Henry Fielding Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

0111201546-Fielding.jpg Henry Fielding (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The focus of Henry Fielding’s work progressed from drama to satire to the novel to legal inquiries and proposals, with some overlap and with a nearly constant overlay of critical and political journalism. Among his novels, his masterpiece Tom Jones (1749) is a monument of English literature, though Joseph Andrews (1742) is highly regarded and Amelia (1751) was his own favorite. An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741) burlesques Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (1740-1741), and the strongly satiric The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1743) attacks the contemporary prime minister of England, Sir Robert Walpole. Political satire formed the staple of The Champion, a thrice-weekly journal in which Fielding was a leading partner in 1739 and 1740, but social commentary and drama criticism played a large role in The Covent-Garden Journal, which came out during 1752. In the early 1750’s, Fielding authored several influential tracts aimed at reforming his country’s criminal and poor laws, and in 1754 he wrote a moving and contemplative travel book, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (1755).


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Henry Fielding was a central figure in the theatrical world of the 1730’s, and he continued to be influential as a literary and social critic almost up to his death in 1754. He wrote in popular and established forms, but his cleverness and vigor raised his work well above the level set by his contemporaries. Fielding exploited the ballad opera, a form originated by John Gay, with particular success. By adding broad farce and often surreal fantasy to Gay’s inspiration of setting satiric lyrics to popular tunes sung in operatic style, Fielding produced one of his best plays, The Author’s Farce. He combined farce, burlesque, and fantasy to create The Tragedy of Tragedies, another masterpiece. Both plays, often classified as dramatic satires, were hugely popular by the standards of the time.

Beyond his contribution as a playwright, Fielding’s management of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket set a dangerously bold pace in terms of showmanship and satire. He attacked the shortcomings of society in general and of the theater in particular but found his chief target in the Whig government of Robert Walpole. Fielding’s popularity, his influence in the theater, and the potency of his satire are usually credited with bringing on the Licensing Act of 1737, an instrument of political censorship that limited the staging of plays to a select list of theaters and required the Lord Chamberlain’s approval before a new play could be staged or...

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Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Henry Fielding’s literary output, aside from his novels, can be categorized into three groups: plays, pamphlets and miscellaneous items, and journals. In addition, the publication of his three-volume Miscellanies (1743) by subscription brought together a number of previously published items as well as new works, including the first version of Jonathan Wild, and an unfinished prose work, “A Journey from This World to the Next.”

Fielding’s dramatic works, many presented with great success at either London’s Little Theatre in the Haymarket or the Drury Lane Theatre, include ballad opera, farce, full-length comedy, and adaptations of classical and French drama. Most are overtly political in theme. Because of their contemporary subject matter, few have survived as viable stage presentations, although The Covent Garden Tragedy (pr., pb. 1732) was presented by the Old Vic in London in 1968. Fielding also wrote a number of prologues, epilogues, and monologues that were performed in conjunction with other dramatic pieces.

The pamphlets and miscellaneous items that are currently attributed to Fielding, excluding those for which he merely wrote introductions or epilogues, are “The Masquerade” (1728), a poem; The Military History of Charles XII King of Sweden (1740), a translation; “Of True Greatness” (1741), a poem; “The Opposition: A Vision” (1741), a poem; “The Vernoniad” (1741), a poem; “The Female Husband” (1746); “Ovid’s Art of Love Paraphrased” (1747); “A True State of the Case of Bosavern Penlez” (1749); “An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase in Robbers” (1751); “Examples of the Interposition of Providence in the Detection and Punishment of Murder” (1752); “A Proposal for Making an Effectual Provision for the Poor” (1753); “A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning” (1753); and The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, which was published posthumously (1755).

Fielding edited and made major contributions to four journals: The Champion (November 15, 1739-June, 1741; the journal continued publication without Fielding until 1742); The True Patriot (November 5, 1745-June 17, 1746); Jacobite’s Journal (December 5, 1747-November 5, 1748); and The Covent-Garden Journal (January 4-November 25, 1752).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Fielding’s lasting achievements in prose fiction—in contrast to his passing fame as an essayist, dramatist, and judge—result from his development of critical theory and from his aesthetic success in the novels themselves. In the preface to Joseph Andrews, Fielding establishes a serious critical basis for the novel as a genre and describes in detail the elements of comic realism; in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, he provides full realizations of this theory. These novels define the ground rules of form that would be followed, to varying degrees, by Jane Austen, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence, and they also speak to countless readers across many generations. Both novels, in fact, have been translated into successful films (Tom Jones was released in 1963; Joseph Andrews, in 1977).

The historical importance of the preface to Joseph Andrews results from both the seriousness with which it treats the formal qualities of the novel (at the time a fledgling and barely respectable genre) and the precision with which it defines the characteristics of the genre, the “comic epic-poem in prose.” Fielding places Joseph Andrews in particular and the comic novel in general squarely in the tradition of classical literature and coherently argues its differences from the romance and the burlesque. He also provides analogies between the comic novel and the visual arts. Fielding thus leads the reader to share his conception that the comic novel is an aesthetically valid form with its roots in classical tradition and a form peculiarly suited to the attitudes and values of its own age.

With his background in theater and journalism, Fielding could move easily through a wide range of forms and rhetorical techniques in his...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, and thus the mainstream of the English novel, began as a literary competition between Fielding and Samuel Richardson. Trace the development of this competition.

Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews is considered one of Fielding’s greatest characters. Writers often prefer bad clergymen as more interesting. How does Fielding make Adams, a good clergyman, interesting?

The titles of Fielding’s novels refer to them as “histories.” What is the etymological link between “history” and “story”?

Fielding refers to Tom Jones as “a comic epic poem in prose, perhaps a confusion, but certainly an assemblage, of literary genres.” What does his use of such a phrase suggest about the literary situation in Fielding’s time?

Speculate on possible reasons for the extraordinarily simple name and mysterious origin (he was a foundling) of Tom Jones.

Demonstrate how Tom Jones resembles, but also differs from, an established literary type called the picaro, a common synonym for which is “rogue.”

Samuel Richardson, Fielding’s early rival, claimed with reference to Tom Jones that Fielding was trying “to whiten a vicious character.” Comment on the unfairness of that assertion.


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Battestin, Martin C. A Henry Fielding Companion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2000. A comprehensive reference work covering the life and writings of Fielding. Includes sections on where he lived, his family, significant historical figures and literary influences, his works, themes, and characters. Bibliography and index.

Battestin, Martin C., with Ruthe R. Battestin. Henry Fielding: A Life. London: Routledge, 1989. The Sunday Times voted this work one of the four best biographies of the year. Based on fourteen years’ research, this detailed biography provides a definitive story of Fielding. Includes a useful bibliography of Fielding’s writings. For a review of this work see Magill’s...

(The entire section is 744 words.)