Fielding again takes up issues of genre and begins by elevating biography over history. Historians are always accurate in reporting circumstantial detail, but they are careless in their evaluations of persons; thus, “Some represent the same Man as a Rogue, while others give him a great and honest Character, yet all agree in the Scene where the Fact is supposed to have happened; and where the Person, who is both a Rogue, and an honest Man, lived.” Biographers have exactly the opposite priorities, presenting persons faithfully while occasionally mistaking the where and the when. Fielding clearly sides with the biographers in this scenario, but he reserves his highest praise for the authors of romances and novels, “who without any Assistance from Nature or History, record Persons who never were, or will be, and Facts which never did nor possibly can happen: Whose Heroes are of their own Creation, and their Brains the Chaos whence all their Materials are collected.” These imaginative works are not bound to the particulars of history, and they can be “Histor[ies] of the World in general,” expressing its eternal truths. Accordingly, Fielding’s novel includes many instances of eternally recurring human types: the Lawyer, the Wit, the Prude; and Fielding clarifies that none of these figures corresponds to any one individual in real life. As he says, “I describe Men, not Manners; not an Individual, but a Species.” Fielding’s goal is “not to expose one pitiful Wretch” in real life but “to hold the Glass to thousands,” criticizing the common flaws of human nature. This distinction, says Fielding, makes the difference between the libeler and the satirist.
The companions, who are nearing their destination, walk until nightfall and then sit down to rest. Mr. Abraham Adams notices a light, which he takes to be a ghost. When they hear voices “agree[ing] on the Murder of anyone they met,” Adams brandishes his stick and advances on the menacing lights until Joseph Andrews pulls him back and convinces him that they should flee. During their flight Mr. Adams trips and rolls down a hill, luckily to no ill effect. After they have crossed a great deal of countryside they arrive at a house, where a Man and his Wife offer shelter and refreshments. Mr. Adams tells the story of his confrontation with the “evil Spirits,” but he is interrupted by a knock at the door. During a tense interval, while the Man goes to answer the door, Mr. Adams worries that an exorcism might be in order; the Man returns, however, to inform them that Mr. Adams’s murderous ghosts are actually sheep-stealers, two of whom the shepherds have apprehended, and the murder victims are sheep. Everyone then settles down cheerfully before the fire, and the Man begins to probe his guests regarding their status. Mr. Adams clarifies that Joseph is not his footman but his parishioner, and the Man puts to Mr. Adams some literary questions designed to verify whether he is a real clergyman or not. Adams holds forth at length on Æschylus and Homer, finally concluding, “The Heavens open’d, and the Deities all seated on their Thrones. This is Sublime! This is Poetry!” The Man is by now more than convinced of Mr. Adams’s authenticity as a clergyman and even wonders “whether he had not a Bishop in his House.” Soon the women go off to bed, with the men planning to sit up all night by the fire. In response to a request by the Man, Mr. Adams tells the story of Joseph’s life, then asks the Man to tell the story of his own.
The Man, who has introduced himself as Mr. Wilson, was born and educated as a gentleman. At sixteen, following the death of his father, he took his inheritance and went to London, “impatient to be in the World” and attain the character of “a fine Gentleman.” He learned how to dress, dance, ride, fence, and so forth, before embarking on trumped-up “Intrigue[s]” with several of “the finest Women in Town.” Mr. Adams condemns this “Course of Life” as “below the Life of an Animal, hardly above Vegetation.” After two years, a confrontation with an Officer of the Guards led Wilson to retreat to the Temple, where he lived among people who pursued the frivolous life less convincingly than had his former companions: “the Beaus of the Temple . . . are the Affectation of Affectation.” Wilson’s base new pleasures eventually brought him a venereal disease, which in turn brought him a resolution of amendment. His swearing-off of prostitutes soon compelled him, however, to satisfy his passion for women by keeping a mistress, from whom however he soon parted upon discovering her inconstancy. After another round of venereal disease, he debauched the daughter of a military gentleman; the young lady soon began a moral and psychological decline that ended with her miserable death in Newgate Prison.
After another disease and a couple more mistresses, Wilson joined a club of Freethinkers but left in disgust after finding that the members’ conduct belied their own rationalistic ethical code. He began instead to frequent playhouses, in which context he found the occasion to remark that “Vanity is the worst of Passions, and more apt to contaminate the Mind than any other.” He attempted to become a playwright, seeking aristocratic patronage in vain, and his play was never performed. In need of money to pay his debts, he took a job doing translations for a bookseller and in this line of work did so much reading and writing that he nearly went blind and temporarily lost the use of his writing hand. He consequently lost this job and, after using his earnings to buy a lottery ticket, was arrested by his tailor for debt. The lottery ticket then returned £3,000, which Wilson however did not receive because he had sold the ticket to a relative who now refused to share the prize with him. One day, while in prison, he received a note from a lady named Harriet Hearty, the daughter of the man to whom he had sold the ticket; Harriet informed him that her father had died, leaving her all his fortune, and that she thought it right to send Wilson £200, which sum she had enclosed with the note. Wilson was delighted not only to receive the money but especially to receive it from Harriet Hearty, for whom he had long cherished a secret love. In their first meeting after his release from prison, he professed his love, which he found the lady reciprocated, and they married shortly thereafter. Wilson took her father’s place in the wine trade but soon began losing money at it due to his refusal to adulterate his wine. Around this time he concluded that “the Pleasures of the World are chiefly Folly, and the Business of it mostly Knavery; and both, nothing better than Vanity: The Men of Pleasure tearing one another to Pieces, from the Emulation of spending Money, and the Men of Business from Envy in getting it.” He then retired with his wife and their two children to the countryside, where they have lived happily, except for the abduction of their eldest son by gypsies.
Continuing a trend that began in the episode of the false-promising Squire, the character of Joseph deepens and matures in the course of Book III. Rather than passively absorb the buffets of fortune, as he largely did throughout the first two books, Joseph now asserts himself more readily, both dissenting from Mr. Adams's plans when appropriate and springing into physical action against beatable adversaries. Thus, in the "ghost" sequence of Chapter II, the steady and sensible Joseph checks Adams's impulse to charge the sheep-stealers, carries Fanny safely down the slope that tumbled Adams, and guides his companions to a bridge when Adams would have waded through the river. Joseph, then, has emerged as a prudent foil for his dreamy and impetuous pastor.
The character of Mr. Adams likewise undergoes a shift of sorts during the transition between Books II and III, but in his case the change occurs not so much in his personality per se as in Fielding's presentation of it. Whereas previously Fielding has focused on the contrast between Adams and the world, thereby endorsing his innocence over others' affectations, now he begins to measure Adams against other men who are just as virtuous but more prudent, thereby highlighting Adams's weaknesses and vanity. The first of these other virtuous men is of course Joseph; the second is Mr. Wilson.
The story of Mr. Wilson's reformation after a misspent youth occupies the center of the novel for good reason. As one critic has said, "the mature Wilson functions as the novel's central norm of sensible humanity," and his fitness for this role is apparent in his conduct toward the three strangers who show up on his doorstep after their encounter with the "ghosts": charitable yet wary, Wilson welcomes the trio into his home but seeks a way of verifying that they are who they say they are, and even then he only gradually warms to them as their good nature becomes increasingly evident. He has seen "too much of the World to give a hasty Belief to Professions"; unlike Mr. Adams, Mr. Wilson has learned something from his experiences of the world. As Homer Goldberg observes, Wilson's "satiric exposure of the moral state of the world as it is forcibly points up the error of Adams's persistent naïve vision of it as it ought to be."
Wilson's biography presents "the World" with a capital "W": it is a survey of the classic vices that characterize the urban lifestyle of affectation, sophistication, and sensuality. (This Hogarthian "rake's progress" may also contain an autobiographical element, as the young Fielding was himself a dissolute Londoner for several years before eloping with his beloved wife.) Physical lust would appear to be the leading vice among these cosmopolitan types, if Wilson's recurrent spells of venereal disease are any indication. Wilson's London career of course contrasts with Joseph's in this regard, and Fielding indicates that this moral degradation had its origins in Wilson's "early Introduction into Life, without a Guide," as he had no Parson Adams to mentor him. Religious heterodoxy then compounded this faulty education, with the young Wilson joining a club of freethinking deists and atheists. Like many frivolous young men, Wilson kept expecting "Fortune" to smile on him, hence his purchase of the lottery ticket; his long acquaintance with adversity, however, would teach him that redemption comes not through luck but through charity, which Harriet Hearty helpfully embodied.
Wilson's journey, like Joseph's, takes him from town to country, from the life of folly and vice to the life of chaste love and cheerful industry. The geographical symbolism is deliberate, for as Martin C. Battestin remarks, "in a book whose satiric subject is vanity, provision had to be made for a long look at London, always for Fielding the symbol of vanitas vanitatum." In their rural life, it is true, the Wilsons can temper the classical ideal of detachment and solitude with the Christian ethic of active benevolence, living out of "the World" and yet not abstaining misanthropically from charitable deeds; their way of life provides Joseph and Fanny with an example of how to settle down after marriage. Nevertheless, the abduction of the Wilsons' eldest son demonstrates that vice knows no geographical boundaries: the country may be the georgic site of contented retirement, but even here sin and sadness can intrude.