Joseph Andrews Summary
by Henry Fielding

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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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,...

(The entire section is 1,015 words.)