Fielding’s Satirizes English Society

Originally intended as a retort to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a morally strident assessment of eighteenth century social relations, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews emerged as a sweeping analysis of the foibles of eighteenth century materialism, social snobbery, and moral bankruptcy.

Summary of Event

Henry Fielding’s decision to write The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews, and of His Friend Mr. Abraham Adams (1742; commonly known as Joseph Andrews) grew out of his repugnance at reading Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded
Pamela (Richardson) (1740-1741). This story of a servant girl who successfully fends off her master’s amorous advances until he agrees to marry her made Richardson, a printer-turned-author, an instant celebrity. Literary London relished the novel, a new form of writing that combined an exciting story with deep insight into its characters. Richardson found himself courted by the rich and famous, who clamored for more stories similar to this one. [kw]Fielding’s Joseph Andrews Satirizes English Society (1742)
[kw]Society, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews Satirizes English (1742)
[kw]English Society, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews Satirizes (1742)
[kw]Satirizes English Society, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742)
[kw]Joseph Andrews Satirizes English Society, Fielding’s (1742)
Joseph Andrews (Fielding)
[g]England;1742: Fielding’s Joseph Andrews Satirizes English Society[1080]
[c]Literature;1742: Fielding’s Joseph Andrews Satirizes English Society[1080]
Fielding, Henry
Richardson, Samuel

Fielding was among the minority that found Pamela offensive and Richardson deficient in several ways. First, Fielding believed that what Richardson praised as Pamela’s virtuous conduct was little more than a ploy to control her master and advance in society. He also felt that Richardson had a prurient interest in sexual matters, teasing his readers with hints of impending sexual activity. Fielding thought, too, that Richardson’s attempt to present Pamela’s story as if it were real was simply preposterous; the work was a fiction, and it deserved to be considered in that light.

Within months after Pamela made its appearance, Fielding issued An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews
Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews, An (Fielding) (1741), a brief, anonymous riposte. Apparently not satisfied with his initial attack, he decided to write another tale, this time featuring Pamela’s brother Joseph, who would serve as an example of genuine virtue. Joseph Andrews became, however, more than another attack on Richardson: In it, Fielding offered a satiric Literature;satire
Satire look at the society that applauded the conduct of Richardson’s heroine.

Fielding hit upon a brilliant strategy for presenting his satire. Pamela’s brother Joseph became an exemplar of chastity, while the village vicar, Parson Abraham Adams, was a model of charity. The adventures of these characters demonstrated how a society that values material possessions, promotes self-satisfaction and self-advancement, and supports long-held notions of the inherent superiority of the landed nobility continuously tramples on the key Christian virtues that Joseph and the parson were meant to represent. To make sure readers understood his position, Fielding created a narrator to tell the story and offer commentary on characters and situations. The narrator’s frequent use of ironic understatement highlights the uncharitable or rapacious behavior of the people Joseph and Adams encounter.

By adopting the plot device of the journey, Fielding was able to place his principal characters in situations that exposed the evils of his society. In the novel, Joseph is a servant to Lady Booby, the aunt of the rakish villain whom Richardson calls “Squire B___” in Pamela. While in London, Joseph is expelled from Lady Booby’s service for refusing her sexual advances. Dismayed, he travels back to the Booby estate in hopes of marrying his beloved Fanny, a servant girl. Along the way he is robbed and stripped of his clothes. Left for dead, he is ignored or reviled by a coach full of people, including a noble lady and a lawyer. Fortuitously, however, he is taken to an inn by the coach postillion.

At the inn, Joseph meets Adams, who is on his way to London to sell his sermons. When Adams learns there is no market for his work, the two men travel back home together, stopping at various inns and private homes where their strained financial circumstances make them dependent on strangers for sustenance. Their treatment at the hands of the various gentry, lawyers, innkeepers, and clergy they encounter provides an object lesson in how far eighteenth century society had strayed from the Christian Christianity;in literature[literature] principles to which it continued to give lip service.

As Fielding explains in the preface to the novel, his principal target is “affectation,” or hypocrisy, Hypocrisy;in literature[literature]
Literature;hypocrisy a vice rampant at all levels of society. Nobles such as Lady Booby preach about their natural goodness, yet they are quick to use those beneath them on the social ladder to serve their own interests. It never crosses Lady Booby’s mind, for example, that in trying to seduce Joseph she might be asking him to do something he abhors. She is concerned only because, in fulfilling her sexual appetite, she may be demeaning herself by pursuing a social inferior. On the other hand, the hypocrisy of people whose vanity prompts them to aspire to positions above their natural state is pilloried through the character of Lady Booby’s maid, Mrs. Slipslop, a crone who fancies that she can have Joseph for herself.

Fielding’s attack on the clergy is especially harsh. The contrast between the naïve but genuinely Christian Parson Adams and virtually every other clergyman in the novel exposes the hypocrisy of that profession. On several occasions, Joseph and Adams find themselves in the presence of clergymen who refuse them alms, take from them what little they have, and complain vigorously about the demands of the poor on the Church and its ministers. Some are able to argue the most abstruse theological points but cannot find it in their hearts to act charitably toward those in need. A few even make fun of Adams for his poverty and his naïveté, expressing the belief that no respectable clergyman would allow himself to fall into such straits. Readers sensitive to the irony in the novel can see easily that Fielding has little use for ministers who willfully misunderstand their true calling.

In similar fashion, Fielding attacks the profession of law. Law;in literature[literature]
Literature;legal profession Instead of using their knowledge to assist those in need, the lawyers and judges in Joseph Andrews practice their art for personal gain. Their obtuse language becomes a smoke screen behind which they can manipulate the law for the benefit of those who will provide handsome retainers or advance them in society. At one point in the novel, Adams and Joseph are condemned to prison because the person bringing charges against them is perceived to have greater influence and wealth. In Fielding’s view, the perversion of law was particularly prevalent in his day, and the legal system required significant reform.

Given Fielding’s attitude toward the law, it is not surprising that also scattered throughout the novel are satiric references to corrupt politicians, Politics;in literature[literature]
Corruption in literature a group he had been criticizing for years. His authorship of a series of pamphlets and newspaper articles had made him an enemy of Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s Walpole, Sir Robert Whig administration. Fielding’s attacks on the political establishment had been in part responsible for Parliament’s passage of the Licensing Act Licensing Act (1737) to regulate the theaters in 1737, an act that Samuel Richardson supported.

Joseph Andrews also satirizes the romance, a literary genre it parallels and parodies simultaneously. Using the techniques of the burlesque and following the lead of his model, Miguel de Cervantes’s El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615; The History of the Valorous and Wittie Knight-Errant, Don Quixote of the Mancha, 1612-1620; better known as Don Quixote de la Mancha), Don Quixote de la Mancha (Cervantes) Fielding transforms knights and ladies into footmen and serving wenches. Like Cervantes, Fielding uses the inflated language of romance to describe encounters that are little more than crude exchanges of fisticuffs. At the same time, however, he demonstrates the natural heroism and selflessness of Joseph Andrews and Parson Adams, who come to Fanny’s rescue on numerous occasions when her virginity and her physical safety are threatened. Though commoners, Fielding’s heroes are worthy of praise, because they struggle to uphold Christian virtues in a corrupt world.


The publication of Joseph Andrews immediately established Fielding as Richardson’s rival. Whereas Richardson treated sex and power with tragic seriousness and a Puritanical sensibility, Fielding found them subjects for comedy. Hence, Joseph Andrews is rightfully called the first comic novel Comic novels
Novels;comic in English. At the same time, it is the first novel directly or explicitly to promote social reform. Reform novels
Novels;social reform The earlier satirical novel by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
Gulliver’s Travels (Swift)[Gullivers Travels] (1726; originally entitled Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and Then a Captain of Several Ships), had mounted an even harsher critique of British society, but it had disguised that critique behind allegory, representing England indirectly in fictional countries. Fielding attempted to hold the mirror directly up to England’s social milieus, daring to show his readers his understanding of the world they shared.

Several years later, Fielding published what is generally thought his masterpiece, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749; commonly known as Tom Jones), Tom Jones (Fielding) which is longer but equally focused on social ills. His contemporaries Tobias Smollett and Laurence Sterne took up the novel form to great acclaim, and subsequent generations of writers have followed Fielding’s example in linking comedy with social commentary. Most notable among Fielding’s disciples is Charles Dickens (1812-1870), whose early novels seem consciously modeled on those of Fielding. The use of the intrusive narrator became a staple of the English novel, and writers such as Anthony Trollope used the technique to great advantage. In the twentieth century, the British novelist Evelyn Waugh and the American William Faulkner were among a number of writers who produced works sharing many characteristics of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Today, the tradition Fielding established remains vibrant.

Further Reading

  • Cleary, Thomas. Henry Fielding: Political Writer. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1984. This valuable study of the political context for all of Fielding’s work includes a lengthy discussion of the political dimensions of Joseph Andrews.
  • Paulson, Ronald. The Life of Henry Fielding. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. This biography by one of the most respected Fielding scholars of the twentieth century includes a chapter on Joseph Andrews that places the novel in the context of Fielding’s life and writings.
  • Rivero, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Henry Fielding. New York: G. K. Hall, 1998. This collection contains three essays on Joseph Andrews that take advantage of “newer” critical theories to reinterpret the novel.
  • Rosengarten, Richard A. Henry Fielding and the Narration of Providence. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Rosengarten’s brief monograph examines the theological and philosophical background of Fielding’s novels, explaining how his view of human nature and the divine design of the world influenced the production of works such as Joseph Andrews.
  • Varey, Simon.“Joseph Andrews”: A Satire of Modern Times. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A book-length study of the novel, Varey’s work explains how Fielding uses satiric techniques to highlight the foibles of his society.

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