Critical Evaluation

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Joseph Andrews has been called the first realistic novel of English literature. Henry Fielding turned aside from the episodic sentimental writing of the age to give an honest picture of the manners and customs of his time and to satirize the foibles and vanities of human nature. In particular, he ridiculed affectation, whether it stemmed from hypocrisy or vanity. Although the structure of the novel is loose and rambling, the realistic settings and the vivid portrayal of English life in the eighteenth century more than compensate for this weakness.

Joseph Andrews is many things: a parody of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740-1741), a sentimental tale of virtue rewarded; a realistic portrayal of the English road in the eighteenth century; a resetting of the values of comic epic poetry in prose that resulted in what Fielding calls a “comic epic romance,” by which he had in mind the model of Miguel de Cervantes’ El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; Don Quixote de la Mancha, 1612-1620); and an experiment in social satire. Fielding blended all these characteristics masterfully.

Fielding, along with Richardson, is sometimes called the father of the English novel because he ventilated the concept of narrative itself; his brilliant plotting in Tom Jones (1749) and the desultory Odyssean travels of Joseph Andrews are contrasting patterns for realizing a broadly imagined action rich in human nature. Joseph Andrews is one of the earliest examples of literature’s successful extension of mimetic possibilities beyond the models of classical antiquity and folklore. The novel is a mixed genre, being composed of tale, parable, ballad, and epic. The mixture, however, becomes a whole greater than its parts with true innovators such as Fielding.

What holds Fielding’s novel together is its cosmic exposure of appearance. Wherever Joseph and Parson Adams go, their naïveté and innocence make them inadvertent exposers of affectation, that most ridiculous form of “appearance” among human beings. Affectation invites derision and must be exposed: The effect is morally healthy but, even more to the point, mimetically revealing. Behind appearance lie the “true springs of human action.” The essence of individuals is often better than their appearance, although their vanity may commit them to affectation. Parson Adams is a lovable character mainly because a heart of gold beats under his pedantries and vanities. His naïve trust in human goodness and his unshakable belief in practiced Christianity define the true man: The real Adams is better than his affectations. Similarly, when Joseph is robbed, beaten, and stripped of his clothes, Fielding takes the opportunity to demonstrate the fact that true human charity may emanate from a person whose appearance and life history would seem to mark him incapable of any kindness: “The postilion (a lad who has since been transported for robbing a hen-roost) . . . voluntarily stripped off a greatcoat, his only garment; at the same time swearing a great oath, for which he was rebuked by the passengers, that he would rather ride in his shirt all his life, than suffer a fellow passenger to lie in so miserable a condition.”

Fielding trusts in his satiric method—the exposure of affectation and the questioning of appearance—because he senses that it will not ground his comic vision in despair or cynicism. He avoids the satiric manner of Jonathan Swift, whose contempt for human imperfections of character and principle drove him to contempt for human beings in general. Fielding maintains a love of life itself, an essential state of mind for an artist who presumes to epic achievements in the imaginative grasp of social reality. Swift could never have written Fielding’s...

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great comic novelThe History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, with its tolerant but objective picture of human nature. Joseph Andrews is a preface, in theme and style, to that more carefully plotted masterpiece.

As tolerant as Fielding is of human nature, he is also capable of making biting judgments. As the critic Walter Allen pointed out, Fielding is not a misanthrope like Swift, but he is a tough-minded moralist who will pass harsh judgment when it is called for. He was, after all, a court judge in real life. Parson Trulliber is a case in point. Fielding has Parson Adams fall into the mud with Trulliber’s pigs, but this embarrassment is typical of the many other physical beatings and discomforts that the good parson suffers throughout the novel. They are emblematic of Fielding’s mild judgment of Adams’s clerical vanity. Once the mud is washed off, the naïve but true Christian in Parson Adams is all the more shiningly revealed. Things are exactly the opposite with Trulliber. His Christianity is completely superficial; Parson Adams’s innocent request for fourteen shillings of charity is met by cries of thief. Once Trulliber’s false Christianity is exposed, he is all hogs’ mud underneath. This is established from the beginning of his encounter with Parson Adams, whom he mistakes for a hog merchant. Trulliber sees and feels with the eyes and temperament of a hog. He is stingy with food as well as money and quick to belligerence like his angry pigs. The only way he can defend himself against Parson Adams’s accusation that he is not a good Christian is by clenching his fist. The most telling irony is Trulliber’s contempt for Parson Adams’s appearance. Because Trulliber’s Christianity is all surface, it is he, not Parson Adams, who is dripping in hogs’ mud from first to last.

Through the stripping away of affectation and appearance, Fielding pursues the essential humanity in his characters and is so successful that, by the end of the novel, he can indulge in burlesque without dehumanizing. Two chapters from the end, Parson Adams, thinking he is about to rescue Fanny from rape, finds himself wrestling with Slipslop, whom he mistakes for the rapist. Aroused to his mistake by Slipslop’s huge bosom and Lady Booby’s entrance, he staggers back to what he mistakenly thinks is his own room and lies down beside Fanny. In the morning, Joseph discovers them lying together. Everything is explained, and everyone is appeased. Even Slipslop seems to have enjoyed the “attention” of both the rapist (Beau Didapper) and her attacker, the parson. All of this is pure farce, a broad joke to usher in the warmly comic conclusion of the novel. It is a measure of Fielding’s fictive power that he can people a story with characters rich enough to shift from burlesque to comedy without compromising their credibility. In fact, both plot and character seem to benefit from the author’s comic exuberance.


Joseph Andrews