Henry Fielding World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2976

Fielding, a man of his eighteenth century society, was naturally class-conscious, perhaps opinionated, and possibly a bit self-righteous; like many of his contemporaries, he was “conservative, consistent, and orthodox” in his beliefs. His view of a stratified society was hardly unusual, for almost everyone felt that “all government was based on the principle of subordination and the duty of all classes of men is to contribute to the good of the whole.” To Fielding, the homes of the high-placed were no more than prisons: “Newgate [Prison] with the mask on.” He displayed caustic attitudes toward this group in both Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. His own religious beliefs were integral to his very being. As a magistrate he acted upon these beliefs; he was sympathetic toward his impoverished clients and also accepted a smaller salary. Fielding’s scrupulously honest efforts in time reduced the questionable practices that he had seen. He carried this same honesty into his novels.

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Yet Fielding was his own man, a truly independent thinker. Not entirely in sympathy with his contemporary world, he was hypercritical of the mores of every class, satirizing the various odious behaviors of his world in the persons of numerous characters in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, particularly those that exemplified hypocrisy, which he deemed “an ungenerous behavior,” whatever the class of the person. The upper class provided numerous examples. In Joseph Andrews, he satirizes Lady Booby’s attempt to seduce her much younger, chaste footman, Joseph, an act not only reprehensible but also ludicrous. In Tom Jones, he shows a lady by position as actually no more than a high-born prostitute or pimp.

Fielding did not spare the middle class, either. In Joseph Andrews, he depicted the un-Christian behavior of Parson Trulliber, who laughed at Parson Adams’s swine-and mud-stained clothes, constantly berated his own wife, regardless of who was present, and then spurned Parson Adams’s need of a loan, though he could have spared much more money than what had been requested. The latter was the essence, Fielding thought, of “faith without works,” in his mind typical of a then-current popular religious leader whose ideas Fielding especially detested. Innkeepers, doctors, lawyers, maids, tutors—these became the targets of Fielding’s strong disapproval. “Money called the tune” at the time, an idea Fielding could not support.

The lower class, also, came under Fielding’s satire. While he could be compassionate toward many of this class, he could still deplore their flaws. A “practical idealist,” he gave to the needy, supported the foundling and lying-in hospitals, established subscriptions for old men, and shared his scant income and his plenteous writing talents where he could, even up to the few months before his death. Moreover, unlike his contemporaries, he recognized the dualities of human nature, the constructive-destructive natures of human beings. In Tom Jones, he shows the basically admirable Squire Western and Squire Allworthy as each having the human blemishes of class consciousness. He portrays Tom Jones as a basically decent young man but one who still must learn prudence through a number of devastating experiences, which he eventually surmounts, gaining the necessary wisdom. Even Parson Adams, in Joseph Andrews, shares this duality of nature.

Fielding, then, was indignant at the world that he knew. This feeling led to his satiric view of this world, an irony he reiterated repeatedly on stage, in journals, and in his novels in order to correct and redress the awfulness of existing conditions, high and low. He became, then, in his novels especially, “the most faithful representative of his age: he gave its coarsenesses, its brutalities, and sometimes with too little consciousness of their evils, though no one ever satirized more powerfully the worst abuses of the time.” He found that his witty but serious approach with his “sure and just sense of values” could and did make dents in the general attitudes and behavior.

Fielding also “represents the strong, healthy common sense and stubborn honesty of the sound English nature” in his particular way, with his object “to give a faithful picture of human nature.” Thus, he usually created the illusion of reality, using all ranges of humor—slapstick, situational (based on characters in situations), and the practical joke—to show the various behaviors in his characters that needed correcting. His world appreciated humor in whatever form, and Fielding knew his world very well.

Joseph Andrews

First published: 1742

Type of work: Novel

A parody in the first ten chapters, this novel tells of the adventures of a young man, although centering more on his traveling companion.

Many critics say Joseph Andrews is Fielding’s first novel, discounting An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741). Joseph Andrews, however, though a parody of Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded (1740-1741; commonly known as Pamela) in its first ten chapters, is “more refined and truly comic” than Shamela. Joseph is the “newly invented” brother of Richardson’s heroine, and Squire Booby and Lady Booby the counterparts of Pamela’s Mr. B. When Fielding had achieved his purpose, his novel soon moved on into an almost picaresque tale centered more on Parson Adams, who, from the eleventh chapter on, dominates the novel.

The full title is typically eighteenth century: The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams, Written in Imitation of the Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote. The novel was published anonymously in 1742 and did not achieve the immediate acclaim that Pamela had, though a new edition came six months later. Fielding was not part of the literary mainstream, a situation true generally of the other early novelists. Individuals “of taste and intellect” liked Fielding’s book, finding Joseph Andrews truer, more real, “not a tissue of silly make-believe.” Fielding—and Richardson—thus validated this new form of fiction.

Joseph Andrews could be called a picaresque novel in structure, for its plotline is similar to the one-line structure of picaresque fiction, much like Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), Fielding’s mentor’s book. The plot of the novel progresses by “shuttling,” moving forward by “small oscillations of emotion,” which, in the larger, all-over design, are small parts of a unified whole, episodic in nature. At times, events seem like reversals, followed by forward movement.

In the novel, Fielding employed ironies, unmaskings, conflicts, and reversals. He used coincidences, too, but credibly, indicating one should trust in Divine Providence, the basis of his own creed. One of these coincidences is the peddler, as a burlesque of Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), acting as a messenger in the novel: He arrives just as he is needed, and he happens to know the rights of the births of the two young people, the very information that is needed then. Fielding himself acted as a superior observer, writing in the third person (rather than using Richardson’s first person of the epistolary form). Though there are realistic situations and characterizations in Joseph Andrews, Fielding did not strive for complete authenticity.

By reversing the sexes of the two main figures of Pamela in his own novel, Fielding showed more clearly, he felt, the silliness, the ludicrousness of the “sentimentality and improbability” prevalent in much of his contemporary world. His title character becomes Joseph because he acts like the biblical Joseph, who rejected Potiphar’s wife. With his engagement to Fanny, Joseph, at first almost a paragon, becomes more like a normal human being, more real, rather than an improbable “cardboard” character.

In the general plot, Joseph rises from a low rank to become a footman in the London house of a baronet (actually the lowest rank of gentry), Sir Thomas Booby, who dies early in the novel. Not long after, Joseph is inappropriately importuned by the newly widowed Lady Booby and then by Mrs. Slipslop, Lady Booby’s horrendous waitingwoman. In the meantime, Fanny Goodwill, Joseph’s eventual “intended,” is dismissed for her “immorality” (as Slipslop terms her behavior), but principally because she is attractive. A virtuous, chaste young woman, though naïve, she exists to be rescued. She is sent home to Somersetshire, on the Booby’s country estate. Joseph, too, has now been dismissed and has headed for the same destination.

Parson Adams, who was Joseph and Fanny’s tutor en route to London, happens upon Joseph in an inn just outside London. The Parson reverses his route and, with Joseph, makes his way back to Joseph’s country home, encountering numerous characters and adventures on the way, including rescuing Fanny from a dire situation. At home comes the denouement: the revelation of Fanny and Joseph’s true parentages, a seeming reversal, and a hilarious nighttime bedroom scene at Lady Booby’s. After all the reversals and seeming conflicts, Joseph and Fanny overcome their difficulties.

Fielding, in this novel, followed “the quixotic pattern of master and Man meeting on the road,” much as Cervantes did. Yet he used his previously developed theater skills, too, for the last book of Joseph Andrews, the “musical bed” situation, showed quite surely “excessive stagecraft in Fielding’s art.” In other places, too, he evidently used this previous experience, adapting it to this new genre.

Looking at Fielding’s cast of characters in Joseph Andrews, one sees that the psychology of the characters stands out more so than Fielding’s “puppet-like manipulation” of them. Fanny and Joseph, while humanized, are hardly more than conventional young lovers. Parson Adams, however, is a “living human being,” both aggressive and humble, a mixture of strong and yet unsophisticated sentiments, comic and yet maddening, but lovable in his unselfish kindness, his unwavering goodness, and his thoroughly honest nature. He is the epitome of naïve virtue, probably Fielding’s finest conception.

In Joseph Andrews, Fielding utilizes his characters to expose eighteenth century mores: the class consciousness and the easy willingness to admit a formerly lower-class person into a higher class, when circumstances rectify situations. Two incidents illustrate this last point. The Boobys readily admit Fanny, a former serving maid, into their upper-class family, having learned that Fanny is by birth really Pamela’s sister, and Mr. Wilson, formerly an outcast rake of London absorbed in the “bright lights,” is readily reaccepted once he becomes a respectable country gentleman.

Joseph Andrews, however, is not merely a didactic novel. It is that, true, but the didacticism is masked with the overlay of irony and humor. Fielding’s characters are part of a plot replete with ludicrous but essentially serious undertakings and reversals. It is a plot carried out by psychologically realistic characters in humorous yet realistic situations. Fielding’s didacticism is, therefore, effective.

Tom Jones

First published: 1749

Type of work: Novel

In this pseudoautobiographical novel, a thoroughly good young man, through a series of adventures, evolves from innocence to maturity.

Fielding’s best-plotted novel, his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, probably was begun in 1746. When the novel finally appeared, it was “enthusiastically received” by the general public, though not by two groups, the Tory journalists, who strongly disliked Fielding for supporting the House of Hanover, and Richardson and his group, who saw Fielding as a “filthy and immoral writer,” even to the point of slandering Fielding himself, particularly for “marrying his cook.”

This novel can be labeled pseudoautobiographical: Tom Jones, the main character and hero, is to a large degree a fictionalized version of his creator’s own boyhood experiences, as well as Fielding’s own psychological responses to those experiences. The narrative structure moves, through the journey to London that Tom makes, from innocence to experience. Fielding, in this novel, used a central plot interspersed with seemingly peripheral incidents or subplots, all of which helped the central plot to move steadily toward a desired terminal objective. These peripheral episodes thus fit into the main plot—seeming detours, but all part of the route that Tom must take on his road to knowledge. Using the tight construction of a well-made play, Fielding produced in Tom Jones one of the best-plotted novels in English.

Fielding himself called Tom Jones a “comic epic poem in prose,” though others say it is “essentially a comic romance.” Yet Fielding does include some parts that parody the effects of heroic poetry, particularly the digressions. Like other eighteenth century writers, Fielding felt it was his duty to try to change his society. Thus, he headed each of the eighteen books of Tom Jones with an introductory essay, each of which elaborates on an idea that he wished to promote, much like the Greek chorus in a tragedy. The digressions that he interjected only briefly divert the plot, which continues inexorably on to its conclusion.

The structure of Tom Jones shows three major parts, each six books in length. The first third of the novel is set in the Paradise Hall of Squire Allworthy in Somersetshire. Here, Tom’s infancy and early years to age twenty need only the first three books to be told; the beginning of his twenty-first year and his break with the squire highlight the next three books. The second third, books 7 through 12, take but weeks to complete, recounting Tom’s adventures on the road to London. The third part, books 13 through 18, is set in London, taking only days to complete. Yet the tone is grimmer, not the comical rowdy, farcical adventures Tom has hitherto met on the road but ugly involvements: prostitution, incest, and the like, similar to what Fielding had seen of London himself.

Tom, as a seeming orphan, is an antihero (part of the picaresque tradition). As such, he is in a sense isolated from his society, which does not know what a truly good person is; as such, he does not fit in. Fielding shows this in numerous scenes. Tom is the essentially good person, though he does sometimes do things that result in harmful outcomes. After Tom’s foolishness results in Black George being fired, Tom tries, typically, to atone by giving financial assistance to Black George’s family and obtaining another job for him. Nothing Tom does deeply harms another person—more often, Tom harms himself. He is even able to forgive Thwackum’s vicious beatings. Throughout the novel, Tom’s adventures illustrate his good impulses, his desire to do the right thing each time. Fielding does not see virtue without fault—one has to achieve it by experience, taking it as one goes, the good with the bad. The good-natured will survive, as Tom does.

Blifil, Tom’s foil, is quite evidently Tom’s mirror side. Fielding shows the reader Blifil’s toadying in the presence of the tutors, his freeing Sophia’s bird and giving a glib, rationalized excuse to Squire Allworthy—“the bird wanted to be free”—and his remembering Tom’s trespasses and relating them to the squire in the worst light, so that Tom is dismissed from Paradise Hall. There, Blifil is the snake, so to speak, “cold, calculating, selfish, ambitious,” eager to supplant his good-natured opposite by manipulation. The two have the same mother, the same environment, the same education, but totally different natures, again illustrating Fielding’s fascination with determinism, or predestination (fate). The other characters in Tom Jones may be additional old stock types, with each of the four humors represented. The Man of the Mountain can be said to represent the melancholy; Partridge, Tom’s putative father, the sanguine; with others representing the choleric and phlegmatic humors.

A mentor character, Squire Allworthy, Fielding’s mouthpiece, is never shown as a “pompous fool.” Having been modeled on two of Fielding’s good friends, Squire Allworthy is shown as a good man, though not all wise. Fielding would have been ashamed to mock these friends. Like many good people, Allworthy is not able to imagine what some others would think or do; he is thus all too susceptible to the villains’ manipulations. As a result, he puts Tom out of Paradise Hall and onto the road. He is an honorable man, who, when finally presented with the deeds of his nephews, Tom and Blifil, is able to recognize his own shortcomings, restoring Tom to grace and Blifil to his own hell. As a mentor character, his purpose is to put the author’s ideas into practice; like other such characters, he is not especially well developed but remains wooden and static.

Squire Western is an example of the Tory independent landowners who generally favored the Stuarts. He, like his society, hated the German Hanoverians, who, in his view, were foisted upon the English. (Fielding himself favored the Hanoverians.) Decidedly Church of England (as Fielding was), he is hostile to central government, preferring peace rather than the upset of war, especially internecine, or civil, war.

Squire Western’s sister, having been immersed in the Hanoverian court, is therefore suspect at home, not only for her political and social leanings but also as a model for Squire Western’s daughter Sophia, who is of marriageable age. Never having been married herself, Sophia and the squire finally discredit her as a suitable role model.

The tutors, modeled after two Salisbury acquaintances, are foils to Tom. Thwackum, the principal tutor, represents violent authority; he rationalizes his vicious beatings of Tom, having no concern with goodness or charity. Fielding shows Thwackum to be an outraged, morally bankrupt hypocrite; when the tutor learns that Squire Allworthy plans on leaving one thousand pounds to him, Thwackum laments that it is only that. Another hyprocrite is the other tutor, the deist Square, who on the surface upholds the “natural beauty of virtue” but finds no qualms in sneaking out to Molly Seagrim’s for a sexual tryst, where Tom discovers him. Square represents rational persuasion, but both he and Thwackum vitiate the principles they have espoused as teachers. Of the two, though, Square does grow as a character.

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