Morality and Ethics in Henry Fielding's Novel Term Paper

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Morality and Ethics in Henry Fielding's Novel Joseph Andrews

This paper looks into the subject of morality and ethics as depicted by Henry Fielding in his novel 'Joseph Andrews'. The book seeks to discard the notions held by 18th century English society in connection with morality and thus offers a better and 'more active' definition of the term. According to Fielding, morality was not solely connected with chastity and thus he highlights the importance of charity for attainment of 'honor' and 'respect'. The paper objectively discusses the strengths and weaknesses of Fielding's views in connection with this subject and shows how the author conveyed his message through adept characterization.



When reading 'Joseph Andrews', one needs to be very careful in order to be able to fully comprehend the messages, which exist between the lines and are not exactly put forth in obvious terms. In this book, which Henry Fielding described as an epic written in prose form, we find the plot and structure very similar to Greek and other ancient heroic tales with the only difference being that in this novel, the author has tried to dispel the notion that morality is strictly connected with chastity and religion. This is a very interesting highlight of Fielding's work, and one that made his writings stand out among heap of similar literary work during the Eighteenth century. In order to understand clearly what happens in Joseph Andrews and how characters represent morality or lack of it, it is important to first have some background information regarding the description of morality in the early Eighteenth century.


While most of us assume that in the eighteenth century English, society was obsessed with morality and connected it with religion, some critics are of the view that this was certainly not the case. They maintain that while today we view the English society of 18th century as a highly religious one, this is flawed description that has entered our minds through shallow reading and analysis of the works of that period. In reality, the actual English society in those days was infested as much by immoral desires and unchaste wants as it is today. The one difference is that while people today are open about their behavior and do not seek to associate morality with religious teachings, in 18th century, it was considered blasphemous to abandon religion and being moral meant being religious.

But some critics have even discarded this view and they offer their own version of morality in the 18th century England. They feel that the very reason why people stuck to chastity or morality in those days was because they wanted to be considered legal heirs to property. This may appear to be a bizarre theory at first, but if we delve deeper into it, we can notice that it contains grains of truth and valid argument. This is because in those days, morality was considered a prized possession of the upper class while the lower class was not bound by any such restrictions. This could be because with people of lower society, property was simply not a major concern.

In this connection, who can be a better spokesman of the eighteenth century social and moral values than someone belonging to that period, Bernard Mandeville in 1723 was the first person to establish connection between morality and property. He wrote that politicians and moralists had deliberately engraved the idea in our minds that religion was closely connected with morality but it is actually 'a Invention of Moralists and Politicians' that 'signifies a certain Principle of Virtue not related to Religion'. (Bernard Mandeville, p.212.)


This gives a clearer picture of the eighteenth century and Fielding offers an even deeper insight into the subject of morality and ethics when he deliberately ridicules various writers, thinkers and ancient heroic stories in his novel 'Joseph Andrews' to show just how shallow was the concept of morality in those days. Joseph Andrews was a direct parody of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which contains several references to various ancient writings and some biblical stories too. In this novel, Fielding has explored and questioned the subject of morality with reference to the view advocated by Mandeville.

From the first few lines of Chapter two, it is clear that the author wants his readers to refer to Richardson's Pamela when he introduces Joseph Andrews. "Mr. Joseph Andrews, the hero of our ensuing history, was esteemed to be the only son of Gaffar and Gammer Andrews, and brother to the illustrious Pamela, whose virtue is at present so famous." (Book 1, Chapter 2) Thus the connection is established and throughout the epic, Fielding has repeatedly highlighted the significance of Andrews' relationship with Pamela. For example at another instance, Joseph claims that he 'is the Brother of Pamela, and [thus] would be ashamed, that the Chastity of his Family, which is preserved in her, should be stained in him' (I, Chapter 8, p.36) This was primarily done to satirize the definition of morality that Richardson suggested through his character Pamela. The primary objective and aim of this type of satire was to "hold the Glass to thousands in their Closets, that they may contemplate their Deformity, and endeavor to reduce it, and thus by suffering private Mortification may avoid public Shame" (Fielding, p. 168-9).

Fielding had created his owns standard and criterion for judging morality in his prominent character Abraham Adams whose active sense of morality constantly urges the readers to question the passive moral values of Pamela. In this novel, at least in the first half, Andrews is presented as the male counterpart of Pamela while Lady Booby represents Mr. B. Andrews is repeatedly thrown into situations where he could have succumbed to the charms and sexual advances of Lady Booby had he not been steadfast in his devotion and loyalty to his wife, Fanny. For example in Book 1, chapter 5, Lady Booby is shown lying in bed, her mind possessed by her usual lusty designs when she addresses Joseph hopefully, 'I have trusted myself with a Man alone, naked in Bed; suppose you should have any wicked Intentions upon my Honor'. Joseph simply fails to decipher the real motive of Lady Booby and almost naively declares, 'that he never had the least evil Design against her'. (Ch.5, p.25)

The author has maintained almost a comical connection between Pamela and Andrews and was amused at the idea of a 'male-virgin'. At some places, it appears as if Fielding is questioning the idea propounded by Richardson that the responsibility of keeping family honor rests on the shoulders of female members alone. For example in Chapter 8 of Book I, Lady Booby angrily objects to Andrews' persistent refusal to respond to her advances, 'did ever Mortal hear of a Man's Virtue! Did ever the greatest or the gravest Men pretend to any of this Kind!' (I, Chapter 8, p.36) Thus it is evident from such instances that the author was not only satirizing the standards of morality in English society but also felt that to connect family honor to females' chastity and virtue was both ridiculous and unjust. 'Chastity is as great a Virtue in a Man as in a Woman' (I, Chapter 10, p.41).

Apart from numerous references to Pamela, the author has also incorporated Biblical figures and teachings in his book. In fact the two main characters Joseph and Abraham Adams are parallel to the two biblical figures with the same first names. "Like the biblical Joseph he exemplifies patience and chastity; like the biblical Joseph he is a "goodly person, and well-favored." He has been kidnapped by Gypsies (Egyptians), and has been employed in a great house, has rejected the sexual advances of his master's wife, and has suffered from her resulting fury. He is finally revealed in his true identity, is reconciled with his family, and weeps while embracing his father from whom he has been so long separated." (Johnson, p. 74)

Not only that, the seduction attempts by Lady Booby are also identical to the sexual advances of Potiphar's wife in the Bible. And in almost biblical fashion, Joseph remains intensely faithful to his wife.

Dr Beth Swan writes, "Fielding's Joseph is to be partly interpreted in a scriptural context and is clearly reminiscent of the biblical Joseph and his temptation by Potiphar's wife, whom he resisted. Adams, whose first name is Abraham, like his biblical namesake, expresses his faith in good works, as opposed to empty words. Abraham's faith manifested itself in works such as preparing to sacrifice his beloved son in obedience to God. Joseph and Adams are of course comic figures but there are vestiges of the dignity of the biblical figures and the very fact that we inevitably think of such figures in the same context as Fielding's characters, gives them at least a degree of moral weight"

Fielding has not only…

Sources Used in Document:


Simon Varey, Henry Fielding, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986

Maurice Johnson, Fielding's Art of Fiction Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961

Hamilton Macallister, Fielding London: Evans Brothers LTD, 1967

Works of Henry Fielding: Fielding's Life., Monarch Notes, 01-01-1963.

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