Henry Fielding Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4514

Analysis and criticism of Henry Fielding’s fiction have traditionally centered on the moral values in the novels, the aesthetic structure in which they are placed, and the relationship between the two. In this view, Fielding as moralist takes precedence over Fielding as artist, since the aesthetic structure is determined by the moral. Each of the novels is judged by the extent to which it finds the appropriate form for its moral vision. The relative failure of Amelia, for example, may be Fielding’s lack of faith in his own moral vision. The happy ending, promulgated by the deus ex machina of the good magistrate, is hardly consistent with the dire effects of urban moral decay that have been at work upon the Booths throughout the novel. Fielding’s own moral development and changes in outlook also need to be considered in this view. The reader must examine the sources of Fielding’s moral vision in the latitudinarian sermons of the day, as well as the changes in his attitudes as he examined eighteenth century urban life in greater detail, and as he moved in literature from Joseph Andrews to Amelia, and in life from the theater to the bench of justice.

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As is clear from the preface to Joseph Andrews, however, Fielding was equally interested in the aesthetics of his fiction. Indeed, each of the novels, even from the first parody, Shamela, conveys not only a moral message but a literary experiment to find the strongest method for expressing that message to the largest reading public. This concern is evident in the basic plot structure, characterization, language, and role of the narrator. Each novel attempts to reach the widest audience possible with its moral thesis. Although each differs in the way in which Fielding attempts this, they all have in common the sense that the how of the story is as important as the what. The novels are experiments in the methods of moral education—for the reader as well as for the characters.

This concern for the best artistic way to teach a moral lesson was hardly new with Fielding. His classical education and interests, as well as the immediate human response gained from theater audiences during his playwriting days, surely led him to see that fiction must delight as well as instruct. Fielding’s novels are both exemplars of this goal (in their emphasis on incidents of plot and broad range of characterization) and serious discussions of the method by which to achieve it (primarily through structure and throughnarrative commentary).

The direct stimulation for Fielding’s career as novelist was the publication of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a novel that disturbed Fielding both by its artistic ineptitude and by its moral vacuousness. Fielding was as concerned with the public reaction to Pamela as he was with its author’s methods. That the reading public could be so easily misled by Pamela’s morals disturbed Fielding deeply, and the success of that novel led him to ponder what better ways were available for reaching the public with his own moral thesis. His response to Pamela was both moral (he revealed the true state of Pamela/Shamela’s values) and aesthetic (he exposed the artificiality of “writing to the moment”).

Sermons and homilies, while effective in church (and certainly sources of Fielding’s moral philosophy), were not the stuff of prose fiction; neither was the epistolary presentation of “virtue rewarded” of Pamela (or the “objectively” amoral tone of Daniel Defoe’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, Written from Her Own Memorandums, 1722). Fielding sought a literary method for combining moral vision and literary pleasure that would be appropriate to the rapidly urbanizing and secular society of the mid-eighteenth century. To find that method he ranged through direct parody, irony, satire, author-narrator intrusion, and moral exemplum. Even those works, such as Jonathan Wild and Amelia, which are not entirely successful, live because of the vitality of Fielding’s experimental methods. In Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, he found the way to reach his audience most effectively.

Fielding’s informing moral values, embodied in the central characters of the novels (Joseph Andrews, Parson Adams, Tom Jones, Squire Allworthy, Mr. Harrison) can be summarized, as Martin Battestin has ably done, as Charity, Prudence, and Providence. Fielding held an optimistic faith in the perfectability of humanity and the potential for the betterment of society, based on the essential goodness of human nature. These three values must work together. In the novels, the hero’s worth is determined by the way in which he interacts with other people (charity), within the limits of social institutions designed to provide order (prudence). His reward is a life full of God’s provision (Providence). God’s Providence has created a world of abundance and plenitude; man’s prudence and charity can guarantee its survival and growth. Both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones learn the proper combination of prudence and charity. They learn to use their innate inclination toward goodness within a social system that ensures order. To succeed, however, they must overcome obstacles provided by the characters who, through vanity and hypocrisy, distort God’s Providence. Thus Fielding’s moral vision, while optimistic, is hardly blind to the realities of the world. Jonathan Wild, with its basic rhetorical distinction between “good” and “great,” and Amelia, with its narrative structured around the ill effects of doing good, most strongly reflect Fielding’s doubts about the practicality of his beliefs.

These ideas can be easily schematized, but the scheme belies the human complexity through which they are expressed in the novels. Tom Jones is no paragon of virtue, but he must learn, at great physical pain and spiritual risk, how to combine charity and prudence. Even Squire Allworthy is, as Sheldon Sacks has observed, a “fallible” paragon. These ideas do not come from a single source, but are derived from a combination of sources, rooted in Fielding’s classical education; the political, religious, and literary movements of his own time; and his own experience as dramatist, journalist, and magistrate.

Fielding’s familiarity with the classics, begun at Eton and continued at the University of Leyden, is revealed in many ways: through language (the use of epic simile and epic conventions in Joseph Andrews), through plot (the symmetry of design in Tom Jones), through theme (the importance of moderation in all the novels), and through structure (the relationship of Amelia to Vergil’s Aeneid). The preface to Joseph Andrews makes explicit how much Fielding saw in common between his own work and classical literature. His belief in the benevolent order of the world, especially illustrated by country living, such as at Squire Allworthy’s estate (Paradise Hall), is deeply rooted in the pastoral tradition of classical literature. These classical elements are combined with the beliefs of the latitudinarian homilists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who stressed the perfectibility of humankind in the world through good deeds (charity) and good heart (benevolence).

While Fielding’s thematic concerns may be rooted in classical and Christian thought, his literary technique has sources that are more complex, deriving from his education, his own experience in the theater, and the influence of Richardson’s Pamela. It is difficult to separate each of these sources, for the novels work them into unified and original statements. Indeed, Joseph Andrews, the novel most closely related to classical sources, is also deeply imbued with the sense of latitudinarian thought in its criticism of the clergy, and satire of Richardson in its plot and moral vision.

The London in which Fielding spent most of his life was a world of literary and political ferment, an age of factionalism in the arts, with the Tory wits (Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot) allied against Colley Cibber, the poet laureate and self-proclaimed literary spokesman for the British Isles. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) had recently appeared; both were influential in forming Fielding’s literary methods—the first with its emphasis on sharp political satire, the second with the creation of a new literary form, the ballad opera. The ballad opera set new lyrics, expressing contemporary political and social satire, to well-known music. Fielding was to find his greatest theatrical success in this genre and was to carry it over to his fiction, especially Jonathan Wild, with its emphasis on London low life and its excesses of language.

It was a time, also, of great political controversy, with the ongoing conflicts between the Tories and Jacobites about the questions of religion and succession. Prime Minister Walpole’s politics of expediency were a ripe subject for satire. Fielding’s career as journalist began as a direct response to political issues, and significant portions of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, as well as Jonathan Wild, deal with political issues.

These various sources, influences, and beliefs are molded into coherent works of art through Fielding’s narrative technique. It is through the role of the narrator that he most clearly and successfully experiments in the methods of teaching a moral lesson. Starting with the voice of direct literary parody in Shamela and moving through the varied structures and voices of the other novels, Fielding’s art leads in many directions, but it always leads to his ultimate concern for finding the best way to teach the clearest moral lesson. In Tom Jones he finds the most appropriate method to demonstrate that the world is a beautiful place if people practice charity and prudence.

Shamela

The key to understanding how Shamela expresses Fielding’s concern with both the moral thesis and the aesthetic form of fiction is contained in the introductory letters between Parsons Tickletext and Oliver. Oliver is dismayed at Tickletext’s exuberant praise of Pamela and at the novel’s public reception and popularity. The clergy, in particular, have been citing it as a work worthy to be read with the Scriptures. He contends that the text of Shamela, which he encloses, reveals the “true” story of Pamela’s adventures and puts them in their proper moral perspective. By reading Oliver’s version, Tickletext will correct his own misconceptions; by reading Shamela (under the guidance of the prefatory letters), the public will laugh at Pamela and perceive the perversity of its moral thesis.

Shamela began, of course, simply as a parody of Richardson’s novel, and, in abbreviated form, carries through the narrative of the attempted seduction of the young serving girl by the squire, and her attempts to assert her virtue through chastity or marriage. Fielding makes direct hits at Richardson’s weakest points: His two main targets are the epistolary technique of “writing to the moment” and the moral thesis of “virtue rewarded” by pounds and pence (and marriage).

Fielding parodies the epistolary technique by carrying it to its most illogical extreme: Richardson’s technical failure is not the choice of epistolary form, but his insistence on its adherence to external reality. Shamela writes her letters at the very same moment she is being attacked in bed by Squire Booby. While feigning sleep she writes: “You see I write in the present tense.” The inconsistency of Pamela’s shift from letters to journal form when she is abducted is shown through Fielding’s retention of the letter form throughout the story, no matter what the obstacles for sending and receiving them. He also compounds the criticism of Richardson by including a number of correspondents in addition to Shamela (her mother, Henrietta Maria Honora Andrews, Mrs. Jewkes, Parson Williams) and including various complications, such as letters within letters within letters.

Fielding retains the essential characters and key scenes from Pamela, such as Mr. B’s hiding in the closet before the attempted seduction, Pamela’s attempted suicide at the pond, and Parson Williams’s interference. For each character and scene Fielding adopts Richardson’s penchant for minute descriptive detail and intense character response to the event; he also parodies the method and seriousness of the original by revealing the motives of the characters.

The revealing of motives is also Fielding’s primary way of attacking the prurience of Richardson’s presentation as well as the moral thesis behind it. He debunks the punctilio (decorum) of the central character. Shamela’s false modesty (“I thought once of making a little fortune by my person. I now intend to make a great one by my virtue”) mocks Pamela’s pride in her chastity; the main difference between them is Shamela’s recognition and acceptance of the mercenary motives behind her behavior and Pamela’s blindness to her own motivation. Richardson never examines the reliability of Pamela’s motivations, although he describes her thoughts in detail. Fielding allows Shamela to glory in both her ability to dupe the eager Squire Booby and her mercenary motives for doing so. The reader may, as Parson Oliver wants Tickletext to do, easily condemn Shamela for a villain but never for a hypocrite.

Fielding also attacks Richardson’s refusal to describe the sexual attributes of his characters or to admit the intensity of their sexual desires, particularly in the case of Pamela herself. Pamela always hints and suggests—and, Fielding claims, wallows in her suggestiveness. Fielding not only describes the sexual aspects directly, but exaggerates and reduces them to a comic level, hardly to be taken sensually or seriously. Shamela quickly, fully, and ruthlessly annihilates the moral thesis of “virtue rewarded” through this direct exaggeration. Fielding does not, however, in his role as parodist, suggest an alternative to Pamela’s moral thesis; he is content, for the time, with exposing its flaws.

This first foray into fiction served for Fielding as a testing ground for some of the rhetorical techniques he used in later works, especially the emphasis on satiric inversion. These inversions appear in his reversal of sexual roles in Joseph Andrews, the reversal of rhetoric in the “good” and “great” in Jonathan Wild, and the reversal of goodness of motive and evil of effect in Amelia. Fielding’s concern to find a rhetorical method for presenting a moral thesis was confined in Shamela to the limited aims and goals of parody. He had such success with the method (after all, he had his apprenticeship in the satiric comedy of the theater), that he began his next novel on the same model.

Joseph Andrews

Like Shamela, Joseph Andrews began as a parody of Pamela. In his second novel, Fielding reverses the gender of the central character and traces Joseph’s attempts to retain his chastity and virtue while being pursued by Lady Booby. This method of inversion creates new possibilities, not only for satirizing Richardson’s work but for commenting on the sexual morality of the time in a more positive way than in Shamela. The most cursory reading reveals how quickly Fielding grew tired of parody and how Joseph Andrews moved beyond its inspiration and its forerunner. Even the choice of direct narration rather than epistolary form indicates Fielding’s unwillingness to tie himself to his model.

Most readers agree that the entrance of Parson Adams, Joseph’s guide, companion, and partner in misery, turns the novel from simple parody into complex fiction. Adams takes center stage as both comic butt, preserving Joseph’s role as hero, and moral guide, preserving Joseph’s role as innocent.

Adams’s contribution is also part of Fielding’s conscious search for the best way to convey his moral thesis. The narrative refers continually to sermons, given in the pulpit or being carried by Adams to be published in London. These sermons are generally ineffectual or contradicted by the behavior of the clergy who pronounce them. Just as experience and the moral example of Adams’s life are better teachers for Joseph than sermons—what could be a more effective lesson than the way he is treated by the coach passengers after he is robbed, beaten, and stripped?—so literary example has more power for Fielding and the reader. Adams’s constant companion, his copy of Aeschylus, is further testament to Fielding’s growing faith in his exemplary power of literature as moral guide. In Joseph Andrews, narrative art takes precedence over both parody and sermon.

Fielding’s concern for method as well as meaning is given its most formal discussion in the preface. The historical importance of this document results from both the seriousness with which it treats the formal qualities of the novel and the precision with which it defines the characteristics of the genre, the “comic epic-poem in prose.” The seriousness is established through the careful logic and organization of the argument and through the parallels drawn between the new genre and classical literature (the lost comic epic supposedly written by Homer) and modern painting (Michelangelo da Caravaggio and William Hogarth).

Fielding differentiates the “comic epic-poem in prose” from contemporary romances such as Pamela. The new form is more extended and comprehensive in action, contains a much larger variety of incidents, and treats a greater variety of characters. Unlike the serious romance, the new form is less solemn in subject matter, treats characters of lower rank, and presents the ludicrous rather than the sublime. The comic, opposed to the burlesque, arises solely from the observation of nature, and has its source in the discovery of the “ridiculous” in human nature. The ridiculous always springs from the affectations of vanity and hypocrisy.

Within the novel itself, the narrator will continue the discussion of literary issues in the introductory chapters to each of the first three of four books: “of writing lives in general,” “of divisions in authors,” and “in praise of biography.” These discussions, although sometimes more facetious than serious, do carry through the direction of the opening sentence of the novel: “Examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts.” Additionally, this narrative commentary allows Fielding to assume the role of reader’s companion and guide that he develops more fully in Tom Jones.

While the preface takes its cue from classical tradition, it is misleading to assume that Joseph Andrews is merely an updating of classical technique and ideas. Even more than Shamela, this novel brings together Fielding’s dissatisfaction with Richardson’s moral thesis and his support of latitudinarian attitudes toward benevolence and charity. Here, too, Fielding begins his definition of the “good” man in modern Christian terms. Joseph redefines the place of chastity and honor in male sexuality; Parson Adams exemplifies the benevolence all people should display; Mrs. Tow-wowse, Trulliber, and Peter Pounce, among others, illustrate the vanity and hypocrisy of the world.

The structure of the novel is episodic, combining the earthly journey and escapades of the hero with suggestions of the Christian pilgrimage in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684). Fielding was still experimenting with form and felt at liberty to digress from his structure with interpolated tales or to depend on coincidence to bring the novel to its conclusion. The immediate moral effect sometimes seems more important than the consistency of rhetorical structure. These are, however, minor lapses in Fielding’s progression toward unifying moral thesis and aesthetic structure.

Jonathan Wild

In Jonathan Wild, Fielding seems to have abandoned temporarily the progression from the moral statement of parody and sermon to the aesthetic statement of literary example. Jonathan Wild was first published in the year immediately following Joseph Andrews (revised in 1754), and there is evidence to indicate that the work was actually written before Joseph Andrews. This is a reasonable assumption, since Jonathan Wild is more didactic in its method and more negative in its moral vision. It looks back toward Shamela rather than ahead to Tom Jones.

Jonathan Wild is less a novel, even as Fielding discusses the form in the preface to Joseph Andrews, than a polemic. Critic Northrop Frye’s term “anatomy” may be the most appropriate label for the work. Like other anatomies—Sir Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque Nova Insula Utopia (Utopia, 1551), Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia (1759)—it emphasizes ideas over narrative. It is more moral fable than novel, and more fiction than historical biography, altering history to fit the moral vision.

More important, it was Fielding’s experiment in moving the moral lesson of the tale away from the narrative (with its emphasis on incident and character) and into the rhetoric of the narrator (with its emphasis on language). Fielding attempted to use language as the primary carrier of his moral thesis. Although this experiment failed—manipulation of language, alone, would not do—it gave him the confidence to develop the role of the narrative voice in its proper perspective in Tom Jones.

Fielding freely adapted the facts of Wild’s life, which were well known to the general public. He chose those incidents from Wild’s criminal career and punishment that would serve his moral purpose, and he added his own fictional characters, the victims of Wild’s “greatness,” especially the Heartfrees. Within the structure of the inverted biography of the “great” man, Fielding satirizes the basic concepts of middle-class society. He differentiates between “greatness” and “goodness,” terms often used synonymously in the eighteenth century. The success of the novel depends on the reader’s acceptance and understanding of this rhetorical inversion.

“Goodness,” characterized by the Heartfrees, reiterates the ideals of behavior emphasized in Joseph Andrews: benevolence, honor, honesty, and charity, felt through the heart. “Greatness,” personified in Wild, results in cunning and courage, characteristics of the will. The action of the novel revolves around the ironic reversal of these terms. Although Wild’s actions speak for themselves, the ironic voice of the narrator constantly directs the reader’s response.

Parts of Jonathan Wild are brilliantly satiric, but the work as a whole does not speak to modern readers. Fielding abandoned theanatomy form after this experiment, recognizing that the voice of the narrator alone cannot carry the moral thesis of a novel in a convincing way. In Jonathan Wild, he carried to an extreme the role of the narrator as moral guide that he experimented with in Joseph Andrews. In Tom Jones, he found the precise balance: the moral voice of the narrator controlling the reader’s reaction through language and the literary examples of plot and character.

Tom Jones

In Tom Jones, Fielding moved beyond the limited aims of each of his previous works into a more comprehensive moral and aesthetic vision. No longer bound by the need to attack Richardson or by the attempt to define a specific fictional form, such as the moral fable or the “comic epic-poem in prose,” Fielding dramatized the positive values of the good man in a carefully structured narrative held together by the guiding voice of the narrator. This narrator unifies, in a consistent pattern, Fielding’s concern for both the truthfulness of his moral vision and the best way to reach the widest audience.

The structure of Tom Jones, like that of Joseph Andrews, is based on the secularization of the spiritual pilgrimage. Tom must journey from his equivocal position as foundling on the country estate of Squire Allworthy (Paradise Hall) to moral independence in the hellish city of London. He must learn to understand and control his life. When he learns this lesson, he will return to the country to enjoy the plenitude of paradise regained that Providence allows him. He must temper his natural, impetuous charity with the prudence that comes from recognition of his own role in the larger social structure. In precise terms, he must learn to control his animal appetites in order to win the love of Sophia Western and the approval of Allworthy. This lesson is rewarded not only by his gaining these two goals, but by his gaining the knowledge of his parentage and his rightful place in society. He is no longer a “foundling.”

Unlike the episodic journey of Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones adapts the classical symmetry of the epic in a more conscious and precise way. The novel is divided into eighteen books. Some of the books, such as 1 and 4, cover long periods of time and are presented in summary form, with the narrator clearly present; others cover only a few days or hours, with the narrator conspicuously absent and the presentation primarily scenic. The length of each book is determined by the importance of the subject, not the length of time covered.

The books are arranged in a symmetrical pattern. The first half of the novel takes Tom from his mysterious birth to his adventures in the Inn at Upton; the second half takes him from Upton to London and the discovery of his parentage. Books 1 through 6 are set in Somerset at Squire Allworthy’s estate and culminate with Tom’s affair with Molly. Books 7 through 12 are set on the road to Upton, at the Inn, and on the road from Upton to London; the two central books detail the adventures at the Inn and Tom’s affair with Mrs. Waters. Books 13 through 18 take Tom to London and begin with his affair with Lady Bellaston.

Within this pattern, Fielding demonstrates his moral thesis, the education of a “good man,” in a number of ways: through the narrative (Tom’s behavior continually lowers his moral worth in society); through characters (the contrasting pairs of Tom and Blifil, Allworthy and Western, Square and Thwackum, Molly and Lady Bellaston); and through the voice of the narrator.

Fielding extends the role of the narrator in Tom Jones, as teller of the tale, as moral guide, and as literary commentator and critic. Each of these voices was heard in Joseph Andrews, but here they come together in a unique narrative persona. Adopting the role of the stagecoach traveler, the narrator speaks directly to his fellow passengers, the readers. He is free to digress and comment whenever he feels appropriate, and there is, therefore, no need for the long interpolated tales such as appeared in Joseph Andrews.

To remind his readers that the purpose of fiction is aesthetic as well as moral, the narrator often comments on literary topics: “Of the Serious in Writing, and for What Purpose it is introduced”; “A wonderful long chapter concerning the Marvelous”; “Containing Instructions very necessary to be perused by modern Critics.” Taken together, these passages provide a guide to Fielding’s literary theory as complete as the preface to Joseph Andrews.

Although in Tom Jones Fielding still schematically associates characters with particular moral values, the range of characters is wider than in his previous novels. Even a minor character, such as Black George, has a life beyond his moral purpose as representative of hypocrisy and self-servingness.

Most important, Tom Jones demonstrates Fielding’s skill in combining his moral vision with aesthetic form in a way that is most pleasurable to the reader. The reader learns how to live the good Christian life because Tom learns that lesson. Far more effective than parody, sermon, or moral exemplum, the combination of narrative voice and literary example of plot and character is Fielding’s greatest legacy to the novel.

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