Summary and Analysis
Wilson relates his history. His father died when Wilson was only sixteen, and claiming his modest inheritance prematurely, Wilson left for London. He set out to be a "fine gentleman" and is soon indulging in all the surface vanities and fopperies of this kind of life — although the groaning Adams would hardly call it life, referring to it instead as an existence beneath that of an animal. Wilson relates that after two years the prospect of a duel forced him to move to the Temple which is simply a less prestigious environment for the same sort of life. Despite some worthy resolutions induced by bouts of venereal disease he engaged in one affair after the other, popping back and forth between mistress and surgeon. At this point, Wilson comments from his vantage point of maturity and roundly condemns vanity as the "worst of passions." Gamesters finished off Wilson's fortune and haunted by debts, he turned to play-writing, but was met by coldness from his friends, refusals from patrons, and prevarications from the theater managers. Eventually Wilson bought a lottery ticket with some savings from doing translations, but although the ticket won a prize of £3,000 it did nothing to relieve Wilson from his ill-health, penury, and being arrested for unpaid bills — for he had earlier sold the ticket for bread. Wilson was in prison and had abandoned all hope when he received a most sympathetic letter, enclosing £200, from the daughter and heiress of the man — now deceased — to whom he had sold the lottery ticket. Wilson had long nursed, but concealed, a passion for this Harriet Hearty, and in his profusions of gratitude, he declared his love for her. They were married soon after, but Wilson was too honest in his management of her father's wine trade to make any profit. He has seen that "the pleasures of the world are chiefly folly, and the business of it mostly knavery, and both nothing better than vanity." Thus, he retired with his wife and their diminished fortune from the scamper and scurry of the world to the peace of their present home. No happiness is unalloyed, however, and Mr. Wilson finishes his life history by relating the loss of his eldest son, stolen many years ago from his door by gypsies.
The early life of Wilson represents somewhat Fielding's version of Hogarth's graphic portrayal of The Rake's Progress.
Although the history is complete in itself and contains a gallery of characters who do not play any other part in Joseph Andrews, the theme of the account is central to Fielding's larger purpose; in the Leonora digression, we read of the contrast between affectation, hypocrisy, vanity, and the even rhythm of true values and charity. Wilson's early concern was with a "tailor, a periwigmaker, and some few more tradesmen, who deal in furnishing out the human body." The town — as we observed in the Lady Booby incidents — thrives on surface values, and it is not until Wilson and his wife have retired to the country that they find true happiness. Jonathan Swift would have flailed such a coquette as Sapphira; compare Fielding's treatment of her with Swift's description of a Yahoo coquette in Book IV of Gulliver's Travels. But Fielding is always positive, and against the wretchedness of town life, he proposes the charity of Harriet Hearty, the honesty — however belated — which she inspires in Wilson, and the reaction of Adams. As in the Leonora episode (the end of which poor Adams never heard!), Adams reacts in the simplest and most genuine way. His groans swell and diminish according to the degree of worldliness in the story, but when he is pleased at a turn of events he rapturously snaps his fingers. He interjects lengthy moral comments and once again reveals his complete involvement in the process of listening to a story; we should be responding to Fielding's narrative with the same sincerity and eagerness. But Adams is no perfect example; however much he may agree with Wilson that "vanity is the worst of passions," his insistence on the surpassing merit of his own sermon against vanity is a delightful irony which neither we nor Mr. Wilson can ignore.