Joseph Andrews is Fielding’s first novel. It is a classical example of a literary work which started as a parody and ended as an excellent work of art in its own right. The work Fielding intended to parody was Richardson’s first novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded which had taken England by storm in the years following 1740 when it was first published. In his novel Fielding intended in the beginning to show how Lady Booby (aunt of “Lord B. ” in Richardson’s novel) attempts the virginity of Joseph Andrews, described as the virtuous Pamela’s brother but in the end discovered to be different.
The whole intention was comic. But after Chapter IX Joseph Andrews seems to break away completely from the original intention. Parson Adams, who has no counterpart in Pamela, runs away with the novel. He “is one of the most living, lovable, comical bundles of wisdom and simplicity in all literature. ” In the words of Edmund Gosse, “Parson Abraham Adams, alone, would be a contribution to English letters. ” He indeed is the hero of the novel, and not Joseph Andrews.
Fielding was aware of giving a new literary form with Joseph Andrews which he called “a comic epic in prose. ” Fielding is a great master of the art of characterization also. Fielding’s broad human sympathy coupled with his keen observation of even the faintest element of hypocrisy in a person is his basic asset as a master of characterization. He laughs and makes us laugh at many of his characters, but he is never cynical or misanthropic. He is a pleasant satirist, sans malice, sans harshness.
He gives no evidence of being angry at the foibles of his characters or of holding a lash in readiness. His comic creations resemble those of Chaucer and Shakespeare. Parson Trulliber and Falstaff, if they were to meet, would have immediately recognized each other! Fielding is one of the greatest humorists in English literature. The same comic spirit which permeates his plays is also evident in his novels. As he informs us, the author upon whom he modeled himself was Cervantes; it is not surprising, therefore, that comedy should be his method.
Fielding’s humor is wide in range. It rises from the coarsest farce to the astonishing heights of the subtlest irony. On one side is his zestful description of various fights and, on the other, the grim irony of Jonathan Wild. Higher! than both is that ineffable, pleasant, and ironic humor that may be found everywhere in Tom Jones but is at its best in Joseph Andrews where it plays like summer lightning around the figure of Parson Adams-an English cousin of Don Quixote.
Fielding’s very definition of the novel as “a comic epic in prose” is indicative of the place of humor and comedy in his novels and, later, those of many of his followers. It may be pointed out here that Richardson had no sense of humor; he was an unsmiling moralist and sentimentalist. Comparing the two, Coleridge says: “There is a cheerful, sunshiny, breezy spirit that prevails everywhere strongly contrasted with the close, hot, tfay-dreamy continuity of Richardson. ” Fielding’s humor is sometimes of the satiric kind, but he is never harsh or excessively cynical.