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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1015

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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.

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