Henry Fielding undoubtedly holds moral views
far-ahead of his times. Morality is an approval of adherence to principles that govern ethical and virtuous conduct.
Fielding was accused of being immoral in his novels. Dr. Johnson called his novels “vicious and corrupting”.
Richardson echoed the “charge of immorality”
against him. Modern critics, however, has justified Fielding and gave him a credit of “an estimable ethical code”
. Strachey declared him a “deep, accurate, scientific moralist”.
Indeed neither “Joseph Andrews”
nor “Tom Jones”
strikes the modern sensibility as ‘low’
either in purpose or in narration. Behind the truthful portrait of life, lies his broad moral vision. His writings are informed by an aim of correcting mankind with laughter
“I have endeavored to laugh at mankind, out to their follies and vices.”
His satire is prompted by the positive and healthy desire to reform
. He not merely presents society, but also criticizes it.
Fielding reacted sharply against the code of ethics as incited by Richardson in “Pamela”.
He feels that Pamela’s virtue is an affectation
and a commodity, exchangeable for material prosperity. Virtue cannot and should not be to chastity alone. Mere external respectability is not morality. For Fielding:
“Chastity without goodness of heart is without value.”
A truly virtuous man is disregardful of material benefits. He is devoid of an affectation which is necessary to avoid for becoming a virtuous man He finds:
“A delight in the happiness of mankind and a concern at their misery, with a desire, as much as possible, to procure the former and avert the latter …”
Fielding’s moral vision is much wider
that Richardson’s. Morality is no longer equated with chastity or outward decorum. It is broad enough to include every aspect of human behaviour. Ones intentions, instincts, motives are equally important in judging a man
Fielding aims to show human beings in various shades of vanity and hypocris
y and it is done ruthlessly and wittily in “Joseph Andrews”.
Hypocrisy is worse than vanity. Morality is concerned with inner truth
according to Fielding. A person of affected behaviour is immoral than an unchaste woman. Fielding exposes the follies, hypocrisy, corruption, affectation and the vices of his so-called society.
The stage-coach passengers, the coachman, the lawyer, the lady, all are models of hypocrisy
. Each refuses to place Joseph in the coach on various excuses exposing their inner lack of worth. “O Jesus”
, cry’d the lady, “A naked man! Dear coachman, drive on”.
A man motivated by selfishness rather than social duty “makes all haste possible”.
Only the poor postilion favours Joseph and gives him his warm coat. The journey undertaken by Joseph and Parson Adams reveals vanity or hypocrisy
at every stage.
It is significant that Parson Adams
jumps with joy at the reunion of Fanny and Joseph. It reflects an ability to sympathize
with other’s feelings. He can feel the joys and sorrows of others as keenly as he can feel his own. Simple, kind, generous and courageous, Adams is the epitome of true feeling and goodness of heart
which is a vital aspect of Fielding’s concept of morality. Adams impulses always prompt him to help anyone in distress
. He saves Fanny’s life two times.
“He is an innocent … so completely sincere in his beliefs and actions that he
can’t imagine insincerity in other; he takes everyone he meets at face-value.”
Kindness achieved supreme importance in Fielding’s moral code. A good and a moral man takes joy in helping others. Fielding says:
“I don’t know a better definition of virtue, than it is a delight in doing good.”
Fielding is as liberal in ridiculing affectation as he is hard on the lack of charity. Adams’ definition:
“A generously disposition to receive the poor.”
The simple test employed to man by Fielding to see check the capability of charity is to ask him for loan. When Parson Adams asks for some shillings to Parson Trulliber, he declares in frenzy:
“I know what charity is better than to give it to vagabonds”.
This shows 18th century’s clergy’s degeneracy reluctant to give some shillings. The rich Parson Tulliber, Mrs. Tow-wouse, Lady Booby and Peter Pounce lacks natural kindness whereas the poor postilion, Betty and Pedler are true Christians, for they are ready to help other man in distress asking nothing in return. But Mrs. Tow-wouse is of opinion,
“A man should die on their hands without the money to pay his bills.”
Fielding is against the prudish morality
which considers sex as an unhealthy and dangerous for human life. He favours a healthy attitude towards sex.
In his view, the restraint of natural impulses leads to unhealthy inhibition which is more immoral. Modern opinion is very close to him. But he does not approve of Lady Booby’s desire for Joseph nor does he favour Mr. Slipslop’s extreme whims. But Betty’s desires spring from a natural heart and feeling. It is worth noticing that Betty is free of hypocrisy. She acts as ordered by her nature.
“She is good-natured generosity and composition.”
Fielding’s concept of religion is linked with his views on morality
and is practical. He does not confine religion to going to church on Sundays only. He criticizes two sorts of ethics
. One who thinks that virtue can exist without religion. In Mr. Wilson’s story, they have no belief in Devine command. They are selfish and unable to resist immoral temptations. The other sort accepts religion but insists that faith is more important than good works
. True religion encourages both faith and good deeds. Parson Adams is the best representative of his ideas.
Fielding’s views on morality are practical, liberal, full of common sense
and free from hypocrisy that the conventional morality preached by many of his contemporaries.. He does not believe in prudish or rigid codes. His concept of human nature is realistic
, tolerant, broad and fairly flexible
. Modern opinion has vindicated the moral vision of Fielding as healthy, wide and practical.