Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (1742)

The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend, Mr Abraham Andrews, written in Imitation of The Manner of Cervantes, Author of Don Quixote

The Preface picks up from Aristotle’s treatment of tragedy and epic in his Poetics. Fielding is concerned to discriminate between different types of ‘comedy’, as Aristotle promised to do but never did.

Fielding defines the comic romance as ‘a comic epic poem in prose’:

  • differing from comedy pure & simple as having a more extended action & set of characters
  • it differs from fable for that is serious & has characters of high rank, comedy invariably has characters of low rank, or who behave low-rankly
  • sometimes the burlesque is introduced which is the deliberate travesty of serious scenes

But his book is not burlesque: burlesque is a kind of caricature, the exhibition of what is monstrous & unnatural, our pleasure arising from absurdity (Tom Sharpe, maybe). Whereas the comic is always realistic. [In fact, burlesque can have a very good social effect: ‘it contributes more to exquisite mirth and laughter than any other; and these are probably more wholesome physic for the mind, and conduce better to purge away spleen, melancholy and ill affections, than is generally imagined.’ And who could disagree with that?]

The difference between burlesque/caricature and comedy is the difference between the monstrous and the ridiculous. Typically, for his age, Fielding asserts ‘a more rational and useful pleasure arises to us from [comedy].’

So the subject of comedy is the ridiculous; and ‘the only source of the true ridiculous is affectation.’ And affectation springs from one of two sources: vanity or hypocrisy. From the revelation of affectation ‘arises the ridiculous – which always strikes the reader with surprise and pleasure.’

Great vices are the proper objects of our detestation, smaller vices of our pity: but affectation appears to me the only source of the ridiculous.

Theories of comedy

Ricky Gervaise on Front Row said he thinks the essence of comedy is Recognition: well, it is for his sort of comedy i.e. recognising the hideous behaviour of people in offices; and also for a lot of stand-up, which basically says, ‘Has this ever happened to you?’

But a lot of the comedy of The Office was also based on embarrassment – it’s well-proven that people laugh with embarrassment as a defence (from what? To deflect threats to their amour-propre, their ego?).

And I’ve always been partial to Bergson’s theory of Comedy as Mechanical: it makes us laugh to see people behaving repetitiously like machines: the predictability of comedy e.g. catchphrases – we laugh when Del-Boy calls Rodney a plonker, or Trigger calls him Dave – or when Captain Mainwaring says Stupid boy, or Jones says Don’t Panic, or Hugh Laurie says We’re doomed; or when Manuel is too stupid to understand what’s going on… again and again people behaving like robots.

Does Joseph Andrews live up to Fielding’s own theories?

Fielding then asks his good-hearted reader to judge his book by his precepts…

Well, I’m not sure it fits. Joseph Andrews works because of the continual good-tempered raillery or mild satire alive in every sentence – it is the good-humoured humour in every sentence. There is a steady stream of skewering of pretension – and this may have been Fielding’s conscious aim – but he neglects what is right under his nose – his own amused, detached, ironic tone. Not the (sometimes laboured) subject matter, it’s the relaxed charming tone which That’s what you take away from JA.

The unkindness of the Knight to Parson Adams, giving him a pitiful stipend, the casual rudeness of Lady Booby calling her country brethren ‘brutes’… and then a steady stream of mild satire as Parson Adams is shown having a naïve faith in people’s goodness, and the story of his failure to get anywhere in the world as highlighting the corruption of the world – but always with a smile.

Surely the truth is that comedy comes in various shapes & has multiple sources.

Richard Taflinger identifies incongruity as a key element in comedy: thus Lady Booby has a title but behaves like an ill-mannered barmaid.

Related is Bergson’s theory of the mechanical i.e. when people behave inflexibly and mechanically it is funny: this is the explanation for catchphrases, which become funnier with repetition. Why?

Similarly the kind of character from Ben Jonson thru Fielding to Dickens and beyond who is famous for one comic attribute: here Mrs Slipslop, monstrously ugly is funny a) because of affectation i.e. she thinks Joseph must fancy her; b) because she continually misuses long words; just like Mrs Malaprop in Sheridan’s The Rivals (1775) [did Sheridan steal her from Fielding?] or Mrs Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844).

The Plot

The plot itself is pitifully thin. Joseph is kicked out of service in London by Lady Booby & sets off back to the Booby’s rural seat to be reunited with his love, Fanny Goodlove. Pretty soon he encounters Parson Abraham Andrews, Abraham rescues Fanny from an attempted rape on a heath somewhere, and the next 300 pages consist of a sequence of episodes and encounters, generally in inns, with a gallery of 18th century stereotypes e.g. the violent host, the emollient host, the rural JP, rustics bickering over the reward for catching a thief, the vicar who pretends to know Greek but doesn’t recognise Aeschylus, the vicar who keeps pigs & a dairy farm (Parson Trulliber), Mr Wilson who tells the story of his life as a wastrel…

The point of almost every one of these encounters is the MORAL the narrator draws from them. Fielding is a highly didactic writer and the ‘plot’ exists solely for Fielding to present a series of sermons – tableauxvery much in the style of Hogarth.

What kind of novelist is Fielding?

Fielding is an external novelist: character is secondary to situations, which are contrived to skewer pretensions and assert Fielding’s Latitudinarian morality.


Fielding aims to ‘describe men not manners’, and ‘hold the glass to thousands in their closets, that they may contemplate their deformity, and endeavour to reduce it, and thus by suffering private mortification may avoid public shame.’ The commonplace justification of all satirists throughout the ages, then, and boring. But, as I say, he misses his point, because it’s his civilised, affable tone which endures – not the often silly, satirical, 250-years-out-of-date incidents of the plot.

In our more abstemious, censorious times Richardson – who Fielding set out to satirise – has come back into critical favour. Also, because Pamela is more interior than anything which had preceded it, giving readers an unprecedented sustained insight into the psychological springs of a single character over hundreds of pages. Defoe’s books are written in the first person but you always have the sense that psychology is secondary to plot & events.

18th century life

comes across as stultifyingly boring. The lifestyle possibilities are extremely limited: rural idiocy or corruption in the biggest city in Europe. As Mr Wilson tells his life story it made me think he fell into immorality simply because there’s nothing else to do. The only escape from the narrow & predictable round of life is to go a-soldiering or a-sailoring… to see the world. In such a drab society no wonder a story like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe caused such a sensation that he rushed out not one but two sequels.

Mr Wilson’s life story is off-putting because of the obviousness of the targets and the cheapness with which Fielding hits them. Women are coquettes; men are rakes; freethinkers are scoundrels; rich Lords are mean etc etc. By the end of the story Adams seems to have forgotten the bit where Wilson deliberately ravished and debauched an innocent girl who went on to beomce a prostitute and die in Newgate, instead reserving all his sympathy for Wilson himself, the wretch. Wilson is saved by a melodramatic reversal of fortune, i.e. a pure good woman bails him out of prison, he has all along loved her, they get married etc. This is a pretty tired theatrical cliché.


It’s also notable how violent it is:

a) Violence Bad-tempered people are: There are continual assaults: the hare chasers who switch to attacking Adams & Andrews; the ducking of Adams; then the Squire’s hirelings & the Host attacking Adams & Andrews in the Inn, and carrying Fanny away…

b) Arguments The novel largely consists of Adams getting into arguments with people, often about almost nothing. Rarely do two people start talking without ending up fighting. E.g. he accepts a lift from Peter Pounce and less than 2 pages later jumps out of the coach rather than stay a minute longer. Or the pointless story Adams’ son, Dick, tells, of two old schoolfriends who fall out. Or Joseph boxing Beau Didapper after he goosed Fanny; or Joseph threatening Adams after he finds Adams in her bed (in Carry On style blundering around the wrong bedrooms) – almost everyone at every level bickers and argues.

Rape as a plot device

The plot of Pamela is her virginity under attack. Fielding ridiculed this but what else is the motive force of Joseph Andrews but repeated attacks on women? We meet Fanny as a stranger is trying to rape her on a heath; then she is abducted by the Squire’s men for the same purpose. RAPE.


A huge amount of time is wasted trying to have enough money to pay inn bills – there’s no way of securing credit, credit cards, local banks…


Latitudinarian was a derogatory term applied to a group of 17th century British theologians who believed in conforming to official Church of England practices but who felt that issues of doctrine, liturgical practice or ecclesiastical organization were of relatively unimportant. They built on Richard Hooker’s belief, expressed in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, that God cares about the moral state of the individual soul and matters like church hierarchy are ‘things indifferent’.

But the Latitudinarians took the position far beyond Hooker and extended it to doctrinal matters. At the time, their position was referred to as low church (in contrast to the High church position). Later, the latitudinarian position was called Broad church. While always officially opposed, the latitudinarian philosophy nonetheless became the dominant theological belief in 18th century England.

The narrator

The main character of Joseph Andrews is the narrator, whose good-humoured satire colours every page. The other characters are colourless puppets. Even Parson Adams only exhibits such naked naivete because it helps Fielding highlight even the slightest moral failing of any other character i.e. he is more plot or didactic function, than character. [And thus I begin to see why modern critics prefer Richardson.] The narrator’s persona shifts, including a wide range of tricks and techniques:

  • Historian, assembling materials, always claiming it is a ‘true’ story or ‘history’
  • Creator, not least creator of the Reader, a hypothetical construct which he uses to satirise us
  • Reporter (occasionally claiming to have heard the events he’s describing recounted by witnesses – at the end he claims to have received letters from Mr Wilson)
  • Arbiter of morals and manners – Preacher – preaching his brand of Christian humanism i.e. charity is the key Christian value (of which Parson Adams is a kind of personification)
  • Manipulator, as a playwright manipulates characters and creates scenes
  • Painter, as in the pen-portraits of Joseph, Slipslop, Fanny (à la Hogarth)
  • Mock heroic author: dipping into mock heroic use of epic conventions to mock fights in pubs (as Quixote)

Tristram Shandy

I’d forgotten how madcap the 18th century narrator is. Fielding admits he’s made up panegyrics etc just to pad out chapters, says ‘You shall see what happened in the next chapter’ etc: i.e. a confident, urbane puppetmaster, playing with the reader’s expectations, and that playing with our expectations is more interesting, frankly, than anything which happens in the book.

Book Four

Book four is almost completely pointless padding. The entire cast has arrived back in Booby Hall, Somersetshire, and there follow pointless complications & silly farce until a Pedlar and a gypsy reveals that Joseph is really Mr Wilson’s son, long ago stolen by gypsies, and then swapped for Gammar Andrews’ daughter (who they took). So Fanny is actually Pamela’s sister (the Andrews sisters!) and Joseph is Joseph Wilson, thus they are completely free to marry 🙂

Comedy names

  • Lord & Lady Booby
  • Mrs Slipslop
  • Constable Suckbribe
  • Sir Oliver Hearty
  • Beau Didapper

Is it the first realistic novel? It seems to me it’s trying to do a number of things – using Don Quixote as a model – mostly quite fierce moralising.

The plot dénouement i.e. the revelation of the true identity of the lovers, which allows them to be reconciled, apparently harks back to Roman New Comedy i.e. was nearly 2,000 years old – so the plot certainly isn’t new.

The structure i.e. a rambling picaresque, Fielding acknowledges owes something to Don Quixote – but then the basic idea that a journey provides an open-ended container for any number of adventures goes back to the Odyssey – 3,000 years ago! That is hardly novel.

What novelty there is, then, seems to me to be the way the picaresque plot is used as a frame on which to hang a moralist’s vision of contemporary England. Now that, I think, is unprecedented.

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