Fielding defines and defends his chosen genre, the comic epic, or “comic Epic-Poem in Prose.” Claiming a lost work of Homer as precedent, he explains that the comic epic differs from comedy in having more “comprehensive” action and a greater variety of incidents and characters; it differs from the “serious Romance” in having lower-class characters and favoring, in “Sentiments and Diction,” the ridiculous over the sublime. Fielding is particularly concerned to differentiate the comic epic, and comedy generally, from burlesque: “no two Species of Writing can differ more widely than the Comic and the Burlesque,” for while the writer of burlesque depicts “the monstrous,” the writer of comedy depicts “the ridiculous.” “The Ridiculous only . . . falls within my Province in the present Work,” and Fielding accordingly goes on to define it. “The only Source of the true Ridiculous (as it appears to me) is Affectation,” to which Fielding assigns two possible causes, “Vanity, or Hypocrisy.” Vanity is affecting to be better than one is: the vain man either lacks the virtue or quality he claims to have, or else he claims to possess it in a greater degree than he actually does. By contrast, hypocrisy is affecting to be other than one is: the hypocritical man “is the very Reverse of what he would seem to be,” and Fielding gives the example of a greedy man pretending to be generous. The ridiculous arises from the discovery of affectation, and as hypocrisy is a more egregious form of affectation than is vanity, so, says Fielding, the sense of the ridiculous arising from its discovery will be stronger than in the case of vanity.
Fielding anticipates the criticism that, in addition to affectation, he has given a great deal of space in the novel to “Vices, and of a very black Kind.” Vices, which inspire moral revulsion rather than amusement, are not the stuff of comedy. Fielding acknowledges the presence of vices in his story but offers several mitigating considerations, among which is the fact that they are not very potent, “never produc[ing] the intended Evil.”
Finally, Fielding addresses the characters of the novel, claiming that all are drawn from life and that he has made certain alterations in order to obscure their true identities. Fielding also conciliates his clerical readers by emphasizing that the curate Mr. Abraham Adams, though he participates in a number of low incidents, is a credit to the cloth due to his great simplicity and benevolence.
Fielding justifies the moral agenda of his novel by observing that “Examples work more forcibly on the Mind than Precepts.” Inspiring stories about virtuous figures will have a better moral effect than the recital of maxims, because in them “Delight is mixed with Instruction, and the Reader is almost as much improved as entertained.”
As instances of the positive moral influence of written accounts of exemplars of virtue, Fielding cites two recent publications, in both cases sarcastically. The first is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), an epistolary novel about a virtuous maid-servant; Fielding detested the novel and the moral system implicit in it, and both Joseph Andrews and his previous effort in fiction, Shamela, are spoofs of Richardson’s novel. The second is the Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber (1740), the autobiography of the scantly talented Poet Laureate who was despised by Fielding, Alexander Pope, and almost every other contemporary writer of note.
Fielding introduces “Mr. Joseph Andrews, the Hero of our ensuing History.” Joey, as Fielding and his characters call the hero at this stage of the narrative, is the son of the low-born Mr. and Mrs. Andrews and the brother of Pamela Andrews, the fictive heroine of Samuel Richardson’s famous novel. Fielding confesses that, despite his best genealogical efforts, he has been unable to discover the ancestry of the Andrews family. Jokingly, he asks the reader to contemplate the possibility that the Andrews family has no ancestors at all, though of course they must be descended from someone. Fielding is satirizing the social convention whereby only families of high standing are considered to be “families” in the proper and exalted sense; accordingly, a person who lacks ancestors of note is said, in this snobbish idiom, to lack ancestors altogether. From his comment on the arbitrary nature of social distinctions, Fielding goes on to argue for the suitability of Joey as a hero: “Would it not be hard, that a Man who hath no Ancestors should therefore be render’d incapable of acquiring Honour, when we see so many who have no Virtues, enjoying the Honour of their Forefathers?”
Fielding summarizes Joey’s early biography. At age ten he went to work in the household of Sir Thomas Booby, his initial job being to scare birds; he failed at this task, however, because his sweet voice tended rather to attract them. His second job was to keep Sir Thomas’s hounds in line with a whip, but he failed at this task for a similar reason. His third job was to ride Sir Thomas’s horses in races, which task he performed so well through his combination of athleticism and invulnerability to corruption that Lady Booby noticed him and, when he was seventeen, began to employ him as a footman. Joey’s new responsibilities involved attending Lady Booby everywhere, including at church, where his singing voice and general good conduct attracted the notice of the curate, Mr. Adams.
Fielding introduces Mr. Abraham Adams, who besides being a clergyman is a master of several tongues both ancient and modern and who exemplifies ingenuous good nature: “He was generous, friendly and brave to an Excess; but Simplicity was his Characteristic.” He is fifty years old, and his income does not go far in providing for his wife and six children.
Mr. Adams quizzes Joey on his knowledge of the Bible and, in answer to a series of questions, learns that Joey has had some formal education but is largely an autodidact. Mr. Adams, finding Joey so deserving of cultivation, attempts to secure Lady Booby’s permission to tutor him in Latin, “by which means he might be qualified for a higher Station than that of Footman.” Lady Booby will not deign to speak with the curate, however, and Mr. Adams must deal with Mrs. Slipslop, her ladyship’s pretentious waiting-gentlewoman. Mrs. Slipslop informs Mr. Adams that the Boobys are soon to depart for London and that Lady Booby will not wish to leave her footman behind to receive Latin instruction. The family leaves within a few days, taking Joey with them, but not before the latter has thanked Mr. Adams for his consideration of him.
In London, Joey falls under the influence of the big-city footmen, who succeed in getting him to change his hair but fail to make him pick up any of their vices. He spends most of his free time on music, about which subject he becomes very learned. He becomes less obviously devoted to his religion, but “his Morals remained entirely uncorrupted.” Lady Booby now flirts incessantly with him and seeks opportunities of leaning on his arm when he accompanies her on her walks. Other ladies in town begin to gossip about Lady Booby and her footman. The footman himself remains oblivious to the gossip and to his lady’s intentions, and Lady Booby finds that his restraint makes him even more attractive.
Sir Thomas Booby dies, and Lady Booby accordingly confines herself to her room, ostensibly to mourn his passing but really to play cards. On the seventh day of her “mourning” she sends for Joey and hints around at her amorous intentions. When he does not catch her drift, she “accidentally” exposes her neck but fails to produce the desired result. When Lady Booby pretends to worry whether it is safe for her to be alone in her bedroom with Joey, he vows that he would “rather die a thousand Deaths” than commit any sexual transgression. Lady Booby finally dismisses him in frustration.
Joseph writes a letter to his sister Pamela, reporting on the strange behavior of Lady Booby since the death of Sir Thomas. He attributes her baffling conduct to grief over the loss of her husband, despite the fact that he always thought that they did not like each other. He then recounts the incident in Lady Booby’s bedroom, remarking that “if it had not been so great a Lady, I should have thought she had had a mind to me.” Joseph anticipates losing his place soon because of this falling-out, and in any case he does not wish to remain in her employ if she is going to continue to be psychologically unstable.
After finishing this letter, Joseph walks downstairs and comes upon the hideous Mrs. Slipslop, whose physical person Fielding describes in some detail. Like her mistress, Mrs. Slipslop is strongly attracted to Joseph, and she has tried in the past to entice him with “Tea, Sweetmeats, Wine, and many other Delicacies.” Now Joseph accepts her offer of a glass of cordial, and they sit down together for a chat. Mrs. Slipslop suggest that Joseph has been ungrateful in failing to return her affections; Joseph denies this charge, angering Mrs. Slipslop, who springs at him with the intention of satisfying her lust and wrath. Lady Booby rings the bell, however, in time to deliver Joseph from the clutches of the waiting-gentlewoman.
The Preface makes clear that while Fielding's outlook is undoubtedly comic, his comic writing nevertheless has a serious point. Fielding rejects the genre of conventional romance because it contains "very little instruction or entertainment," whereas Fielding's twofold goal is precisely to instruct and entertain. The notion that good art is "utile et dulce," both useful and sweet, educational and enjoyable, comes from the Roman poet Horace, an authoritative source of classical thinking on the purposes of art. Fielding makes ironic reference to Horace in Chapter I when, having listed a number of popular tales available in cheap pamphlet form, he remarks, "In all these, Delight is mixed with Instruction, and the Reader is almost as much improved as entertained." The target of his irony here is not the classical principle itself but the modern works that fail to live up to that principle. In outlining his own "utile et dulce" approach to the novel, Fielding rejects burlesque and caricature because he wants to inspire laughter not for its own sake but constructively, with humor being the vehicle of moral commentary. His target, therefore, will not be "what is monstrous and unnatural," what never really occurs in life and thus, in being exposed, cannot edify readers; rather, he will "confine [himself] strictly to Nature," exposing "the true Ridiculous" as it exists in everyday life, thereby performing a corrective function for the morals of the age.
In Fielding's analysis, the outstanding moral fault of the day -- the fault which is consequently the outstanding preoccupation of Fielding's writing -- is "Affectation," the "only source of the true Ridiculous." Affectation comes in two forms: the Affectation that arises from Vanity and the Affectation that arises from Hypocrisy. Fielding treats the latter as the more dangerous flaw, because when hypocrites conceal their true motives and attitudes, they may deceive other people, sometimes to very serious effect. Fielding seeks to oppose the forces of affectation by making vain and hypocritical people seem ridiculous, and he executes this project by employing a kind of humor that encourages solidarity among readers, who are implicitly assumed to be on Fielding's side. In inspiring readers to laugh at affected people, Fielding insinuates that society breaks down into two camps, the affected and the genuine, and his moralizing humor supplies readers with incentives, mainly a string of jokes and a sense of moral superiority, to join (or remain on) the side of the genuine. This literary program effectively exempts readers from Fielding's criticism, and one may validly object to it on the grounds that it actually encourages moral complacency on the part of readers, allowing them to feel that they confirm their own righteousness simply by laughing at others. Ironically, this sort of moral laziness would itself be a form of affectation.
Fielding soon presents two paragons of hypocrisy in Lady Booby and her servant and imitator Mrs. Slipslop. Lady Booby dissembles her motives continually, for example in walking out with Joseph: supposedly, she sees “the Effects which Town-Air hath on the soberest Constitutions,” so she heads to Hyde Park with her handsome footman, whose arm she will naturally require as support. More serious is her conduct following the death of her husband. Fielding’s manner of announcing Sir Thomas’s death is immensely clever: “At this Time, an Accident happened which put a stop to these agreeable Walks, . . . and this was no other than the death of Sir Thomas Booby, who departing this Life, left his disconsolate Lady confined to her House.” By killing off Sir Thomas in a subordinate clause, Fielding insinuates that Sir Thomas’s living or dying is of merely secondary importance to his own wife, who considers his departure from this life only in terms of its effects on her, since it compels her to stay indoors for a period of ritual mourning. Thus, the reader understands “disconsolate” in a sarcastic sense even before learning that Lady Booby’s visitors consoled the bereaved widow with card games and before witnessing the ease with which she rebounds and attempts to acquire a new bed-mate.
Mrs. Sliplsop takes after her mistress both in her passion for Joseph and in her attempts to appear other than she is. In a helpfully literal moment in Chapter III, Fielding shows the simple and trusting Mr. Adams unable to understand the pretentious Slipslop, that "mighty Affecter of hard Words"; in a parallel moment in Chapter V, Joseph fails to understand the sexual suggestions of Lady Booby. Both Mr. Adams and Joseph are too trusting and deferential to react properly to the tortured relationships between appearance and reality: the learned Adams recognizes Slipslop's coinages as solecisms, but his ingenuous respect for her gentility abashes him into complicity with her pretensions; similarly, Joseph has seen enough of the world (or at least of London) that the evidences of Lady Booby's libido are not totally baffling to him, and yet his reverence for her exalted status causes him to lose the thread: “if it had not been so great a Lady, I should have thought she had had a mind to me.” Both Lady Booby and Sliplsop have a mind to him, of course, and Fielding clearly intends their rivalry to be the source of much humor: the incongruity of so much sexual vigor animating Slipslop’s homely postmenopausal body is, in Fielding's view, not only funny in itself but funny in relation to the passion of Lady Booby. The fact is that Lady Booby, though possessing so many seeming advantages (of status, comparative youth, and presumably beauty) over her waiting-gentlewoman, in fact has no better chance with the footman.
The character of Joseph has been a stumbling-block to many modern readers for whom sexual purity may not seem intrinsically valuable, and the extent to which Fielding intended even eighteenth-century readers to take his title character seriously is a matter for debate. The character of Joseph has a serious precedent in the Book of Genesis, in which his namesake is sold as a slave to the house of Potiphar and rebuffs heroically the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife; Joseph also, however, has a precedent in contemporary English literature, namely Samuel Richardson's Pamela Andrews, whom Fielding has made into Joseph's sister and idol. Fielding detested Richardson's novel and its heroine, so that insofar as Joseph functions as a stand-in for Richardson's Pamela, Fielding almost certainly intended him and his virtue to be risible. As Maurice Johnson comments, there is undeniably something absurd about "a squeamish male Pamela, strong, handsome, and twenty-one," and yet the actual humor value of Joseph's defense of his virtue tends to arise mostly from the miscalculations and psychological turmoil of Lady Booby and the low comedy of the vulgar Slipslop. As the story moves away from the voracious London ladies to follow Joseph on his quest for home, Joseph's virtue will seem less absurd, in part because Joseph will have less cause to be squeamish. Crucially, however, what will become apparent is that Joseph's virtue, unlike that of Lady Booby, is in no way affected: he is motivated not by a desire to appear virtuous to others but by a determination to remain loyal to his beloved Fanny Goodwill.