Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 895

As Henry Fielding states in his introduction to Amelia, he satirizes nobody in the novel. Amelia, the long-suffering wife of every generation, is charming and attractive; the foibles of her husband still ring true; and Dr. Harrison is a man any reader would like to know. Some of the interest of the novel lies in Fielding’s accurate presentation of prison life and the courts. Having been a magistrate for many years, he is able to present these scenes in a most realistic way, for aside from presenting the virtuous character of Amelia, Fielding wanted to awaken his readers’ interest in prison and legal reform. The novel lacks the extravagant humor of his earlier novels, but the plot presents many amusing characters and complex situations.

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Amelia is intended to appeal to a psychological and social awareness rather than to an intellectual consciousness. Between the publication of The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) and Amelia, the nature of Fielding’s moral feelings deepened and with it the means and techniques by which he expressed his ethical purposes. Impressed by the social problems he encountered daily in the world around him, he felt the need to promote virtue and to expose the evils that infected England. He abandoned his satirical comic mode and such traits as impartiality, restraint, mockery, irony, and aesthetic distance. Instead, he adopted a serious, sentimental, and almost consciously middle-class tone.

The characters in Amelia give strong indications of Fielding’s intensified moral purposes. They are more fiery and vehement and clearly intended to embody his beliefs more so than was the case in his earlier works. Abandoning the aesthetic distance between himself and his characters, he seems, in Amelia, to live and act directly in them. This results in a new kind of immediacy and closeness between the novel’s characters and the writer’s psychological concerns. The cost of this immediacy is the rejection of almost all formal conventions of characterization. The description of the heroine is typical of this. On a number of occasions, she is described by the emotions that are reflected in her face or by her physical reactions to situations that bring pain or joy; but in contrast to Fielding’s elaborate descriptions of the beauty of the heroines of his earlier works, Amelia’s beauty is never delineated. Rather, her beauty is embodied in the qualities she represents. The same might be said for the other characters in the novel. Fielding is more concerned with the moral makeup of each one than in their physical appearance. In Amelia, the author does not segregate the reader and the characters, who reveal themselves to the reader through their own words and deeds. The characters thereby appear as individuals rather than types.

The central theme of Fielding’s portrait of a marriage concerns not so much the issue of adultery as it does the tragic irony of marital distrust that accompanies it. Although Booth’s infidelity with Miss Matthews strains the marriage and seems disgusting when contrasted with Amelia’s steadfast loyalty, what almost destroys the marriage is that Booth, throughout most of the novel, cannot bring himself to confess his adultery out of fear and pride. He does not trust in his wife’s understanding and love for him. Amelia, who is beset almost from the beginning of her marriage by amorous advances, fails to confide to her husband the real motive behind James’s pretense of friendship because she fears Booth will lose his temper and attack James. Husband and wife, therefore, work unconsciously to the detriment of their marriage because they will not trust in each other.

In Amelia, the reader cares more about the heroine, but the action turns on Booth. It is on the adequacy or inadequacy of Booth that the novel succeeds or fails for the reader. Amelia is the stable character. Booth constantly poses the problems of marriage, while she endures and solves them. Booth’s ordeal reflects Fielding’s own increasing despair with social conditions. The grim social picture of this novel is Fielding’s solemn warning that society may destroy itself on the larger plane, as it very nearly destroys the Booths on the smaller plane. The placement of a woman of Amelia’s moral character within a society that preys on her effectively points up the evils of that society in relation to the constant moral Christianity of the heroine. It is Fielding’s most emphatic statement of Christian morality through the treatment of the subject within marriage. The loss of faith in individual morality, as portrayed in this novel through the assaults on Amelia’s virtue and the setbacks suffered by Booth, is easily transferred from the plane of individuals to reflect criticism of society as a whole.

Amelia was published to much rancor and ridicule on the part of the majority of critics. The characters were reviled as being low and the situations as too sordid. Enemies gleefully pounced on Fielding’s oversight in failing to mend his heroine’s broken nose. Earlier victims of Fielding’s satire, notably Samuel Richardson, author of Pamela (1740-1741), were gleeful over the adverse reception of this novel and joined in denouncing it. The novel’s later success was based on the gradual recognition of the work as a serious denunciation of, as Fielding himself said, “glaring evils of the age.”

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