Written in the 1740s, Joseph Andrews is Henry Fielding’s response to Samuel Richardson’s gigantic tome Pamela, which Fielding found ridiculous. Joseph is a virtuous footman who is saving himself for the pure and perfect Fanny Goodwill. Abraham Adams, the local parson, likes Joseph because of his virtue and because he reads good books. The story follows Joseph and Parson Adams on their wacky adventures – first trying to return home, then trying to get Joseph and Fanny married.
The novel is replete with situational comedy. Parson Adams is attacked by dogs, falls into the mud in a pig sty, has his parson’s garb completely destroyed, and is doused in pig’s blood. While he endures these indignities, Joseph is trying to protect Fanny from being raped and working to maintain his own virtue, despite offers from the likes of the wonderfully-named Lady Booby and Madame Slipslop. The end of the novel features a comedic and absurd situation of confused identities but in the end, as in Pamela, virtue is rewarded.
Anyone who has read Don Quixote will notice a lot of similarities. Fielding was profoundly influenced by Cervantes and openly attests to this in his own preface to the novel. Fielding wrote that his novel was written in the style of the “comic epic poem in prose” as exemplified by Don Quixote. Fielding extended the writing style by introducing the omniscient narrator. Joseph Andrews represents the first appearance of a narrator in a novel who is not actually a character, but purely a voice, there to know what the characters do not and, in this case, for satirical effect.
I find the history of Joseph Andrews that I’ve just described fascinating, but that is not why the book is on my top ten list of the greatest books I’ve ever read (and I mean ever!). It’s because I LOVE this story. It’s ridiculous, fun, zany, and absolutely hysterical.
It’s also very well-thought-out. Parson Adams is a wonderful character and a very unique and full creation. Fielding does an excellent job of making the reader love him while also repeatedly laughing at him. I will admit that the plot is, very occasionally, a little too convenient, but Fielding’s message – that hypocrisy and vanity are ridiculous – comes across perfectly through the satire.
If one thing is missing from Joseph Andrews it’s a solid female character. While the male characters remain three-dimensional throughout the absurdity and satire, the females do suffer. Madame Slipslop is merely hideous and the butt of many jokes, Lady Booby is vain and selfish, and Fanny is too good to be true and extremely weak. However, I’ve chosen to forgive Fielding for his 1700s attitude towards women because I truly enjoy his sense of humor and his early shaping of the novel genre.