Joseph Andrews, a handsome young footman in the household of Sir Thomas Booby, has attracted the erotic interest of his master’s wife, Lady Booby. He has also been noticed by the parson of the parish, Mr. Abraham Adams, who wishes to cultivate Joseph’s moral and intellectual potential. Before he can start Joseph on a course of Latin instruction, however, the Boobys depart the country for London, taking Joseph with them.
In London, Joseph falls in with a fast crowd of urban footmen, but despite his rakish peers and the insinuations of the libidinous Lady Booby he remains uncorrupted. After a year or so Sir Thomas dies, leaving his widow free to make attempts on the footman’s virtue. Joseph fails to respond to her amorous hints, however, because he is too naïve to understand them; in a letter to his sister Pamela, he indicates his belief that no woman of Lady Booby’s social stature could possibly be attracted to a mere servant. Soon Joseph endures and rebuffs another, less subtle attempt at seduction by Lady Booby’s waiting-gentlewoman, the middle-aged and hideous Mrs. Slipslop.
Lady Booby sends for Joseph and tries again to beguile him, to no avail. His virtue infuriates her, so she sends him away again, resolved to terminate his employment. She then suffers agonies of indecision over whether to retain Joseph or not, but eventually Joseph receives his wages and his walking papers from the miserly steward, Peter Pounce. The former footman is actually relieved to have been dismissed, because he now believes his mistress to be both lascivious and psychologically unhinged.
Joseph sets out for the Boobys’ country parish, where he will reunite with his childhood sweetheart and now fiancée, the illiterate milkmaid Fanny Goodwill. On his first night out, he runs into Two Ruffians who beat, strip, and rob him and leave him in a ditch to die. Soon a stage-coach approaches, full of hypocritical and self-interested passengers who only admit Joseph into the coach when a lawyer among them argues that they may be liable for Joseph’s death if they make no effort to help him and he dies. The coach takes Joseph and the other passengers to an inn, where the chamber-maid, Betty, cares for him and a Surgeon pronounces his injuries likely mortal.
Joseph defies the Surgeon’s prognosis the next day, receiving a visit from Mr. Barnabas the clergyman and some wretched hospitality from Mrs. Tow-wouse, the wife of the innkeeper. Soon another clergyman arrives at the inn and turns out to be Mr. Adams, who is on his way to London to attempt to publish several volumes of his sermons. Joseph is thrilled to see him, and Adams treats his penniless protégé to several meals. Adams is not flush with cash himself, however, and he soon finds himself trying unsuccessfully to get a loan from Mr. Tow-wouse with a volume of his sermons as security. Soon Mr. Barnabas, hearing that Adams is a clergyman, introduces him to a Bookseller who might agree to represent him in the London publishing trade. The Bookseller is not interested in marketing sermons, however, and soon the fruitless discussion is interrupted by an uproar elsewhere in the inn, as Betty the chambermaid, having been rejected by Joseph, has just been discovered in bed with Mr. Tow-wouse.
Mr. Adams ends up getting a loan from a servant from a passing coach, and he and Joseph are about to part ways when he discovers that he has left his sermons at home and thus has no reason to go to London. Adams and Joseph decide to take turns riding Adams’s horse on their journey home, and after a rocky start they are well on their way, with Adams riding in a stage-coach and Joseph riding the horse. In the coach Mr. Adams listens avidly to a gossipy tale about a jilted woman named Leonora; at the next inn he and Joseph get into a brawl with an insulting innkeeper and his wife. When they depart the inn, with Joseph in the coach and Adams theoretically on horseback, the absent-minded Adams unfortunately forgets about the horse and ends up going on foot.
On his solitary walk, Adams encounters a Sportsman who is out shooting partridge and who boasts of the great value he places on bravery. When the sound of a woman’s cries reaches them, however, the Sportsman flees with his gun, leaving Adams to rescue the woman from her assailant. The athletic Adams administers a drubbing so thorough that he fears he has killed the attacker. When a group of young men comes by, however, the assailant suddenly recovers and accuses Adams and the woman of robbing and beating him. The young men lay hold of Adams and the woman and drag them to the Justice of the Peace, hoping to get a reward for turning them in. On the way Mr. Adams and the woman discover that they know each other: she is Joseph’s beloved, Fanny Goodwill, who set out to find Joseph when she heard of his unfortunate encounter with the Ruffians.
The Justice of the Peace is negligent and is about to commit Adams and Fanny to prison without giving their case much thought when suddenly a bystander recognizes Adams and vouches for him as a clergyman and a gentleman. The Justice readily reverses himself and dismisses the charges against Adams and Fanny, though the assailant has already slipped away and will not be held accountable. Soon Adams and Fanny depart for the next inn, where they expect to meet Joseph.
Joseph and Fanny have a joyous reunion at the inn, and Joseph wishes to get married then and there; both Mr. Adams and Fanny, however, prefer a more patient approach. In the morning the companions discover that they have another inn bill that they cannot pay, so Adams goes off in search of the wealthy parson of the parish. Parson Trulliber, who spends most of his time tending his hogs rather than tending souls, reacts badly to Adams’s request for charity. Adams returns to the inn with nothing to show for his efforts, but fortunately a generous Pedlar hears of the travelers’ predicament and loans Adams the money he needs.
After a couple more miles on the road, the travelers encounter a gregarious Squire who offers them generous hospitality and the use of his coach but then retracts these offers at the last minute. Adams discusses this strange behavior with the innkeeper, who tells him about the Squire’s long history of making false promises.
Walking on after nightfall, the companions encounter a group of spectral lights that Mr. Adams takes to be ghosts but that turn out later to be the lanterns of sheep-stealers. The companions flee the scene and find accommodations at the home of a family named Wilson. After the women have retired for the evening, Mr. Adams and Joseph sit up to hear Mr. Wilson tell his life story, which is approximately the story of a “rake’s progress” redeemed by the love of a good woman. Wilson also mentions that since moving from London to the country, he and his wife have lost their eldest son to a gypsy abduction.
The travelers, who are quite won over by the Wilson family and their simple country life, depart in the morning. As they walk along, Mr. Adams and Joseph discuss Wilson’s biography and debate the origins of human virtue and vice. Eventually they stop to take a meal, and while they are resting, a pack of hunting dogs comes upon them, annihilates a defenseless hare, and then attacks the sleeping Mr. Adams. Joseph and his cudgel come to the parson’s defense, laying waste to the pack of hounds. The owner of the hounds, a sadistic Squire whom Fielding labels a “Hunter of Men,” is at first inclined to be angry about the damage to his dogs, but as soon as he sees the lovely Fanny he changes his plans and invites the companions to his house for dinner.
The Hunter of Men and his retinue of grotesques taunt Mr. Adams throughout dinner, prompting the parson to fetch Joseph and Fanny from the kitchen and leave the house. The Hunter sends his servants after them with orders to abduct Fanny, whom he has been planning all along to debauch. The servants find the companions at an inn the next morning, and after another epic battle they succeed in tying Adams and Joseph to a bedpost and making off with Fanny. Luckily for Fanny, however, a group of Lady Booby’s servants come along, recognize the milkmaid, and rescue her from her captors. They then proceed to the inn where Adams and Joseph are tied up, and Joseph gets to take out his frustrations on Fanny’s primary captor before they all set off again. Mr. Adams rides in a coach with the obnoxious Peter Pounce, who so insults the parson that he eventually gets out of the coach and walks beside Joseph and Fanny’s horse for the last mile of the journey.
The companions finally arrive home in Lady Booby’s parish, and Lady Booby herself arrives shortly thereafter. At church on Sunday she hears Mr. Adams announce the wedding banns of Joseph and Fanny, and later in the day she summons the parson for a browbeating. She claims to oppose the marriage of the young lovers on the grounds that they will raise a family of beggars in the parish. When Adams refuses to cooperate with Lady Booby’s efforts to keep the lovers apart, Lady Booby summons a lawyer named Scout, who trumps up a legal pretext for preventing the marriage. Two days later Joseph and Fanny are brought before the Justice of the Peace, who is perfectly willing to acquiesce in Lady Booby’s plans.
The arrival of Lady Booby’s nephew, Mr. Booby, and his new wife, who happens to be Joseph’s sister Pamela, thwarts the legal proceedings. Mr. Booby, not wanting anything to upset his young wife, intervenes in the case and springs her brother and Fanny. He then takes Joseph back to Booby Hall, while Fanny proceeds to the Adams home. The next day Lady Booby convinces Mr. Booby to join in her effort to dissuade Joseph from marrying Fanny. Meanwhile, Fanny takes a walk near Booby Hall and endures an assault by a diminutive gentleman named Beau Didapper; when the Beau fails to have his way with Fanny, he delegates the office to a servant and walks off. Fortunately, Joseph intervenes before the servant can get very far.
Joseph and Fanny arrive at the Adams home, where Mr. Adams counsels Joseph to be moderate and rational in his attachment to his future wife. Just as Adams finishes his recommendation of stoical detachment, someone arrives to tell him that his youngest son, Dick, has just drowned in the river. Mr. Adams, not so detached, weeps copiously for his son, who fortunately comes running up to the house before long, having been rescued from the river by the same Pedlar who earlier redeemed the travelers from one of their inns. Adams rejoices and once again thanks the Pedlar, then resumes counseling Joseph to avoid passionate attachments. Joseph attempts to point out to Adams his own inconsistency, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, Lady Booby is plotting to use Beau Didapper to come between Joseph and Fanny. She takes him, along with Mr. Booby and Pamela, to the Adams household, where the Beau attempts to fondle Fanny and incurs the wrath of Joseph. When the assembled Boobys suggest to Joseph that he is wasting his time on the milkmaid, Joseph departs with his betrothed, vowing to have nothing more to do with any relations who will not accept Fanny.
Joseph, Fanny, the Pedlar, and the Adamses all dine together at an alehouse that night. There, the Pedlar reveals that he has discovered that Fanny is in fact the long-lost daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, which would make her the sister of Joseph and thereby not eligible to be his wife. Back at Booby Hall, Lady Booby rejoices to learn that Joseph and Fanny have been discovered to be siblings. Everyone then gathers at the Hall, where Mr. Booby advises everyone to remain calm and withhold judgment until the next day, when Mr. and Mrs. Andrews will arrive and presumably will clear things up.
Late that night, hi-jinx ensue as Beau Didapper seeks Fanny’s bed but ends up in Mrs. Slipslop’s. Slipslop screams for help, bringing Mr. Adams, who mistakenly attacks Slipslop while the Beau gets away. Lady Booby then arrives to find Adams and Slipslop in bed together, but the confusion dissipates before long and Adams makes his way back toward his room. Unfortunately, a wrong turn brings him to Fanny’s room, where he sleeps until morning, when Joseph discovers the parson and the milkmaid in bed together. After being briefly angry, Joseph concludes that Adams simply made a wrong turn in the night.
Once Adams has left them alone, the apparent siblings vow that if they turn out really to be siblings, they will both remain perpetually celibate. Later that morning Mr. and Mrs. Andrews arrive, and soon it emerges that Fanny is indeed their daughter, stolen from her cradle; what also emerges, however, is that Joseph is not really their son but the changeling baby they received in place of Fanny. The Pedlar suddenly thinks of the Wilson family, who long ago lost a child with a distinctive birth-mark on his chest, and it so happens that Joseph bears just such a distinctive birth-mark. Mr. Wilson himself is luckily coming through the gate of Booby Hall at that very moment, so the reunion between father and son takes place on the spot.
Everyone except Lady Booby then proceeds to Mr. Booby’s country estate, and on the ride over Joseph and Fanny make their wedding arrangements. After the wedding, the newlyweds settle near the Wilsons. Mr. Booby dispenses a small fortune to Fanny, a valuable clerical living to Mr. Adams, and a job as excise-man to the Pedlar. Lady Booby returns to a life of flirtation in London.