A critique of class, fashion, and character in Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

Author Henry Fielding
Author Henry Fielding | Source

The Triviality of Class in Comparison With Humanity

In Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews, the importance of fashion recurs throughout the novel. The author examines this concept, and finds that "High People" are "People of Fashion," but that they are not "higher in their Dimensions" nor in "their Characters" (176) than the rest of society. He finds further that the concept of a person of fashion "was originally meant [...] [only as]a Person who drest himself in the Fashion of the Times; and the Word really and truly signifies no more to this day" (176).

These claims, firstly of finding no inherent superiority in people of fashion compared to others, and secondly finding their clothing their only discernable distinction, portray a belief in equality between classes and a condemnation of the belief others hold, that a person of fashion has great "Conception of Birth and Accomplishments superior to the Herd of Mankind" (176).

Furthermore, Henry Fielding seems to view the segregation of classes as a mutual decision made by both sides--the fashionable and those without fashion: "so far from looking on each other as Brethren in the Christian Language, they seem scarce to regard each other as of the same Species" (177), equating the classes in their motive to differentiate themselves and thereby alienate the other.

Henry Fielding weaves these beliefs into his novel, and through a specific scene taking place upon the robbery of the character Joseph, as well as throughout his novel, equates the fashionable with the less fashionable, and both with the further unfashionable in terms of similarly faulty character, and maintains that the only individuals who are superior to the rest are so not because of their class, but because of their willingness to see the humanity in others despite class differences.

The livery of a footman, worn by Joseph andrews before his dismissal from Lady Booby's service.
The livery of a footman, worn by Joseph andrews before his dismissal from Lady Booby's service. | Source

Upon his dismissal from Lady Booby's service, Joseph must turn in his livery identifying himself as her footman in exchange for the livery of a general servant: a frock and breeches.

While Joseph has descended the ranks of servitude, confirmed for all through his change of attire, the master of the Inn in which he first stays partakes him in conversation upon recognition of his livery, although he is described as "being qualified to render himself agreeable to any; as he is well versed in History and Politicks, hath a smattering in Law in Divinity, cracks a good Jest, and plays wonderfully well on the French Horn" (87).

As the inn keeper is described as "being qualified" to be agreeable, it follows that he is qualified to be agreeable to those who would otherwise appear his betters if not for his background, as one need not "be qualified" to talk to ones supposed inferiors.

This point is underscored by his close association with Joseph's late master who was "his very particular and intimate Acquaintance, with whom he had cracked many a merry Bottle, aye many a dozen in his Time" (88). With this ability to closely associate with the gentry class, the innkeeper would not likely have otherwise engaged a servant such as Joseph in conversation regarding the loss of a gentleman, and openly share his sentiments with him, if not for recognition of Joseph's livery which marks him as a servant to that same gentleman.

The importance of social identity by association with the upper classes through the use of their livery is stressed yet again once Joseph leaves the Inn. Upon entering a narrow lane Joseph is held at gunpoint, and robbed of his meager savings by two criminals, which amount to less than two pounds.

However, his money is not the only item of value the two robbers perceive Joseph carries, and both demand he strip off his clothing. As Joseph borrowed them from a former fellow servant and is therefore loath to part with them he replies: "he hoped they would not insist on his Clothes, which were not worth much, but consider the Coldness of the Night" (89). However, the two men seem to be of a different opinion as to their worth and attack him in response, willingly coming to blows in order to rob Joseph of his coat and breeches.

Both beat Joseph until they believed him dead and "they then stript him entirely naked, threw him into a Ditch, and departed with their Booty" (89). It is in this condition he slowly comes back to consciousness and groans as a coach draws near, at which the postillion stops his horses and concludes that "he was certain there was a dead man lying in the Ditch, for he heard him groan" (89).

Perhaps this shows a sense of human concern for the suffering of another, or perhaps the postillion only paused out of curiosity, but no doubt remains as to the coachman's absence of both the former and the later characteristics, as he bids the postillion to "‘Go on, Sirrah, we are confounded late, and have no time to look after dead Men'" (89).

Fielding here has set apart the two individuals as the postillion has the potential capacity for empathy and a desire to help those more unfortunate than himself whereas the coachman is devoid of both; however, as both talk about a "dead man" in contexts showing that they know he lives, they are linked together in absurdity and their intelligence becomes questionable.

Furthermore, as the lady riding in the coach is described as "hear[ing] what the postillion said, and likewise hear[ing] the groan" (89) and then calling out to the coachman to check on Joseph without any reference to her own realization he must not be dead or correcting the other two upon their obvious blunder, it is likewise unknown whether she is their equal in desiring the coachman to observe what she would consider a dead living man.

However, she is more closely equated in this instance with the postillion, who had a similar desire to investigate the situation, and the coachman appears by contrast in an unfeeling and inhumane light as he has no inclination at all to offer any aid except upon the lady's behalf, and therefore sends the postillion to look into the ditch.

The postillion, who upon finding Joseph naked, and therefore without a distinguishing rank, bids the coachman to drive on and leave him.
The postillion, who upon finding Joseph naked, and therefore without a distinguishing rank, bids the coachman to drive on and leave him. | Source

The postillion, upon discovering Joseph in his naked state without his livery to distinguish himself in any way, relates this sight to the others and the lady then acts in a demeanor at odds with her previous supposed interest in Joseph's perilous situation, by exclaiming: "‘O J-sus, a naked Man! Dear Coachman, drive on and leave him" (89). The fact that Joseph has no clothes seems to be held as more important to the lady than the fact that he may be in dire need of assistance.

Much as Fielding's claims that the fashionable view those without fashion as another species entirely, the lady's potential compassion at perceiving another human in distress disappears as thoughts of his nakedness, and therefore complete lack of fashion, apparently render him undeserving of attentions other richly clad youths, with whom she could both relate and identify, would almost undoubtedly enjoy.

In addition, by the lady's urgings to leave Joseph in the ditch where he would likely perish, she has been equated with the robbers who left him for dead in the ditch in the first place. The coachman appears to be on the same level of morality and character as well, as he also initially wished to simply abandon Joseph and leave him for dead.

The difference here is that all four individuals would willingly bring about the demise of Joseph for their own specific reasons: the criminals to easily rob him of his clothing and escape persecution, the coachman because he is behind schedule, and the lady because she cannot tolerate the idea of aiding a naked man, but in the end all believe that their own needs supersede that of another to the extent that his life is rendered irrelevant in comparison.

However, upon the lady's urgings to now abandon Joseph, the gentlemen descend the coach directly, and due to their timing it would seem that this action is in direct defiance to the lady's wishes to abandon Joseph. Seeing the gentlemen, Joseph appeals to them and details the circumstances of his situation, upon which an old gentlemen cries: "‘Robbed! Let us make all the haste imaginable, or we shall be robbed too" (89), showing again a similar willingness as the others have displayed to abandon Joseph in accordance with their own interests.

However, although the coachman, the lady, and now the old gentleman are equated in this aspect, there does appear to be a successively worsening of character in accordance with the order each rejects helping Joseph. The coachman wished to abandon Joseph before anyone with certainty knew that there was in fact a man in the ditch, the lady wished to abandon Joseph once the existence of such a man, albeit naked, was confirmed, and now the old gentleman wishes to abandon Joseph once he knows that not only he exists, but that he was robbed and also nearly mortally beaten.

In this regard, although all are similar, each member of the coach appears slightly worse synonymously with each slight elevation in fashionable society, as the coachman ranks beneath a lady who ranks beneath a gentleman. However, the fact that the robbers, of the lowest class of all as having no possessions of their own except those they must steal from others, were the ones that initially beat and left Joseph for dead defies any general conclusion to be made in favor of the upper classes having worse character or sense of morality than the less fashionable.

In addition, the other gentleman, who studies law, deems that they should not abandon Joseph at all, although for contemptible reasons, complicating matters further. Although he agrees with the rest that he would rather abandon Joseph in the ditch than offer him assistance, and that "he wished they had past by without taking any Notice" (89), his final conclusion to aid Joseph would render him commendable in comparison to the others until his motivations reveal themselves: "that now they might be proved to have been last in his Company, if [Joseph] should die, they might be called to some account for his murder" (89).

Therefore it is only self interest of another kind, specifically that he fears being later held accountable for his present actions by law, in addition to his different proposed handling of Joseph's situation, that define the lawyer as distinct from the others. His character, on the other hand, is as selfish as the rest. Therefore the lawyer calls upon the others' already apparent self interest in order to simultaneously satisfy his own, saying that "he therefore thought it adviseable to save the poor Creature's Life, for their own sakes, if possible; at least, if he died, to prevent the Jury's finding that they fled for it" (89-90).

The lady who maintains that she would alight if Joseph was brought into the coach in his naked state, despite his obvious need of assistance.
The lady who maintains that she would alight if Joseph was brought into the coach in his naked state, despite his obvious need of assistance. | Source

However, this approach has little effect upon the lady, who maintains that if Joseph was introduced into the coach "she would herself alight: for she had rather stay in that Place to all Eternity, than ride with a naked Man" (90). This shows that the lady has such selfishness that she demands to be satisfied despite the consequences that would befall both her and her companions, and that even an appeal to her own self interest is no match for getting what she wants when she wants it, barring Joseph entry into the coach.

Similarly the coachman objects to Joseph's entering his coach as well, not from the desire of ultimately getting his way but from the unwillingness not to profit from Joseph's unfortunate situation. As the lady is a woman of dignity who must not be embarrassed by the sight of a naked man, the coachman is a man of business who must not be called upon for service without compensation for his efforts, and he demands a shilling for the transport of Joseph which both the older gentleman and the lawyer refuse to pay.

This shows a stubbornness and greed in both men but this is compounded specifically in the lawyer, for although both gentlemen who could easily afford to part with a shilling, only the lawyer "was afraid of some Mischief happening to himself if the Wretch was left behind in that Condition" (90) and is therefore the only one to voice any negative consequences at abandoning Joseph. The lawyer has alone insisted that it would be best instead to bring him with them, yet offers no assistance in accomplishing the feat due to his own greed and steadfast refusal to part with any of his own money.

Thereby the lawyer applies to the coachman's sense of fear at being alone held accountable for murder upon the death of Joseph, and now that the coachman is singled out as the man who will bear all the blame and the blame is apparently no longer collective, the lawyer "had a sensible Effect on the Coachman" (90).

In addition to the lawyers efforts, the older gentleman tried a different persuasion of buying the coachman a mug of beer in exchange for Joseph's passage, but only to satisfy his own equally selfish although more absurd goals, "thinking the naked Man would afford him frequent Opportunities of shewing his Wit to the Lady" (90), not because of any legal ramifications.

Therefore, due to the persuasion of the lawyer and the promised reward of beer mentioned by the older gentleman, the coachman relents and allows Joseph to come within his coach: "till partly alarmed by the Threats of the one, and partly by the Promises of the other, and being perhaps a little moved with Compassion at the poor Creature's Condition, who stood bleeding and shivering with the Cold, he at length agreed" (90).

This line, through its diction, underscores just how little regard the coachman felt for Joseph and just how little Joseph's suffering influenced his final decision by listing any compassion he felt for Joseph as coming after the consideration of the words of the lawyer and the lure of a mug of beer. In addition, he is described as being only a "little" moved by Joseph, which is emphasized as very little through the use of italics, not to mention the fact that his lengthy considerations, if they had concerned Joseph in the slightest, would be only extending his misery through the delay.

However, now a new obstacle occurs which prevents Joseph's assent into the coach, and that is his own qualms over appearing naked in front of a lady, and "he absolutely refused, miserable as he was, to enter, unless he was furnished with sufficient Covering, to prevent giving the least Offence to Decency" (90). This draws parallels between Joseph and the lady herself, as both would rather have him remain miserable and at the mercy of the elements than to have him enter the coach and subject her to his nakedness.

The word choice here is interesting as well, as Joseph tries at all costs to give "the least Offence to Decency," or the least offense to the lady, thereby inferring the lady is decent, although for this entire scene she has behaved in a most indecent way to one of Joseph's predicament. It appears that Joseph, as well as the rest of the company, would also avoid sacrificing his own inclinations to behave in a manner appropriate with the current situation, which necessitates strong decisive action in attempts to save Joseph, as opposed to indecision due to matters of convenience that show a disregard for human life.

This regard should bring them together if not for their differences in fashionable society and their inability to thereby empathize or identify with each other, as Fielding concludes to be a problem of the classes as a whole. In this situation of Joseph himself refusing to enter the coach for the same reason as the lady refuses to let him enter, Joseph has been made to appear as equally ridiculous as the lady herself.

However, the words used to describe Joseph are glowing ones which would suggest that such an action on his behalf is one that should be admired instead of ridiculed: "So perfectly modest was this young Man: such mighty Effects had the spotless Example of the amiable Pamela, and the excellent Sermons of Mr Adams wrought upon him" (90); however, one could argue that the diction of calling Joseph's modesty "perfect" and Pamela's effects "mighty" and her example "spotless," as well as the parson's sermons "excellent," creates consecutive overflowing words of praise that appear overdone, in a type of overstatement, for the sake of satire.

This reading of these lines is supported by Fielding's portrayal of the ridiculousness of Mr. Adams especially, who although respected for his character, is often rendered absurd, such as when he loses a battle of biblical verses (168). Therefore to call the pastor's sermons excellent in the same sentence as calling Joseph's modesty "perfect" works to invalidate the claim of one by association with the other. In addition, Pamela later in the novel is introduced as anything other than "amiable" with her inability to be agreeable and accept the wishes of her brother to marry beneath the station she has potentially raised him to through her own marriage.

Although the coachman sits on two warm coats, he does not wish to give either to Joseph and risk them getting stained with blood.
Although the coachman sits on two warm coats, he does not wish to give either to Joseph and risk them getting stained with blood. | Source

Therefore, the situation Joseph has willingly placed himself in is one of absurdity which none of the others initially attempt to rectify, although Joseph does require clothing to fight against the cold in his enfeebled state. The lawyer and the older gentlemen both refuse assistance due to complaints of cold, giving no thought to the conditions Joseph must suffer with no clothing at all in the same conditions, and the older gentleman, now described as "the Man of Wit" says "that Charity began at home" (90), which is a proper cliché and has no bearing on the situation at hand, showing him as a man without wit because wit requires thought and intelligence.

The coachman could not claim to be similarly cold as he actually sat upon two large coats, but refuses to lend either upon fears "they should be made bloody" (90). Whereas the two gentlemen were only selfish in their refusals, claiming their own comfort necessitated the continued use of their own jackets, the coachman's refusal borders on an act of contempt as he refuses a person in great need due to the superficiality of having a coat stained by blood.

That the lady's footman refuses his own jacket for the same reasons as the coachman and this action is approved by the lady, shows both to be equally guilty of contemptible acts themselves; however, as the lady has the only and therefore strongest objection to Joseph's nakedness, other than Joseph himself, and in fact is the reason he must cover up, makes her act of condoning her footman's lack of assistance to Joseph even more deplorable.

At last, it is the postillion, "a Lad who hath been since transported for robbing a Hen-roost, [who] voluntarily stript off a great Coat, his only Garment" (90) and swore that he would rather remain in a shirt than "suffer a fellow-creature to lie in so miserable a condition" (91).

It is then that the postillion has offered Joseph the first act of concern at initially stopping the coach, as well as the last such act upon being the only individual, although surrounded by people of higher rank in fashionable society and therefore with each having less to lose than himself by such an action, to offer Joseph the comfort of his coat. Joseph, as well as each of the others would have "obstinately adhered to his Resolution, [and therefore] must have perished" (90) if the postillion had not come to such a rescue.

Although the postillion is of the lowest rank among the members of the coach, it is not only the upper classes that are greedy and stubborn as the robbers inarguably demonstrated their greed and Joseph inarguably demonstrated his own stubbornness. However, the postillion alone is maintained in this scene as the one character who continually offers Joseph aid, despite his imperfections hinted at by mentioning his robbing a hen-roost, and he is the one character therefore held above the rest in this scene in Fieldings' novel.

What sets him apart is not his class, for reasons previously mentioned, but the fact that he alone dismisses his own comfort and selfish inclinations in favor of helping another human being in distress, and he is the only person who considers Joseph a "fellow-creature" worthy of such rescue. Therefore Fielding makes his final point, through the use of this scene, that all classes are equally condemnable for their failure to see the humanity in society as a whole, and that only the individuals who treat others with the humanity they deserve, regardless of class, are truly superior to the rest.

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