Study Guide

Joseph Andrews Analysis

By Henry Fielding

  • Tone

    Lighthearted, Didactic

    Part of Fielding's goal with Joseph Andrews is to analyze "the only source of the true ridiculous (as it appears to me) […] affectation" (Preface.15). We'd call that a lighthearted approach, to the point of even being flippant. Fielding definitely tackles serious themes, but he does it by constantly poking fun at his best characters—especially characters who take themselves too seriously (that's called "affectation"). Parson Adams is a great example of a pious parson, but he also wears a pretty obvious toupee.

    What's it all leading toward? As you might have figured, Fielding wouldn't leave you hanging with pointless comedy. Instead, he sets out to school us all on hypocrisy, virtue, and true gentility. He doesn't hide his didacticism, either. Fielding is like your favorite funny teacher (or, ahem, all of us here at Shmoop) who always has a lesson behind his jokes. He wants you to learn something, but he doesn't want to be all lame and boring about it.

  • Genre

    Adventure; Comedy; Picaresque

    In Joseph Andrews, we've got a handsome hero who hits the road to find his one true love. Along the way, he encounters obstacles galore in order to get back to the place where he grew up. If that isn't an adventure, we'll eat our hats.

    If that isn't enough for you, we've got ruffians, evil squires, sheep-stealers who may or may not be ghosts, and grumpy innkeepers. There's a lot of local color in this story that adds to its adventurous elements.

    We've also got characters named Lady Booby, Mrs. Slipslop, and Mr. Tow-wouse. Funny? You bet. Beneath it all, Joseph Andrews is a comedy meant to make its readers chortle. Think of Adams "rolling down the hill, which he did from top to bottom, without receiving any harm" (3.2.8). The story isn't meant to be all serious and educational all the time. We'll admit it—we giggled.

    Finally, Joseph Andrews is a darn-tootin' good example of the picaresque. What's that, you ask? Well, it usually consists of a series of adventures undertaken by a lower-class hero. That's Joseph to a T, even if the ending reveals him to be a gentleman. Usually, the plot of a picaresque novel is pretty loose—it usually just involves the hero wandering around getting into trouble and listening to outlandish stories. Sound familiar?

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews and of his friend Mr. Abraham Adams is a mouthful. We think it's pretty significant that the full title includes both Joseph and his right-hand man, giving them nearly equal billing.

    Joseph is definitely the star of the show, but Parson Adams is Fielding's personal addition to the Pamela franchise. While Joseph himself is straight-up satire of Pamela Andrews, Adams adds his own particular brand of tomfoolery to the trope of the bumbling parson. Plus, Fielding pretty much promises to give us a new species of writing in the Preface. We're thinking that the "History" part of the title shows us which direction that writing will take.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    Once we find out what Joseph's strawberry-shaped birthmark really means, the story ends pretty quickly. We already know deep down that Joseph's a gentleman, so it should be no surprise that the newly revealed heir of Mr. Wilson "remains blest with his Fanny, whom he doats on with the utmost tenderness, which is all returned on her side" (4.16.20).

    Oh, yeah, and Fielding does have to get in one last dig at Richardson: he tells us that Joseph will not be "prevailed on by any booksellers, or their authors, to make his appearance in High-Life" (4.16.20). What the heck? Well, that's a reference to Richardson's authorized sequel of Pamela (yes, this massive, 600-page snooze-fest—according to Fielding—had a sequel), which chronicles her pregnancy. Scandalous. Another guy, John Kelly, wrote a similarly named sequel, Pamela's Conduct in High Life.

    Pamela is just the gift that keeps on giving, but Joseph Andrews… well, Fielding says it's better to stop while you're ahead.

  • Setting

    The Eighteenth-Century Open Road

    Setting in Joseph Andrews is all about the characters. Yes, it's kind of weird that we get pages of description of Fanny's face and hardly anything about the English countryside the characters travel across. In each new location, Joseph encounters colorful characters who distract him from his journey. Still, we get snippets here and there of description of the open road.

    Ooh-La-La, London

    Before Joseph ever starts his journey, he has a grand time hanging out in London—not that he really gets what London is all about. While walking around in Hyde Park, for example, Lady Tittle and Lady Tattle spot him walking arm-in-arm with Lady Booby (1.4.3). How did that happen? Well, Hyde Park is the place in London to go to promenade around, see, and be seen. Translation: it's Gossip Central.

    Joseph is definitely seen by the town gossips, but he doesn't seem to see much himself. Classic Joseph: unaware that Hyde Park is a magnet for the Desperate Housewives of England, just as he seems pretty unaware that he himself is… a magnet for the Desperate Housewives of England.

    Stormy Seasons

    Joseph doesn't choose the best time to hit the road. As soon as he departs from Lady Booby's London house, he finds himself in "a violent storm of hail" that forces him "to take shelter in this inn, where he remembered Sir Thomas had dined in his way to town" (1.11.11). The countryside is often depicted as inhospitable to the naïve Joseph, who is totally not prepared to travel through poor weather conditions.

    Come In to the Inn

    Instead, Joseph seeks refuge in that middle-class haven: the inn. Joseph stops in at countless inns along the way, where his fellow travelers gather to talk shop and get a good pint of ale. Even though you have to have money to stay at an inn (which Joseph frequently doesn't), they're more hospitable places than the open road.

    For instance, check out when Joseph is rescued from that ditch. His reluctant saviors drop him off at the nearest inn, where the maid gives him "a great coat belonging to one of the hostlers, desired him to sit down and warm himself, whilst she made his bed" (1.12.11). Sounds pretty fantastic to us. Of course, there's always the problem of paying… but Joseph seems to get by relying on the charity of others, such as Adams and random strangers.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    Think of Joseph Andrews as a choose-your-own-adventure book in terms of toughness. If you feel like chuckling a bit, you can just read Fielding's book for its slapstick humor. After all, Parson Adams could put Charlie Chaplin to shame.

    On the other hand, there are all sorts of buried historical tidbits and sly references that can make Joseph Andrews into a pretty tricky read. Oh, yeah—and how about when the narrator digresses completely from the plot to get on some kind of soapbox? We'd suggest bookmarking the more difficult parts to return to and reading Fielding's masterpiece with a study aid (ahem—like ours).

  • Writing Style

    Rollicking, Abrupt

    Yep, we said the writing style is rollicking. Think about a rollercoaster, slowly inching toward the top of the steepest drop. When you head over the edge, you're thrown around a little bit, but it's all in good fun. How does that play out in Fielding? Check out the scene where the hunting dogs tear off Parson Adams's wig and the group is thrown into chaos, for example: "[…] they began to pull him about; and had not the motion of his body had more effect on him than seemed to be wrought by the noise, they must certainly have tasted his flesh" (3.6.7). That rollicking pace is exactly what you can expect from Joseph Andrews.

    But even as you're rushing along on this action-packed rollercoaster, you get jerked back and forth with a series of random events. Who'da thunk that the wig-stealing scene would end up with Adams and the crew going to dinner at the perpetrator's house? Or that Adams would be the butt of every single one of the squire's jokes?

    In fact, when the story takes unexpected turns, the writing style becomes especially jerky and abrupt. Get a load of this example, when the group suddenly leaves the squire's house: "Adams and Joseph […] went out with their sticks in their hands; and carried off Fanny […]" (3.8.1). Where they'll go, nobody knows.

  • The Broken Piece of Gold

    Who'da thunk Joseph would be so interested in a piece of gold? What's gold to this goody-two-shoes, right?

    Yeah, well, this particular piece of gold is a special symbol that reminds Joseph of Fanny. When he's robbed on the road, he begs people to "search for a little piece of broken gold, which had a ribband tied to it, and which he could swear to amongst all the hoards of the richest men in the universe" (1.14.10).

    Later on, the folks at the inn try to confiscate the piece of gold to use as evidence against the robbers who left Joseph in a ditch. Great, right? Not right: we find Joseph practically in tears as he tries to prevent his piece of gold from disappearing in a lengthy trial. More than revenge or justice, Joseph values his relationship with Fanny. If he let this piece of gold vanish into the ether, his value system would be totally out of whack.

    In a nutshell, Joseph is keen on recovering the piece of gold because it represents Fanny and his love for her. Joseph doesn't care how much the gold is worth in monetary terms; it's only meaningful to him as a reminder of Fanny. On top of that, Joseph is struggling to keep his virtue intact. He tells us he's resisting temptation so that he can save himself Fanny, so it makes sense that he needs a little reminder now and again.

  • The Strawberry-Shaped Birthmark

    Joseph has a particularly pretty birthmark on his chest. Now, it's not like he goes around flashing that birthmark to everyone, but still, all of Joseph's buddies know that this birthmark separates Joseph from the pack. Little do they know that it's also the thing that shows his true parentage—yep, it turns out that Joseph is a gentleman, through and through. As Mr. Wilson's son and heir, he's got plenty of wealth coming to him.

    Joseph is a handsome guy, but he's by no means perfect. Fielding takes great pains to show how Joseph is always in the middle. He's middle-class, middling height, and not particularly smart about navigating the world. Joseph's flaws help him, though. The strawberry-shaped birthmark is the perfect example of a flaw that changes Joseph's life for the better, due to how recognizable it is.

    Take a look at what the peddler says about Joseph and his birthmark, for example. After all, it's the savvy peddler who brings the birthmark to everyone's attention. He asks Gammar Andrews if her supposed kid has a birthmark, and she answers: "Yes, he had as fine a strawberry as ever grew in a garden" (4.15.4). By implying that Joseph's strawberry birthmark is natural, Gammar Andrews suggests that he's pretty awesome, flaws and all.

    See, even if Joseph isn't at the top of his game, his birthmark shows that he's a natural gentleman. We're thinking that Fielding is making a joke about how virtue is inherited. Is it really passed down from generation to generation, like social status? We mean, really, if it all comes down to a fruity birthmark, then how important could any of this be? Well, hey: better check for your strawberry-shaped birthmarks, Shmoopers—you could be kings in disguise.

  • Pamela Andrews

    Okay, you knew this was coming.

    We can't overstate the importance of Miss Pamela Andrews to Fielding's work in general—and to Joseph Andrews in particular. We'd even say that she's less of a character and more of a symbol in this book. Joseph breaks it down for us: "I don't doubt, dear sister, but you will have the grace to preserve your virtue against all trials, and I beg you earnestly to pray, I may be enabled to preserve mine […]" (1.10.5).

    Hold up. What's he talking about? Obviously, Joseph is trying to withstand the temptation to give up his virtue. But he's also talking about Pamela's trials to hold off her master, Mr. B. This battle of wills is the whole plot of Pamela, Samuel Richardson's masterpiece (or master-stinker, if you agree with Fielding).

    The ghost of Pamela haunts all of Joseph Andrews. Joseph is constantly in his sister's shadow, trying to measure up to her unattainable level of perfection. Although we don't actually meet Pamela, the character, until the very end of the book, Joseph hopes to "copy [her] example" all the way through (1.10.5).

    Isn't this all a little bit much? Surely, no one thinks about their bratty sibling that much. Still, we're talking about Pamela Andrews, the single biggest sensation to hit eighteenth-century literature. Even better, Fielding has a hay day making fun of the secret of the book's success. Despite Pamela's will to resist sex, people read the book because it was sexy.

    On top of that, by switching the sex of the main character from a female (Pamela) to a male (Joseph), Fielding is sending up Richardson's whole premise. At least in the eighteenth century, it would have been a lot more absurd for a handsome young buck to be holding off a bunch of lusty ladies than for a virtuous maiden to be holding off a lecherous old man. Fielding is making fun of the whole double standard.

  • The History of Leonora

    The story Leonora inserted is inserted seemingly randomly in the middle of Joseph Andrews, right after Joseph and Adams split up to travel. The only connection this story has to the book's plot is that the coach passes right by Leonora's house. So what's the deal? Why devote a chapter to Leonora?

    We're Not Saying She's a Gold-digger

    Basically, Leonora's a gold-digger. She's totally fickle: she throws off her first fiancé, Horatio, just because a new guy appears with a coach and six horses. Okay, we'll say it straight: Leonora seems to be in it for the money. Or maybe she's just in it for the prestige that comes with marrying a fancy Frenchman: "Aye, but Bellarmine is the genteeler and fine man; yes, that must be allowed" (2.4.35). Now, wealth-obsessed women don't feature prominently in Joseph Andrews, so it seems odd to introduce Leonora at this point.

    Or does it? Joseph is practically the opposite of Leonora in every way. If Joseph Andrews is the story of a man who preserves his virtue, the story of Leonora is an allegory about what happens when someone is willing to compromise her integrity for the promise of material objects.

    Of course, all of that vanishes into thin air once Bellarmine can't get a dowry from Leonora's father—so Leonora does pay a price for her greedy ways.

    Don't Forget Horatio

    Horatio, the guy who doesn't have the coach and six, is Leonora's spurned lover. Let's not forget his significance to this story, especially since he's the only one who isn't mercilessly satirized. He loves Leonora despite her fickleness, even though he sees the writing is on the wall when Bellarmine appears. And sure, he could have her after Bellarmine ditches her for good, but why bother with an unhappy marriage?

    See, Horatio conducts himself on the straight and narrow. "[…] Give yourself no more airs, for you see I am coming for you," he tells Bellarmine as soon as he finds out his involvement with Leonora (2.4.42). That's shades of Inigo Montoya right there.

    All this is to say that Horatio is the one shining example of a gentleman in Leonora's story. He doesn't pull punches and he doesn't fall for Leonora's doe-eyed act. And yet he's still a little unhappy at the end of the story: he wouldn't ever go back to the scheming Leonora, but he still sighs when he hears her name. We're thinking you could read this story two ways: either it's no use to fall in love, or if you're going to fall in love, you should make sure to fall in love with a lady like Fanny. Luckily, Joseph's nabbed her already.

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person Omniscient

    Oh, hey, third person omniscient.

    Joseph gets a lot of playing time in the story, but the real star of the show is the intrusive narrator. That pesky guy weaves in and out of every character's consciousness; he knows everything about everything, and he'll tell you what's up even when the characters are lying through their teeth.

    Check out how this tidbit, for example, when the narrator gives us the real scoop about what Lady Booby'll do to get at Joseph: "She resolved to preserve all the dignity of the woman of fashion to her servant, and to indulge herself in this last view of Joseph […]" (1.7.6). Yeah, that narrator's a sneaky son of a gun.

    The best parts, though, are when the narrator decides to give us a little sermon of his own. What, he doesn't think it's enough to make us listen to Parson Adams? No sir: our bud the narrator is particularly fond of holding forth at the beginning of each volume in Joseph Andrews. Sometimes, he even gives us insights into the author's trades: "I take this dividing of our works into books and chapters to be none of the least considerable [secrets]" (2.1.1). What does that have to do with Joseph? Nothing, but our third person omniscient narrator is going to tell us, anyway.

    Actually, all this chatter about constructing a novel does have some purpose. Fielding wrote Joseph Andrews as send-up of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, so when he talks about how to properly construct a novel, you can bet he's giving the middle finger to old Richardson and saying, "Hey, buddy, here's how you write a real novel."

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

    Anticipation Stage

    Joseph Andrews doesn't have a ounce of worldliness in his whole body. He's handsome and totally sweet, but he has no idea that Lady Booby is romantically interested in him. Lady Booby does him a favor by firing him and forcing him to leave London in search of Fanny Goodwill—and in search of a clue. Along the way, he'll learn to live by the rules of the road.

    Initial Fascination or Dream Stage

    As Joseph bumbles along, he's initially pretty naïve about the dangers of the English road. After all, he's made his way through life trusting that people are all pretty decent, deep down inside. Even though Joseph immediately encounters evil—in the form of a couple of highwaymen and some cruel people in a coach—he continues to believe that good exists everywhere. Still, this road trip is all about being able to navigate in the gray area between good and bad.

    Frustration Stage

    Although Joseph's finally reunited with his beloved Fanny, Parson Adams still refuses to let them marry. Even worse, evil men like the squire and Beau Didapper keep trying to harm Fanny and take her away from Joseph.

    Booker tells us this is when a shadow begins to intrude on the story. You might see this shadow as Lady Booby, who always seems to be looming over the pair of lovebirds. Lady B. also has a couple of those evil men working for her to break up the couple, even if these dudes don't ultimately succeed.

    Nightmare Stage

    The evil squire is called "the Hunter of Men" for good reason. His sole purpose in life seems to be as nightmarish as possible for poor Fanny, Joseph, and Adams. But when he has his men kidnap Fanny and tie Adams and Joseph to the bedposts at the inn, he really crosses a line.

    Joseph is totally helpless now. Although Booker says there's a threat to the protagonist's survival at this point, Fanny's life is the one at stake. But since Joseph's happiness is tied to Fanny's survival, you can bet your britches that he'll be trying to get her out of the squire's clutches.

    Thrilling Escape and Return

    Even though Joseph can't save Fanny by himself, Peter Pounce is there to save the day. When he brings Fanny and her captor back to the inn where Joseph is tied up, Joseph takes the opportunity to give the captain a sound drubbing.

    Joseph and Fanny's escape from danger coincides pretty directly with their return to the Booby country estate. Joseph is finally back where he started, with Fanny finally at his side.

  • Plot Analysis

    Exposition (Initial Situation): Playing Footsie with the Footman

    Joseph's got a pretty sweet gig as a footman for Sir Thomas Booby. Sure, Lady Booby has the hots for him, but he's the talk of London-town. After Sir Thomas dies, Joseph's just managing to hold off Lady Booby when she abruptly fires him. The lady's a fickle mistress.

    Conflict: On the Road Again

    Joseph hits the road in search of his one true love, Fanny Goodwill. His beloved is holed up at Lady Booby's country estate, but that's a long way from London. How will Joseph make it through a maze of storms, thieving ruffians, and angry innkeepers? His first day on the road ends with him lying naked and beaten in a ditch. Not exactly a good start.

    Complication: Parson Adams is Packin' Heat

    By a total stroke of luck, Parson Adams runs into Joseph after his near-fatal injury. Once he heals up, the pair plans to take on the world together—or at least travel to the Booby country estate together. Adams causes at least as many problem as he solves, though. The bumbling parson forgets his horse, forgets to pay for his horse, and gets into fights with innkeepers. Will these dudes ever get to the Booby's?

    Climax (Crisis, Turning Point): The Crabstick Prevails While Justice Fails

    Always the chivalrous hero, Parson Adams comes to the aid of a young woman being attacked by a stranger. With the aid of his trusty crabstick, Adams knocks some sense into that fool. The grateful young lady turns out to be none other than Fanny Goodwill. But a group of bird-batters mistake the two for criminals and haul them to justice. Joseph and Fanny have never been so near and yet so far from each other.

    Falling Action: Lady Booby Nearly Wrecks It

    Lady Booby has to take one last stab at sabotaging Fanny and Joseph's impending nuptials. With the help of the dastardly lawyer Scout, she schemes to have the pair thrown in Bridewell, a notorious prison. Well, she'd rather have Fanny locked away and Joseph spared for her own nefarious plans, but it's both of them who get framed for a minor crime.

    Resolution (Denouement): Pamela's No Sham(ela)

    Pamela and her new hunky husband, Mr. Booby, are initially skeptical that Fanny and Joseph are meant to be. But Mr. Booby clears their names, regardless, and he prevents them from being thrown in Bridewell. Even better, the mysterious peddler emerges with a story to tell: Fanny is actually Joseph's parents' daughter (bear with us), and Joseph is the son of Mr. Wilson. So that settles it: Joseph and Fanny finally get hitched.

  • Three-Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Joseph leaves his cushy job as a footman when Lady Booby gets a little too amorous toward him. He journeys to the Booby country estate to find his sweetheart, Fanny, but the road is paved with ruffians and other obstacles. Parson Adams runs into Joseph after his first day on the road and joins him as they encounter grumpy innkeeper after grumpy innkeeper. The pair separates briefly when Parson Adams forgets he has a horse.

    Act II

    As Parson Adams is walking along and minding his own bees' wax, he runs into Fanny Goodwill being attacked by a random stranger. Yes, that would be Joseph's sweetheart Fanny. Without knowing who she is, Adams defends her and plans to accompany her back to see Joseph. But the villain who attacks Fanny frames the pair, saying they're thieves, and the two are hauled before the lazy Justice of the Peace to answer for their fake crimes. After Adams and Fanny are cleared, Joseph and Fanny have a tearful reunion. They stay at the charming Mr. Wilson's house and hear the story about Wilson's long-lost son as they make their way to the country.

    Act III

    A dastardly squire kidnaps Fanny with the intention of ravishing her, but Peter Pounce comes to her rescue. When the group finally makes it to the Booby's countryseat, Lady Booby is waiting with every intention to foil Joseph and Fanny's marriage. The lawyer Scout is totally willing to help her, and even Pamela and Mr. Booby aren't particularly thrilled about the match. But when the peddler reveals Joseph's true parentage, no one can help but approve.

  • Allusions

    Literary and Philosophical References

    • Colley Cibber, poet laureate in eighteenth century England (1.1.4).
    • Homer, Greek poet (2.9.2).
    • Narcissus, vain youth in mythology (2.12.2).
    • Daedalus, father of Icarus, from Ovid (2.17.1).
    • Atlantis writers, Delarivier Manley (3.3.3).
    • Voltaire (3.3.3).
    • Alexander Pope (3.3.15).
    • Hylus, young man loved by Hercules (3.6.1).
    • John Kelly, Pamela's Conduct in the High Life (4.16.20).

    Historical References

    • Carthagena, British attack on Spanish city of Carthagena in 1741 (2.7.9).
    • Pompey and Caesar, the battle of Pharsalia in 48 B.C. (2.9.2).
    • Alexander the Great (3.5.4).