Lady Booby meets the Gentleman who assaulted Fanny Goodwill and immediately conceives plans of using him to get Joseph Andrews away from Fanny. In order to give this Gentleman, Beau Didapper, access to his intended victim, Lady Booby takes her guests to see the Adams household, promising the amusing spectacle of a large family subsisting on a meager income. Mrs. Adams is embarrassed to receive her upper-class visitors without having tidied up the house for them. The Beau flirts with Fanny, and Lady Booby compliments the young son, Dick Adams, on his appearance. When she asks to hear him read, Mr. Abraham Adams issues the command in Latin, confusing Dick, but eventually they understand each other and Dick consents to read.
Dick reads the story of Leonard, a married man, and Paul, his unmarried friend. Paul pays a lengthy visit to Leonard and his wife and discovers that the couple are prone to have vigorous disputes, often concerning the most trivial matters. Paul always maintains neutrality during these disputes, but one day in private talks he tells each spouse that he or she may be right on the merits of the argument but ought to yield the point anyway, “for can any thing be a greater Object of our Compassion than a Person we love, in the wrong?” This Doctrine of Submission has such good effects on the couple that they begin separately to appeal to Paul for advice during every disagreement. One day, however, they have an argument in his absence and begin to compare notes regarding the counsel he has given each of them; soon they discover numberless “Instances, in all which Paul had, on Vows of Secrecy, given his Opinion on both sides.” The couple are now united in their anger toward the two-faced Paul, who returns to find both husband and wife suddenly cold toward him. Paul figures out quickly what has happened, and he and Leonard have a confrontation, the conclusion of which is preempted by an event that interrupts Dick’s reading of the story.
Beau Didapper makes a move on Fanny, prompting Joseph to box him on the ear. A melee ensues, which Mr. Booby finally breaks up. In the aftermath, Lady Booby, Mr. Booby, and Pamela Andrews Booby all suggest that Fanny’s virtue was hardly worth defending and that Joseph’s marriage to her would shame the family. Joseph leaves with Fanny, “swearing he would own no Relation to any one who was an Enemy to her he loved more than all the World.” After all the visitors have left, Mrs. Adams and their eldest daughter scold the clergyman for advocating for the young couple. Suddenly Joseph and Fanny return with the Pedlar to invite the Adamses to dine at a nearby alehouse.
The Pedlar has been researching the Booby family and has discovered that Sir Thomas bought Fanny from a traveling woman when Fanny was three or four. After the dinner at the alehouse, he offers to reveal to Fanny who her parents are. He tells a story of having been a drummer with an Irish regiment and coming upon a woman who thereafter lived with him as his mistress. Eventually she died of a fever, but on her deathbed she confessed having stolen and sold a child during a time when she was traveling with a band of gypsies. The buyer was Sir Thomas, and the original parents were a couple named Andrews who lived about thirty miles from the Squire. Everyone reacts strongly to this information; Mr. Adams falls on his knees and gives thanks “that this Discovery had been made before the dreadful Sin of Incest was committed.”
Lady Booby retires to her room early, throws herself on her bed, and endures “Agonies of Love, Rage, and Despair.” Mrs. Slipslop arrives and commiserates her, informing her of Beau Didapper’s plan to abduct Fanny. Lady Booby dismisses Slipslop with an order to report back when the abduction of Fanny has been executed. Alone, Lady Booby goes back to talking to herself about her degrading passion for Joseph and the absurdity of his preference for Fanny. Soon, however, Slipslop returns with the news that Joseph and Fanny have been revealed to be siblings. Lady Booby rushes off to tell Pamela, who disbelieves the report because she has never heard that her parents had any children other than herself and Joseph. Lady Booby summons Joseph, Fanny, and the Pedlar to the Hall, where the Pedlar repeats his tale. Mr. Booby persuades everyone to withhold judgment on the story until the next day, when Mr. and Mrs. Andrews will arrive to meet their daughter and son-in-law.
Late at night, Beau Didapper goes off in search of the sleeping Fanny and accidentally jumps into bed with Slipslop, who takes the Beau to be Joseph. Once the participants discover their mistakes, Slipslop decides to pretend that Didapper has scandalized her by making this attempt, hoping thereby to “restore her Lady’s Opinion of her impregnable Chastity.” Her cry of “Murther! Murther! Rape! Robbery! Ruin!” brings the barely clad Adams to the rescue, but in the dark he takes the soft-skinned Didapper to be the woman and the bearded Slipslop to be the man, so he attacks Slipslop and allows Didapper to make his escape. He scuffles with Slipslop, and when Lady Booby arrives to find them together in bed and in states of undress, she naturally misinterprets the situation. She soon spots Didapper’s laced shirt and diamond buttons, however, and together they sort out what has happened. Lady Booby laughs and departs, and Mr. Adams soon follows suit, but instead of returning to his own bed, he accidentally enters Fanny’s room. Fanny is sleeping so deeply that she does not wake up, so she and the clergymen share the bed innocently until morning. Joseph enters the chamber at dawn, whereupon the two bedfellows awake and are surprised to see each other. Joseph is briefly angry at the clergyman, but Adams explains the events of the night before, and Joseph concludes that Adams simply “turned right instead of left.” He then leads Mr. Adams back to his room.
Joseph returns to Fanny’s room after she has dressed, and they vow that in case they should turn out really to be siblings, they will both remain perpetually celibate. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews arrive after breakfast, and when Mr. Booby broaches the topic of the stolen child, Mr. Andrews denies that he and his wife ever lost a child in that manner. Lady Booby calls the Pedlar to repeat his story, however, and it prompts Mrs. Andrews to claim Fanny as her child. Mrs. Andrews then explains to her husband that she bore him a daughter when he was a soldier away in Gibraltar and that the gypsies stole the child and replaced it with a sickly boy, whom she soon named Joseph. The Pedlar asks Mrs. Andrews whether the boy had a distinctive mark on his chest; she answers in the affirmative, and Joseph unbuttons his coat to show the evidence. At the mention of the birthmark Mr. Adams begins to remember his conversation with Wilson, but the Pedlar makes the crucial connection, assuring Joseph “that his Parents were Persons of much greater Circumstances than those he had hitherto mistaken for such.” It so happens that Wilson has just arrived at the gates of Booby Hall for his promised visit to the parish. A servant apprises him of the connection that has just been discovered, and Wilson hastens to the room to embrace Joseph as his long-lost son. Joseph, after things have been explained to him, falls at the feet of his new father and begs his blessing.
Mr. Booby invites everyone to accompany him and Pamela to their country home, since Lady Booby is now too bitter over the loss of Joseph to entertain any company. They all comply, and during the ride Joseph arranges with Wilson that he and Fanny will marry after Mrs. Wilson is with them. Everyone arrives safely, and Saturday night brings Mrs. Wilson. Soon the happy day arrives, and Fielding describes the wardrobe and wedding arrangements in some detail. The events of the wedding night he leaves to the reader’s imagination, though he makes clear in general terms that it is a rousing success.
Soon the Wilsons return home with the newlyweds in tow. Mr. Booby awards Fanny a fortune of £2,000, with which Joseph purchases a small estate near his father’s; Fanny manages the dairy and is soon on her way to producing their first child. Mr. Booby also awards Mr. Adams a living of £130 per year and makes the Pedlar an excise-man. Lady Booby soon returns to London, where card games and a young soldier allow her to forget Joseph.
Fielding’s great theme of appearance versus reality dominates the last chapters of the novel, obtruding itself in a couple of spectacular plot developments. The climactic sequence in which both Joseph and Fanny turn out to have been involved in separate but linked gypsy-changeling incidents is of course the most consequential deployment of the theme in the entire novel; by far the funniest, however, is the episode in which a number of the overnight guests at Booby Hall find themselves in the wrong beds.
In addition to being good screwball comedy, the nocturnal confusion sequence epitomizes the entire story and culminates the novel’s pervasive sexual comedy. As Hamilton Macallister remarks, “Each character re-enacts the role he plays in the novel. It is Didapper’s fate not to get his woman, Mrs. Slipslop’s to lust unsatisfied. . . . It is the fate of Lady Booby to come too late and misunderstand, Adams to rush to the help of a woman in distress and cause worse confusion, Fanny to see her virtue in apparent extreme danger. The humor is not mere slapstick, as it is sometimes elsewhere in the novel; always it is true to character.” One may add that it is Adams’s fate to endure humiliations: as with his fall into Trulliber’s sty and his run-ins with hog’s blood and a chamber pot, the parson here endures severe humiliations but, as ever, he successfully washes off the sordidness of the ordeal. Detected in the beds of two women who are not his wife, Adams earns the condemnation of Mrs. Slipslop (of all people), who hypocritically calls him “the wickedest of all Men,” and the laughter of Lady Booby; he even endures the suspicions of Joseph and Fanny, whose virtue he has cultivated and defended but who in the harsh light of morning wonder whether he has not finally joined the long line of Fanny’s would-be debauchers. Through it all Parson Adams remains, in the words of Homer Goldberg, “transcendentally comic,” though as Goldberg further observes, the scene of Joseph momentarily sitting in judgment of his mentor and then “mellow[ing] into indulgent superiority” continues the process of the younger man’s asserting himself against Adams and supplanting him as protagonist.
Beau Didapper, whose mistaking of Slipslop’s chamber for Fanny’s initiates the hi-jinx, plays an interesting role in dramatizing the theme of pretense. In his repulsive effeminacy he exemplifies the vanity of fashionable society, its essential hollowness and enervation: like Bellarmine but with less success, he attempts to lure a woman with the enticements of wealth and social elevation. In his physical person he is dandyish and diminutive, so little threatening that when he attempts to force himself on Fanny she manages, for once, to fight off her attacker on her own. Her resistance forces him to assign the work of her seduction to a servant -- an abject admission of weakness, not at all the same thing as the Hunter of Men’s sending his servants to bring Fanny where he himself plans to assault her. Only Didapper’s extreme conceit allows him to believe that he could successfully impersonate Joseph and seduce Fanny; to the reader, who appreciates the gulf between Joseph’s masculinity and Didapper’s effeminacy, the notion is risible. For all the Beau’s ludicrousness and corruption, however, he is consummately acceptable to polite society. Simon Varey points out the euphemistic delicacy with which Didapper leaves his servant to “make [Fanny] any Offers whatever”; whatever else he is, Didapper is Lady Booby’s “polite Friend,” an emissary from fashionable or “polite” society.
The comedy of appearance and reality reaches its climax with the revelations of the respective origins of Joseph and Fanny; not only do the two lovers turn out to be other than they were thought to be, but in plot terms the main structure is a reversal of perceptions and expectations. To the former point, it is interesting to re-read the novel in the knowledge of Joseph’s real parentage: such details as the precise wording of Fielding’s introduction of the hero (“Joseph Andrews . . . was esteemed to be the only son of Gaffar and Gammer Andrews”) show the novelist keeping up the fiction but being careful to say nothing he will have to contradict later. For readers who have some familiarity with romance conventions, of course, Fielding may effectively have given the game away when Wilson mentions (with Joseph conveniently asleep) the kidnapping of his eldest son and the son’s convenient identifying birthmark. Other markers have been present all along; as in fairy tales, a fair complexion is an index of gentility, and Betty the chamber-maid once argued for Joseph’s high birth on the basis of his white skin. If Joseph is a gentleman in disguise, then, he has certainly been hiding in plain sight.
With respect to the final movement of the plot, the revelation of Fanny’s having been born to Mr. and Mrs. Andrews initially makes it seem that, in addition to battling Lady Booby, the lovers have lost the support of providence and their friends; as Goldberg points out, “even Adams rejoices at the prevention of their marriage.” Their predicament, which seems to be growing more dire, is in truth progressively ameliorating, as the discovery of Fanny’s parentage leads to the discovery of Joseph’s parentage, and both these discoveries ultimately contribute to the happiness and prosperity of the lovers. This drastic reversal, which owes much to the plots of such classical dramatists as Mr. Adams’s beloved Æschylus, enhances the impact of the lovers’ eventual bliss by making it seem fortuitous despite the fact that most readers will have been confident of the happy outcome from the first news of Joseph’s marital aspirations.