judicious reference to the weaknesses that temper his virtues. Adams’s generosity, friendliness, and bravery appear to be tied to one another, as indeed they ought to be according to Fielding’s moral scheme, which designates natural sociability, rather than supernatural grace, as the source of that benevolence which is the only true expression of goodness. In Adams, however, bravery is excessive because he does not regulate it with prudence; “Simplicity,” or naïveté, is certainly more present in Adams’s character than in any other in the novel.
“Her Complexion was fair, a little injured by the Sun, but overspread with such a Bloom, that the finest Ladies would have exchanged all their White for it: add to these, a Countenance in which tho’ she was extremely bashful, a Sensibility appeared almost incredible; and a Sweetness, whenever she smiled, beyond either Imitation or Description.”
Fanny Goodwill, like all of Fielding’s heroines, is beautiful in a way that would have appealed to eighteenth-century men: buxom and zaftig, she seems palpable and accessible rather than remote and ethereal, and such naturalistic “imperfections” as her sunburn set off her appeal. Fielding is careful, however, to specify that Fanny’s attractions are not merely physical and sexual: her “Sensibility” and “Sweetness” somehow manifest themselves corporally and render the proper appreciation of her appearance an exercise not just of physical impulses but of the moral faculty. Fielding’s mention of her “extreme bashful[ness]” is not a throwaway detail, either, for Fanny’s retiring nature is congruous with the role of potential rape victim that she plays repeatedly throughout the novel.
“As when a hungry Tygress, who long had traversed the Woods in fruitless search, sees within the Reach of her Claws a Lamb, she prepared to leap on her Prey; or as a voracious Pike, of immense Size, surveys through the liquid Element a Roach or Gudgeon which cannot escape her Jaws, opens them wide to swallow the little Fish: so did Mrs. Slipslop prepare to lay her violent amorous Hands on the poor Joseph.”
This passage, which refers to Slipslop’s lustful attempt on Joseph in London, is a good example of Fielding’s use of mock-epic diction. The comparison of the lecherous Slipslop to a “hungry Tygress” is a satirical version of the Homeric simile; Homer’s epic poems employ many of these highly detailed similes, often comparing valiant warriors to predatory animals. While Homer used this technique to exalt the heroic actors in his tales, Fielding uses the disjunction between elevated diction and “low” subject to poke fun at his characters. Sometimes, as here, the character and action are sordid and the humor is somewhat harsh and satirical; at other times, as when Fielding renders the epic battle of Joseph with the Hunter’s hounds, the character and action are low in class status but good and honorable, and the humor is warmer and more indulgent.
“Whoever therefore is void of Charity, I make no scruple of pronouncing that he is no Christian.”
Mr. Adams makes this pronouncement during his argument with Parson Trulliber over the true nature of Christianity and the duties of a Christian. Trulliber, like Parson Barnabas, contrasts with Adams in preaching that faith is sufficient for salvation without good works; Adams, meanwhile, preaches very nearly the opposite doctrine: as he says in another important passage, “a virtuous and good Turk, or Heathen, are more acceptable in the sight of their Creator than a vicious and wicked Christian, though his Faith was as perfectly orthodox as St. Paul’s himself.” St. Paul himself was presumably on Fielding’s mind when he penned Adams’s declaration to Trulliber, as the line seems to echo 1 Corinthians 13.2: “and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”
“[I]t is more than probable, poor Joseph, who obstinately adhered to his modest Resolution, must have perished, unless the Postilion, (a lad who hath been since transported for robbing a Hen-roost) had voluntarily stript off a great Coat, his only Garment, at the time swearing a great Oath, (for which he was rebuked by the Passengers) ‘That he would rather ride in his Shirt all his Life, than suffer a Fellow-Creature to lie in so miserable a Condition.’”
This incident of the poor Postilion’s lending Joseph his coat when the fastidious coach passengers would prefer to leave him to die naked in a ditch is perhaps the most famous illustration of hypocrisy in all of Fielding. It alludes to the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which respectable passersby, including a priest, refuse to help a waylaid Jewish traveler until finally a Samaritan, member of a despised class, stops to clothe the traveler and tend his wounds; here the Postilion, like the Samaritan before him, shames his “betters” by acting charitably despite his modest means. In addition to exposing the hypocrisy of the passengers, this incident also touches on Joseph’s virtue, which verges on prudishness: he is so “modest” that he would not approach the ladies in the coach while naked, even if it costs him his life.
“‘Now believe me, no Christian ought so to set his Heart on any Person or Thing in this World, but that whenever it shall be required or taken from him in any manner by Divine Providence, he may be able, peaceably, quietly, and contentedly to resign it.’ At which Words one came hastily in and acquainted Mr. Adams that his youngest Son was drowned.”
Speaking to Joseph shortly before his marriage to Fanny, Mr. Adams returns to one of his frequent themes, that of the regulation of the passions and submission to the divine will. The rationalistic side of Adams demands that people control even their spousal and familial affections, which are not sinful in themselves, so as not to repine when it should please God to take the life of that spouse or family member. This doctrine is easier preached than practiced, however, as Mr. Adams himself will demonstrate through his reaction, which is not at all resigned, to the supposed death of his son (who quickly turns out not to have drowned after all). This episode alludes to the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, in which God commands the Patriarch to sacrifice his son and Abraham prepares to comply without protesting, only for an angel to stay his hand before he can take the life of Isaac. In both cases God appears to demand the death of a beloved son but ultimately spares him; each case represents a test of the father’s faith and resignation to providence, a test which Abraham passes but Adams fails. While Adams certainly shows himself incapable of taking his own advice, however, many readers will decide that his spontaneous emotional responses reveal him to be a better person than his rationalistic strictures seemed to imply.
“[T]he Pleasures of the World are chiefly Folly, and the Business of it mostly Knavery; and both, nothing better than Vanity.”
Thus does Mr. Wilson summarize the lesson of his lost youth spent debauching in London. Like Fielding himself, Wilson views “Vanity” as one of mankind’s leading flaws. “Vanity” has two related but distinct meanings, both of which are in play in the novel. It can refer to the quality of being vain, of considering oneself better than one is; Mr. Adams is frequently vain in his high estimation of his sermons, his teaching prowess, and his moral dignity. Vanity may also, however, refer to that which is trivial and hollow: traditional moralists often refer to a life of frivolity and dissipation, such as that in which Wilson indulged in “the Pleasures of the World,” as a life of vanity. The language of this passage bears the influence of a famous phrase that recurs in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Finally, Wilson’s implicit designation of London as the locus of vanity is consistent with Fielding’s moral geography, whereby London represents “the World” in all its pride and corruption and the countryside represents the classical ideal of virtue and contented solitude; the maturing Christian, either Wilson or Joseph, must therefore progress from town to country, from the life of vice and vanity to the life of virtue and retirement.
Joseph Andrews Questions and Answers
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The theme in Joseph Andrews are as applicable today, as they were in the time the novel was written. Fielding addresses the corruption of leaders in authority, the decline of morality, charity, religion, the question of human goodness, the...
All of Fielding's novels are crawling with clergyman characters, and Joseph Andrews presents several who serve as contrasts to the paragon Mr. Adams. In these chapters, Mr. Barnabas shows himself to be perfectly sociable and impeccably orthodox...