Morality in Henry Fielding's novels

by Catherine Cooper
I have always thought love the only foundation of happiness in a married state . . . and in my opinion all these marriages which are contracted from other motives are greatly criminal . . . To deny that beauty is an agreeable object to the eye . . . would be false and foolish . . . But to make this the sole consideration of marriage, to lust after it so violently as . . . to reject and disdain religion, virtue and sense . . . is surely inconsistent . . . either with a wise man or a good Christian  

Although Henry Fielding (1707-1754) wrote many literary works I am going to deal mainly with his major novels, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Amelia, and his shorter satirical work Shamela. All of these works contain a strong moral message, but the moral message is not entirely consistent, and is presented in various ways.

One of Fielding's main concerns was the question of marriage. His ideas on marriage are concisely summed up by Allworthy in his sermon on matrimony:

I have always thought love the only foundation of happiness in a married state . . . and in my opinion all these marriages which are contracted from other motives are greatly criminal . . . To deny that beauty is an agreeable object to the eye . . . would be false and foolish . . . But to make this the sole consideration of marriage, to lust after it so violently as . . . to reject and disdain religion, virtue and sense . . . is surely inconsistent . . . either with a wise man or a good Christian.

Although this sermon mainly condemns marriage for reasons of lust, Fielding more commonly condemns marriage for reasons of financial gain or social elevation.

The way in which Fielding conveys his philosophy of marriage is different in all four works, and the virtuousness of the virtuous is variable. However, the basic message is fairly consistent.

Joseph Andrews

Of the works mentioned, Joseph Andrews contains the most virtuous and idealised couple; Joseph and Fanny, even if they are somewhat unrealistic. Joseph is tempted by both Lady Booby and Mrs Slipslop and refuses the advances of each of them, remaining constant in his chaste devotion to Fanny. The chastity of their love is constantly emphasised and admired by Fielding, and they are rewarded for their virtuousness with eternal happiness (it is heavily implied). Fielding writes of their union thus:

Joseph remains blessed with his Fanny, whom he doates on with the utmost Tenderness, which is all returned on her side.

As well as maintaining their spiritual happiness, their financial problems are solved by Mr Booby's 'unprecedented generosity' in giving Fanny a gift of two thousand pounds.

Their blissful life is contrasted with the life of Lady Booby who married for financial gain. She obviously has little or no affection for her husband, which is indicated by the fact that she attempts to seduce Joseph at the beginning of the novel, and it is reiterated by Fielding at the end of the novel in these words:

As for the Lady Booby, she returned to London in a few days, where a young Captain of Dragoons, together with eternal parties at cards, soon obliterated the memory of Joseph.

This also suggests that her lifestyle is now rather banal and tedious in comparison to the married idyll of Joseph and Fanny.

Tom Jones

Tom Jones is not presented as such a virtuous character as Joseph, and is thus perhaps more credible. Tom and Sophia have more problems to overcome than did Joseph and Fanny; the worst that the latter couple had to cope with was the brief scare that they may be brother and sister. Tom is illegitimate and wishes to marry above himself, which, at the time, would have meant the lady sinking to the social level of her husband. The fact that she is willing to suffer this consequence illustrates that she is marrying purely for love.

Although Fielding consistently condemns sex outside marriage, he does he not despise illegitimacy. This is made evident through Allworthy's words:

however guilty the parents might be, the children were certainly innocent

Fielding's belief that personal qualities are more important than social standing, and his admiration for characters who share his belief, are made clear through Sophia's description of Tom:

So brave, and yet so gentle; so witty, yet so inoffensive; so humane, so civil, so genteel, so handsome. What signifies his being base born, when compared with such qualifications as these?

As I have previously mentioned, however, Tom is not such a perfect picture of morality as Joseph Andrews. Tom is tempted and fails to resist. He is seduced by Molly Seagrim, but it is important to note that he stayed away from her for three months before succumbing because he did not like the idea of corrupting a young woman, particularly the daughter of a friend. This small fact is illustrative of Fielding's idea about which he writes in Works X1V[1]

that very early and strong inclination to good or evil, which distinguishes different dispositions in children, in their first infancy.

However, he continues to write that although someone is basically good or bad they are also influenced by their passions, which can cause a lapse in a good person. This type of ruling by the passions did not occur for the virtuous characters in Joseph Andrews, but is relevant to Booth in Amelia, so this could be regarded as an inconsistency in Fielding's morality. He does not acknowledge temporary lapses in Joseph Andrews, whereas in the later novels, he does, possibly for the sake of more realistic and rounded characters.

In both of Tom's yieldings to temptation, he is portrayed to the reader as a victim. This is particularly notable in his liaison with Miss Waters. The aggressiveness with which she launches her seductive attack on Tom is described in terms of 'the fair conqueror' using her 'whole artillery of love' and the eventual unmasking of:

the royal battery, by carelessly letting her handkerchief drop from her neck.

Fielding makes it clear that he does not condone Tom's yielding to his temptations, but he does not entirely condemn it because it is so clear that he was a victim. In Joseph Andrews he seems to suggest that yielding to temptation even once is sinful, but this is only alluded to by the fact that neither Joseph nor Fanny fall from their path of morality. Fielding excuses Tom's behaviour thus:

a single bad nut no more constitutes a villain in life than a single bad part on the stage

He obviously believes that in these instances Tom has been led by his passions rather than his basic nature, and so may be forgiven.

Like Joseph, Tom is eventually rewarded with a happy marriage and financial security, despite the fact that Tom has not been as virtuous as he could have been and Sophia has defied her parents in their wish for her to marry Blifil. The important thing for Fielding is that Tom is basically a good person and Sophia defied her father out of love for Tom, as defying the wishes of parents is not an action of which Fielding would otherwise approve.

Their happy marriage is contrasted with other much less harmonious marriages in the novel, such as Squire Western's marriage to a pathetic woman whose father set up the marriage for financial gain. Western regards his wife as a servant and believes himself to be a good husband on the grounds that:

he seldom swore at her (perhaps not above once a week) and never beat her.

Another more vivid example of an unhappy marriage as a consequence of avarice is the marriage between Bridget and Blifil. Blifil, like Western, sees his wife as a domestic utility. Their only pleasure within their marriage is derived from tormenting each other. The only factor which sustains Blifil in his marriage is the hope of eventually inheriting Allworthy's estate, however, Blifil dies prematurely, and so never inherits. Once again, Fielding ensures that a couple who married for the wrong reasons live and die miserable.

It thus seems that in Tom Jones the theme of marrying for love rather than gain remains, but it is presented more realistically than in Joseph Andrews and the characters are allowed small slips without being entirely condemned.


Amelia differs from the two novels previously mentioned in that it does not deal primarily with the problem of courtship and pre-marital resistance to temptation, but rather with problems within marriage. Previously, the reader has been left at the end of the novels with the impression that the couples will live in peace and harmony and fidelity for the rest of their lives, having already overcome their various problems, whereas in Amelia the marriage is clearly not trouble-free.

Amelia and Booth, like Tom and Sophia, have to deal with the problem that they are of different social standing. Similarly, it is once again the parents rather than the couple who object to the discrepancy in class, so Fielding continues the idea that that defiance of parents is allowable if it is a necessity for personal happiness.

Amelia is a similar character to Joseph, in that she is tempted but never yields. She is pursued by Bagillard and James, spurns them both and suffers in silence. Her constant fidelity causes Booth's liaison with Miss Matthews to be seen by the reader as particularly reprehensible. However, Amelia forgives him, as both Sophia and Fielding forgave Tom for his wrongdoing. It must however be noted that Booth appears virtuous compared to the villains of the novel such as James and Trent, and so receives less harsh judgement from the reader.

Once again Fielding brings unhappy marriages into the novel, but in this instance they do not create such as dark contrast as in the previous novels because the marriage of Amelia and Booth is far from idyllic. James and Miss Booth are married for reasons of lust on his side and monetary gain on hers, James soon realises his foolishness and grows to hate his wife more each day. Mrs James even agrees to act as her husband's procuress in his attempts to seduce Amelia in order to avoid being banished to the country by her husband, which adequately shows both her lack of morals and lack of affection for her husband. The marriage does not last and James returns to Miss Matthews whilst Mrs James, like Lady Booby, immerses herself in the trivial world of card-playing.

In contrast, Amelia and Booth eventually sort out their problems, Booth becomes a Christian and Amelia's inheritance is restored. Their happiness appears to be a reward for Amelia's virtue and tolerance and Booth's repentance. Booth has 'sinned' more than Tom and yet is still forgiven. As Fielding progresses in his literary career, he appears to become more aware of and more tolerance to human foibles.


Shamela contains a similar moral message but it is presented in an entirely different way, and also deals more directly with hypocrisy than with motives for marriage. Hypocrisy and feigned virtue had been touched on in previous novels through characters such as Mrs. Slipslop, but it is in this work that Fielding deals with it most comprehensively. Fielding wrote Shamela in opposition to Richardson's recently-published Pamela, in which the heroine is held up to be admired as a perfect model of virtue. However Fielding's idea of virtue clearly differs greatly from that of Richardson. Richardson appears to consider virtue to consist mainly of chastity, which Pamela retains, but she uses her chastity and front of virtuousness in order to gain her master for her husband and elevate herself socially. Pamela does not marry for love. The letters of Shamela effectively expose the fact that Fielding did not see Pamela as a virtuous woman, but rather as a calculating conniving creature.

Throughout the novel the key words used by Shamela in her letters are 'feign', 'act' and 'pretend'. Shamela continually tempts her master but pretends to be doing so unwittingly, thus retaining her virtuous image. She resists his advances, but only for the sake of appearing virtuous and hoping to lure him into marriage, rather than for moral reasons. Her false virtue is particularly evident in letter V1 in which she writes to her mother mentioning that Squire Booby had offered to 'touch her under-petticoat'.

Sir, says I, you had better not offer to be rude; well, says he, no more I won't then; and away he went out of the room. I was so mad to be sure I could have cried.

Fielding also makes evident the fact that her 'affections' fluctuate between Squire Booby and Parson Williams according to which is more convenient and advantageous for her at the time. In the true Fielding tradition, she eventually suffers for her lack of morals and for marrying for financial gain. At the end of the novel the letter to Parson Oliver concludes:

P.S. since I writ, I have a certain Account, that Mr Booby has caught his wife in bed with Williams; hath turned her off, and is prosecuting him in the spiritual court.

The presentation of the clergy in this work could be seen as inconsistent with the other novels. Parson Williams is a corrupt man who writes to Pamela:

For I purpose to give you a sermon next Sunday, and shall spend the evening with you in Pleasures which tho' not strictly innocent, are however to be purged away by frequent and sincere repentance.

This Parson provides a great contrast to Abraham Adams who is described thus:

He was besides a man of good sense, good Parts, and good Nature . . . he was generous, friendly and brave to an Excess.

Adams appears to be the realisation of Fielding's perfect clergyman, whilst Parson Williams is the exact opposite. It is difficult to understand why Fielding chose a parson to be a character of vice in Shamela, as previously he has not criticised religion. It is possible Fielding chose a parson merely to make his corruption appear more shocking to the reader.


To conclude, it would seem that Fielding's basic moral messages remained the same throughout these works. His main message is that marriage should always be for love, and this remains constant throughout. He also proclaims the benefits of chastity, but appears to attach less importance to this as his work progresses, and begins to believe repentance to be more important. He appears to become more tolerant of people's weaknesses and more willing to accept that people are sometimes ruled by their passions, which causes them to act in a way which is contrary to their basic moral code. Overall, Fielding conveys his moral messages in a subtle, entertaining and mainly consistent manner.

[1] Golden. Fielding's moral psychology. page 24

Joseph Andrews
Tom Jones

Golden. Fielding's Moral Psychology
Muriel Brittain Williams. Marriage: Fielding's Mirror of Morality
Angela J Smallwood. Fielding and the Woman Question

© Catherine Cooper, April 2001

See also: British and Irish Books on Film >

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