Morals and form : a study of tradition and innovation in Joseph Andrews

Slevin, James Francis, Department of English, University of Virginia

While Fielding's conception of the novel has been discussed by many critics, there has not been an effort to understand the theoretical assumptions that connect its thematic, formal and didactic concerns. It is necessary to consider Fielding's literary theory, especially his view of the moral purpose of writing, in relation not only to his central moral ideas, but also to his formal strategies, his basic manner of connecting parts into a literary whole, the kind of audience he envisions, and the nature of the reading activity he demands. My concern, therefore, is to show the close interrelation of moral vision, literary form and didactic function in Fielding's art, with particular. attention to Joseph Andrews. In this way we can understand the complexity of his sophisticated moral purpose, avoiding excessively narrow notions of “didacticism” that fail to appreciate the historical assumptions grounding the validity of such a theory.

My consideration of Fielding's important themes, formal devices and theoretical statements about his writing functions to establish the Christian-humanist values which govern the purpose of his art. I therefore carefully discuss several distinctive features of Joseph Andrews, showing how they function to communicate its moral vision. To establish with greater precision the basic concerns of that vision, I analyze Fielding's treatment of the priesthood, a theme which clearly and comprehensively focuses them for the reader. Fielding’s art derives from his disturbing awareness that institutions and other cultural' "forms” have been trivialized or even corrupted in contemporary life. This requires from the truly moral man a resistance which, in its endeavor to correct such abuses, is guided by values "recovered" from the past. This process of resistance, recovery and correction is placed consistently by Fielding within a comic mode that derives from the benevolence and "Providential” optimism so integral to his total vision.

In identifying these basic elements of Fielding’s conception of the world, we can see as well his view of the serious writer's artistic responsibility. It is based on the need for a literary innovation governed by a reciprocity between imitation and originality. His adaptation of literary models takes the form of a "mixture" of different genres which connects past with present, literary tradition with contemporary issues. The most significant of these issues for Fielding was the need to consider the values that can effect a social harmony in a world characterized by its social diversity. The artistic harmony that is achieved by his innovative interrelation of forms is meant to effect a social harmony among the (potentially) conflicting elements of his audience. These mixtures are thus central not only to the represented “variety” in the world of the novel, but also to the diversity of readers which characterizes his audience. By understanding the assumptions that govern these mixtures, and the integral connections among theme, form, moral purpose and reader response, we can establish a framework by which to consider more accurately the nature of Fielding’s novelistic form. 

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Fielding, Henry -- 1707-1754 -- History of the adventures of Joseph Andrews
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