Study Guide

Joseph Andrews Themes

By Henry Fielding

  • Appearances

    Joseph's face could launch a thousand ships… Wait, that's not how that goes. But seriously, Joseph is a handsome guy who attracts ladies right and left. A major plot point has to do with his obliviousness to female attention, largely a result of that gorgeous mug. What's a male model-lookalike to do?

    Like Fanny, Joseph isn't aware of how attractive he is—and that could be one thing that makes him even more attractive to the ladies. Think of it this way: since Joe doesn't know how handsome he is, he's free to dwell on the stuff that matters, like developing his inner self and, you know, memorizing Parson Adams's copy of Aeschylus. Everyone else is free to stare at his pretty face.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Why make a point of describing Fanny's smallpox-marked face?
    2. What about Joseph's appearance attracts all the ladies? Should this even matter?
    3. Does Parson Adams's ridiculous appearance prevent him from getting respect?
    4. Does Fanny make more of an impression, in terms of appearance, than Joseph?

    Chew on This

    Joseph's utter lack of interest in his own appearance means he can't detect the one thing that could improve his life: that strawberry-shaped birthmark.

    Both Joseph and Fanny experience many difficulties because of their attractive faces.

  • Lust

    The ladies are the lustful ones in Joseph Andrews. Sure, the men (besides Joseph) have their fair share of randy moments, but the women are the ones who actually indulge their feelings. Take Lady Booby, for instance: she makes a pretty bold move by inviting Joseph into her bedroom while she's naked. Or consider Mrs. Slipslop, who makes a pretty straightforward play for Joseph at the beginning of the book.

    In a society where lust often has serious social ramifications, what's the deal with these women? Lady Booby, at least, has a lot to lose. That should tell us a lot about how tempting Joseph is, first and foremost. But Fielding is also totally making fun of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, where the virtuous heroine tries to withstand a lot of unwholesome male attention. It's as if Fielding is saying, "Hey, this is the eighteenth century: everybody's got sex on the brain. Some of us just deal with it better than others."

    Of course, in Lady Booby and Mrs. Slipslop, we do also see these women taking control (if you can call it that) of their sex lives in a way that isn't totally typical—or representative—of eighteenth-century life. If Lady Booby really pulled a stunt like seducing Joseph, she probably would have some major consequences to face up to—if anybody ever found out, anyway.

    Questions About Lust

    1. Is Lady Booby's lust for Joseph about more than just finding him attractive? Why might she take this risk? How much of a risk is it?
    2. Is Joseph lustful toward Fanny, or is he totally pure? Is Fanny lustful toward Joseph?
    3. Is there a class difference in terms of how lust is expressed?

    Chew on This

    Mrs. Slipslop stops lusting after Joseph because she realizes he's the key to manipulating her mistress.

    Unlike most things in the novel, lust isn't regulated by desire for social status.

  • Violence

    For a comedic book, there's an awful lot of violence in Joseph Andrews. Between Parson Adams and his crabstick and Joseph and his cudgel, we wouldn't want to mess with this crew. While we'd like to see these dudes as the defenders of justice, Adams is often the one to throw the first punch. Like, does he really need to deck the grumpy innkeeper?

    We could see this two ways. Either Adams harbors a lot of inner rage that he's letting out, or he really does believe in the principles he advocates. (Good thing he doesn't advocate for violence, right?) We're going with the second option. Usually, the fights Adams gets in have to do with sticking up for his friends or being slighted by someone rude. Surely, we can forgive him that much.

    Questions About Violence

    1. When does Joseph engage in violence?
    2. Why does Parson Adams rely so heavily on his crabstick?
    3. Why are there three separate episodes of violence that directly concern Fanny?
    4. Who are more violent in this book: Joseph and his crew or the random strangers who accost them?

    Chew on This

    Joseph learns to strike first after being unexpectedly robbed his first day on the road.

    Fanny never resorts to violence, but she does figure out strategies to protect herself.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    For all the smart cookies lurking around in Joseph Andrews, there's also plenty of foolishness and folly to go around. Though Lady Booby (that name!) comes close, we're gonna say that Parson Adams wins the prize for most foolish of all. (Perhaps he's earned some fool's gold?) His appearance certainly does some of the work for him: with that cassock and ridiculous wig, certain folks find it hard to take him seriously. But then, on top of that, he has to go around quoting the most ridiculous, obscure texts, just to make himself look extra foolish.

    If we learn anything from Parson Adams, it's that foolishness and wisdom aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. The good Parson has plenty of life lessons to impart to his young friends, and they'd be missing out if they dismissed him as a total fool… even if he does look pretty funny rolling down that hill.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Why does Parson Adams make such a satisfying fool figure?
    2. Is Joseph foolish for not understanding Lady Booby's intentions, or is he purposefully playing dumb?
    3. Are Lady Booby and Slipslop foolish for persisting with Joseph, or might they have had more luck in different circumstances?
    4. Does the book have a thesis about what makes a fool?

    Chew on This

    Foolishness isn't the worst thing in the world in Joseph Andrews. In fact, everyone's a bit of a fool.

    All of the mistakes made by Parson Adams end up advancing the plot of the book.

  • Charity

    According to Fielding, Adams is the very model of Christian charity. What exactly does that mean in Joseph Andrews? Well, we definitely get to see how Adams sticks to his principles and doles out his minimal wealth to anyone who asks. More importantly, we see what a great influence Adams is on everyone around him. Joseph is generous at the start of the book, but that's largely because he grew up with Adams as a dad figure. (Parson Trulliber is probably more characteristic of the average character in Joseph Adams… which means that he's totally unconcerned with anyone else's well-being.)

    Hey, it's a tough world out there, but somebody's gotta be the good guy.

    Questions About Charity

    1. Is Adams the most charitable person in the book, or does someone else compete for the title?
    2. How does Adams envision charity? Does it differ from anyone else's version of it in the book?
    3. Are the innkeepers, generally speaking, charitable or uncharitable?

    Chew on This

    Even though Joseph should be looking out for number one, we can't help but applaud his charitable ways.

    Everyone in Joseph Andrews bestows some kind of charity on Joseph and his pals, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

  • Courage

    You can talk a big game, but it all comes down to whether or not you'll face up to danger when it comes. In Joseph Andrews, that's the message Parson Adams tries to pass on to Joseph—and just about anyone who'll listen. Adams's conversation with the hunter shows that courage is hard to come by, especially when scary situations call for immediate action. The hunter skedaddles seconds after hearing Fanny yell, while Adams heads straight towards the screams. Who's got the courage this time?

    Courage is often called for in startling situations. Joseph might not consider himself the bravest guy, but he jumps to defend Fanny no matter what. Adams gets a lot of his courage from his trusty crabstick, but let's face it: his fists could cause even the bravest warrior to tremble.

    Questions About Courage

    1. How does Adams define courage?
    2. When does Joseph begin to develop courage? Is part of Joseph's education about courage?
    3. Is having courage always beneficial, or does it get certain characters in trouble?

    Chew on This

    Adams's courage is rooted in his inability to fully comprehend danger. He's like the original Braveheart.

    Joseph's entire journey requires the kind of courage that can't be backed up by fists. In other words, he's brave to attempt new things.

  • Society and Class

    Society is just one more thing that Joseph is oblivious about—but just because he's clueless about crumpets and tea doesn't mean that everyone else is, too. Lady Booby, for one, is certain she can have her way with Joseph as soon as he figures out the (ahem) benefits of living the upper-class life. Mr. Wilson, on the other hand, learns the hard way that his class position won't shelter him from the seedy side of London.

    So even if Joseph isn't aware that he's navigating a complicated social system, it definitely influences everything he does. For example, while the hoity-toity folks of Joseph Andrews gallivant around the countryside in coaches, they're not often eager to share those coaches with a footman—handsome as he might be. The great epic of the road has everything to do with the fact that Joseph's class limits the spaces he can access.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What is Joseph's class status? Why does this matter?
    2. What is so unbearable about Joseph sharing a coach with an upper-class lady?
    3. If Joseph ended up marrying Lady Booby as a footman, what kind of an impact would this have on Lady Booby's social status?
    4. Why is Mr. Wilson, a gentleman, kind to a bunch of random lower-class travelers?

    Chew on This

    As a religious figure, Parson Adams has access to more spaces than someone like Joseph does. Even though he might not be privileged or wealthy, he delivers a service that the privileged and wealthy value.

    The open road is one of the only spaces where the rich and poor collide.

  • Family

    Our boy Joseph might as well be singing that Sister Sledge song about family. Yeah, he's that proud of his darling sister, Pamela. He should be: she was a big-time celebrity in the eighteenth century. But when that strawberry-shaped birthmark shakes things up at the end of the book, Joseph has to deal with having everything he knows about family ripped out from under him.

    That's not to say everything is bad. Joseph gains a pretty nifty new father in Mr. Wilson, plus an inheritance that would make Paris Hilton blush. Most importantly, he gets to maintain a family connection to Pamela—after all, she's now revealed to be Fanny's sister. Following us so far? Family is always complicated in Joseph Andrews, but it's always portrayed as a positive force in our fave characters' lives.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why does it matter that Joseph maintains a family connection to Pamela?
    2. Why don't we hear much about Fanny being an orphan? Does Joseph care that she's parent-less (at the beginning)?
    3. How does Parson Adams advocate family values?
    4. Do Sir Thomas and Lady Booby consider their servants as family?

    Chew on This

    The people who care most about family in Joseph Andrews are not interested in how family connections can improve social status.

    Parson Adams is a sort of father figure to Joseph.

  • Manipulation

    Everyone in Joseph Andrews seems to want something from our poor hero, and few of them have any qualms about resorting to shady tactics. Parson Adams and Fanny Goodwill may be on the up and up, but basically all of the minor characters justify messing with Joseph's head in order to get at their baser desires: sex for Lady Booby, Mrs. Slipslop, and Betty, and money for just about everyone else.

    So, is Joseph really as gullible as he seems? We'd say that he's at least a little wise to the ways of the road. It's better to be underestimated than totally predictable, after all.

    Still, he's pretty gullible.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Everyone wants to manipulate Fanny, but does anyone succeed?
    2. Why does Lady Booby wait to make her move until after Sir Thomas's death?
    3. Are the innkeepers honest folk trying to make a buck, or are they ripping off Joseph and his friends?

    Chew on This

    Joseph's commitment to purity stumps all the ladies who are trying to manipulate him.

    Lady Booby realizes early on that Joseph can't be manipulated.