About Joseph Andrews
In Joseph Andrews, Fielding the author, magistrate, and moralist refuses to accept much of what he sees around him; in Book III, he states that his purpose is "to hold the glass to thousands in their closets, that they may contemplate their deformity, and endeavour to reduce it." But just as Fielding excludes the burlesque, which makes up the entirety of Shamela, from his "sentiments and characters" in Joseph Andrews, so too does he progress beyond a mere criticism of the "ridiculous" to a positive statement and portrayal of the values in which he believed. We find that we are no longer merely laughing at people and situations, but also laughing with them; we are taking delight, rather than laughing in scorn. Our sense of delight at the close of Joseph Andrews is in no sense destructive, but represents one of the many aspects of this book which can be considered under such headings as form, characterization, style, and moral tone.
Joseph Andrews is a picaresque novel of the road; the title page tells us that it was "Written in Imitation of the Manner of CERVANTES, Author of Don Quixote." Despite its looseness of construction, however, Joseph Andrews does make a deliberate move from the confusion and hypocrisy of London to the open sincerity of the country; one might perhaps apply Fielding's own words in a review he wrote of Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote: ". . . here is a regular story, which, though possibly it is not pursued with that epic regularity which would give it the name of an action, comes nearer to that perfection than the loose unconnected adventures in Don Quixote; of which you may transverse the order as you please, without an injury to the whole."
This journey is undertaken in more than a simply geographical sense. Fielding takes his characters through a series of confusing episodes, finally aligning them with their correct partners in an improved social setting, from which the most recalcitrant characters are excluded; the characters, for the most part, have all measured and achieved a greater degree of self-knowledge. Thus the marriage of Fanny to a more experienced Joseph takes place in an ideal setting — the country — and is facilitated by the generosity of an enlightened Mr. Booby. Lady Booby, unchanged and unreformed, returns to London, excluding herself from the society which Fielding has reshaped.
It is often the business of comedy to correct excess, and Fielding has not spared the devious practices of a lawyer Scout, or the boorish greed of a Parson Trulliber. But his comedy includes a sense of delight, and the order into which he molds Joseph Andrews is a positive affirmation of the qualities of love, charity, and sincerity, expressed by Adams, Joseph, and Fanny.
It is the active virtue (in Adams' case, it is flawed by just the right amount of vanity and inconsistency) of Adams, Joseph, and Fanny that redeems this book from the flock of hypocrites that peoples its pages. Indeed, Fielding explains in his preface that he has made Adams a clergyman "since no other office could have given him so many opportunities of displaying his worthy inclinations." It is important we realize that despite Joseph and Fanny remaining types, as do all the other characters, Adams emerges as an individual. He is a positive force not only as a clergyman who puts his principles of charity into practice, but as a man who applies himself to Aeschylus for comfort, as well as to his pipe and ale, manages to confront the physical obstacles of the world in the most awkward ways, prides himself rather too much as a teacher of Latin and as a writer of sermons, and takes people absolutely at face value. He not only fits into the positive side of Fielding's comic pattern, but emerges as a "round" and fully developed character who reinforces his goodness by his humanity.
The other characters are "flat"; they are types, rather than individuals, and are depicted by an emphasis on a single characteristic; greediness sums up Mrs. Tow-wouse, while Mrs. Slipslop comes to life through her malapropisms. "I describe not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species," Fielding states in Book III, Chapter 1; portraying people as types enables him to include them more easily in his comic visions; we can more easily survey the eccentricities of the rest of the species, using our detachment (Adams' detachment) to place and criticize them.
There are two important points to be made about Fielding's method of characterization. First, when asked about the province of the novel as a genre, most people would probably reply in terms of "the real, the actual, and the everyday." Consider what Fielding does. All of the characters in Joseph Andrews, with one exception, reveal themselves in a realistic and vividly portrayed setting. The exception, of course, is Parson Adams, who exists in the same world, but does not relate to it and, in this way, he becomes a positive force. It is the task of the novelist to convey the actual flavor of life, but there is a place for idealism as well as realism. Just as Fielding's control gives an order to the fragments of real life, so Adams' naiveté and innocence add an extra dimension to the strong sense of actuality conveyed in Joseph Andrews.
The second point concerns the idea of appearance. In real life we must always judge people by externals; the novel, however, offers an extra dimension. In the novel, we can penetrate the facades and see what people are really thinking, whereas in real life we have only the evidence of their words and actions. This is not a process in which Fielding indulges himself, however; his dramatic instinct often has his characters confront each other in much the same way that they might in real life. The characters may be deceived by or mistaken about each other, but the theme of appearance versus reality is communicated to the reader. Fielding clearly shows us how difficult it is to penetrate through the trappings to the heart of man.
Although Fielding's description of his work as a "comic romance" or "comic epic-poem in prose" introduces the elements of parody and burlesque, certain qualities of the epic itself, and romance, do inject themselves into Joseph Andrews. These are the qualities of imagination, idealism, and a happy conclusion, all of which serve to underscore Fielding's purpose in writing this book. In his preface, Fielding is careful to disassociate himself from the "productions of romance writers," yet it must be admitted that the end of Joseph Andrews, with its accounts of gypsies and changeling babies, has certain elements of the fairy tale come true. In fact, Fielding's achievement is to superimpose this positive act of imagination on the raw material of the very real world. His achievement, in Samuel Johnson's words, "may be termed, not improperly, the comedy of romance, and is to be conducted nearly by the rules of comic poetry," terms remarkably similar to Fielding's own. This "comedy of romance" requires, Johnson claims, "together with that learning which is to be gained from books, that experience which can never be attained by solitary diligence, but must arise from general converse and accurate observation of the living world." It is this combination of the raw and the refined, of the real and the ideal, that Fielding has created in his "comic epic-poem in prose."
Fielding maintains a positive outlook in the book, emphasizing charitable and virtuous action. Adams is a pugilistic parson, and both he and Joseph always act on their beliefs, defending them by force if necessary. Adams is offended by the insipid Methodist doctrine of faith against good works; to him, human beings distinguish themselves by what they do: "a virtuous and good Turk, or heathen, are more acceptable in the sight of their Creator than a vicious and wicked Christian, though his faith was as perfectly orthodox as St. Paul's himself." In a similar vein, Fielding advocates through Joseph a degree of control. Joseph's self-restraint contrasts with Lady Booby's turbulent passion, on which her reason has little effect. But Fielding's treatment is always warm; Lady Booby, for example, is not savagely condemned; Fielding's reason is not Swift's. In Joseph Andrews, Fielding has written with both his head and his heart; he has refused some things and assented warmly to others so that the positive delight which we take in a book that admittedly has echoes of Shamela shows how far he has traveled in his literary craft.