Printer Friendly

"O Vanity!" Fielding's other antisocial affectation.

The narrator's uncharacteristically emphatic apostrophe to vanity in Joseph Andrews suggests that Fielding is worried--worried about how vanity affects his readers and worried about what they, like his characters, may unknowingly do in its service:

O Vanity! How little is thy Force acknowledged, or thy Operations discerned? How wantonly dost thou deceive Mankind under different Disguises? Sometimes thou dost wear the Face of Pity, sometimes of Generosity: nay, thou hast the Assurance even to put on those glorious Ornaments which belong only to heroick Virtue. Thou odious, deformed Monster ... The greatest Villanies are daily practised to please thee ... All our Passions are thy Slaves. (1)

Readers familiar with Joseph Andrews may recall that Henry Fielding begins his novel with a meditation on affectation, carefully separating vanity from hypocrisy as two causes of affectation, and emphasizing hypocrisy's "violent Repugnancy." Joseph Andrews presents hypocrisy as "an Endeavour to avoid Censure by concealing our Vices under an Appearance of their opposite Virtues." Vanity, on the other hand, deceives us by concealing our vices from us as virtues. It is clear why "these two Causes are often confounded"; however, as "they proceed from very different Motives, so they are as clearly distinct in their Operations: for indeed, the Affectation which arises from Vanity is nearer to Truth than the other; as it hath not that violent Repugnancy of Nature to struggle with, which that of the Hypocrite hath" (8). Because hypocrisy is the practice of conscious deceit in social relationships, the narrator ridicules and castigates hypocrites for what are consciously villainous acts. It is an evil that knows itself to be so, yet it persists nevertheless. Fielding, therefore, rates hypocrisy higher than vanity; this prioritization, however, doesn't negate the very real concerns he raises about vanity. I am interested in exploring what is less recognized about Fielding's fictional works, both in Joseph Andrews and beyond: his critique of self-deceit in the form of vanity and the way it too creates problems of sociability.

Vanity poses a significant moral and epistemological problem for characters in Fielding's fiction. While it is a commonplace that the vain cannot perceive their own vanity, Fielding puts pressure on this observational bias by asking questions about how vanity affects the processes of our understanding. The broad outline of influence that the narrator of his Joseph Andrews proposes is not encouraging. It is the self-deceptiveness of vanity that troubles Fielding the most, and with good reason, for self-deception indicates that our participation in "villanies" is not strictly consensual, nor is our moral understanding reliable. Fielding believes people want to be virtuous but are encumbered in that pursuit by an unacknowledged, self-interested syllogism: our judgment is "deformed" such that we believe we act virtuously because we are inclined to understand our actions to be so. We don't consider ourselves villains or our actions "odious"; instead, we act assured that we are moral, even "heroick," without any external, verifying standard of meaning for these categories. The deceptions of vanity are problematic not merely because we end up acting in immoral ways that we do not recognize, but also because they corrupt how we think, disabling our ability to make clear or accurate judgments. Fielding therefore suggests that we exist in a paradoxical condition in which our best impulses to be moral, sociable, and good-natured are inverted by an inveterate, enslaving, and invisible predisposition to be the opposite.

In these terms, vanity is a complex epistemological problem with deep implications for how we understand our world and participate in it. Fielding explains that vanity is fundamentally the pursuit of adulation or "applause" from others, a pursuit that overrides our critical faculties; it "puts us on affecting false Characters," persuading us that we are other, better, than we are (JA, 8). This deception extends from our character to the character of our thoughts. And, because we enjoy the flattery of these ideas, including the belief that we are astute thinkers, we are disinclined to question our convictions and rather more inclined to defend them tooth and claw. Our thoughts are colored with a seductive self-certainty that grants our opinions a semblance of truth. Moreover, our certainty emboldens us to force these opinions on others and hear no dissent, turning innate virtuous impulses into enthusiastic crusades and misanthropic tragedies.

Questions of morality and understanding are familiar territory to Fielding scholarship, yet they are frequently approached with a view to articulating how Fielding attempts to indoctrinate his reader into specific moral doctrines. Arguments, beginning with Wolfgang Iser's exploration of Fielding's relationship to his readers, focus on describing the means by which Fielding persuades his "implied reader" towards "the correct mode of conduct," as well as the particulars of that conduct itself. (2) More recently, scholars such as Nicholas Hudson have complicated this pursuit, arguing that Fielding lures readers into a false sense of self-understanding and intellectual superiority within an implied "'hierarchy' of readers," in which they believe that they arrive at meaning autonomously, but all the while are coerced into the narrator's rarefied "dictates of benevolence." (3) Teaching by precepts, however, is a method Fielding himself frequently criticizes as unproductive and unreliable due to the idiosyncrasies and nuances of human understanding. He illustrates this unreliability, for example, in the youthful education of his antihero Jonathan Wild. Wild, "a passionate Admirer of Heroes, particularly Alexander the Great," engages with "Classical Authors" idiosyncratically (though, ironically, with perhaps justice to the texts) to construct the principles of violence and greed. (4) Similarly, with the disparity of moral understanding exhibited by characters who have received the same preceptual instruction, such as Blifil and Tom Jones, Amelia and Betty Harris, or Joseph and Pamela Andrews, to name a few, Fielding illustrates that texts presumed to advocate and inculcate one correct morality can be interpreted in ways diametrically opposed to the preceptual intention.

Critical arguments concerning the status of morality and understanding in Fielding's works, I believe, have proceeded without taking into account the complex nature of Fielding's own conception of human understanding, taking for granted, as Iser and Hudson do, that Fielding presumes such "dictates" or "correct modes of behavior" exist, or that human understanding is adequate to identify them. A full exploration of how Fielding conceptualizes the relationship between vanity and understanding suggests the untenableness of this position. As I will argue, in fact, Fielding identifies the tendency of human thought to abandon itself to these moral pursuits as a considerable threat to human sociability and private virtue. Fielding insists, "it is much easier to make good Men wise, than to make bad Men good." (5) His fictions, I claim, are not coercive invitations to any privileged set of beliefs the author may hold, but an attempt to unfold for the reader the ways by which vanity quietly distorts human understanding into such privileged moral commitments in the first place. By liberating human understanding from the influence of vanity, Fielding doesn't force men to be good, but enables them to follow their inclination to be so undeceived.


Vanity's influence is perhaps nowhere more evident in Fielding's fictions than where it would seem least likely: with his "Character of perfect Simplicity" and benevolence, Parson Adams (JA, 10). Narrative glimpses into Adams's psychology trace the complex influence of vanity on the understanding and its potential social consequences: "if this good Man had an Enthusiasm, or what the Vulgar call a Blind-side, it was this: He thought a Schoolmaster the greatest Character in the World, and himself the greatest of all Schoolmasters, neither of which Points he would have given up to Alexander the Great at the Head of his Army" (JA, 232). Parsing his train of thought, Adams ultimately concludes that he is the greatest of all great characters. Ironically, the parson maintains in earnest, "I have never been a greater Enemy to any Passion than that silly one of Vanity," an irony that is further intensified by his immediate desire to read aloud from "a Sermon, which he thought his Master-piece, against Vanity." The dissonance between the parson's actions and beliefs affirms his interlocutor Wilson's opinion that "Vanity is the worst of Passions, and more apt to contaminate the Mind than any other" (JA, 214). Adams's opinion is clearly self-interested, yet the parson himself is nevertheless "blind-sided." Assured of the objective truth of his convictions, Adams boldly universalizes them as true for all times and places, as his fantastical agon with the Macedonian Alexander the Great implies. Yet, because vanity masquerades as truth, the parson cannot see the connection between the passion and his passionate devotion to the principle.

Fielding's characterization of Adams's thoughts as an "enthusiasm" translates what had been considered a religious deviance into a fully secular and empirical context. In terms of religious belief, Locke explains enthusiasm as a seduction by our own ideas merely on the grounds that they are ours: "Though founded neither on reason nor divine revelation," enthusiasm works "more powerfully on the persuasions and actions of men than either of those two, or both together: men being most forwardly obedient to the impulses they receive from themselves." Fielding extends Locke's observation on religious opinion to all opinions by identifying a singular, innate cause--vanity--a shift which implies that any opinion has the potential to become enthusiastic. For Adams, the superiority of schoolmasters is not a reasoned or debatable proposition; rather, it is a conceit that in Locke's terms "flatters many men's laziness, ignorance, and vanity." Enthusiasts "are sure, because they are sure: and their persuasions are right, because they are strong in them ... they serve them for certainty in themselves." (6) Fielding's constellation enhances this formula by explicating the imbrications of certainty in the persuasions themselves with the persuasiveness of self-certainty. Simply put: vanity begets unreflecting enthusiasm, religious or otherwise.

Adams's keenness to defend his beliefs against "Alexander the Great at the Head of his Army" illuminates the intense, intoxicating power of enthusiasm on understanding. These odds seem plainly insuperable for any mere man, let alone a scholar over fifty--even if he does restrain the spitwielding Mrs. Tow-wouse "with the Strength of a Wrist, which Hercules would not have been ashamed of" (JA, 85). These heroic aggrandizements expose the comic inflation of his vain pretensions. Yet, what is ridiculous here also gestures to a more invidious aspect of vain enthusiasm: namely, a tendency towards conflict, violence, and martyrdom that clarifies the underlying antisocial aggression and antagonism vanity encourages. Adams is willing and ready to fight. The case of Adams suggests that enthusiastic convictions have less to do with the quality of the conviction than with the degree to which our "character" is invested in those convictions. This observation is repeated throughout Fielding's texts perhaps most baldly in the quarrel between a country parson, Barnabas, and a surgeon over how best to prosecute a thief who has attacked the hero, Joseph. What at first appears as the rehearsal of a "constant contention between the two doctors, spiritual and physical" unfolds into a very different set of concerns when the narrator identifies both parties as "extremely zealous in the Business" though paradoxically uninterested in either the robbery or justice itself. "To account for this Zeal," the narrator explains that their "sole Motive" is "to display their Parts ... before the Justice and the Parish" in the guise of their intellectual commitments (JA, 68-69). In other words, that which here passionately asserts itself under the antithetical masks of religious and scientific righteousness is, again, simply human vanity.

In isolation, these incidents are comic. Extrapolated as the natural progression of human nature and replicated throughout the public sphere, however, such enthusiasms set the groundwork for an ideological "war of all against all." A vision of human nature thereby materializes in which any proposition or opinion may potentially take an enthusiastic turn and become militantly sacrosanct, inviting hostile factionalization and confrontation. Fielding is not alone in this bleak vision; nevertheless, he consciously separates himself from the contemporary dialogue engaged in remediating it. While neoclassical authors were preoccupied with the preceptual function of literature, contemporary novelists populated pages with "saints and villains" who "illustrate clean choices" between vice and virtue, and wisdom and folly; both tendencies attempt to regulate and reform how people understand their experience, ascribe moral value, and participate in a sociable world. (7) They construct and enforce unique and totalizing visions from the double surmise that there is such an ideal or correct set of precepts or principles, and that people will absorb them without difficulty. In this way, they express the residue of an Aristotelian ethics in which "human-nature-as-it-happens-to-be ... is initially discrepant and discordant with the precepts of ethics and needs to be transformed by the instruction of practical reason and experience into human-nature-as-it-could-be-if-it-realized-its-telos." (8) The pressure Fielding places on vanity reconsiders these methods as expressions of the very problems of moral psychology they intend to remedy. His example of Adams, a vain pedagogue who is vain of his pedagogy, exemplifies a case in which didactic principles are deformed by the same self-interest as the deformed principles they seek to reform and replace. Moreover, it suggests that there is something paradoxically self-interested and violent endemic to moral projects that attempt to inscribe particular visions of how the world ought to be or people ought to think upon the understanding of others.

Fielding constructs a parallel between the enthusiasms of quaintly absurd opinions such as the Parson's and the larger philosophical and moral projects of his contemporaries, exposing them both as products of vanity's influence on and deception of the understanding. While vanity influences the understanding, the tenor of its influence will vary from person to person, creating a "prodigious Variety" of human nature and generating any number of conflicting enthusiasms (TJ, 32). This insight dismantles the teleology of preceptual remediation in two dramatic ways: first, it suggests that individual experience engenders moral systems and interpretive categories particular to the individual that vanity promotes as absolute and universal. Second, it implies that any moral instruction that relies on precepts or exemplary characters to inculcate systems of belief will be practically ineffectual because of the necessarily recalcitrant vanities of both the instructor and the would-be instructed.


Fielding uses the conventions of utopianism as an optic for examining vanity's tacit and variable influence. In his "Essay on Conversation," he yearns, tongue-in-cheek, for a utopia based on the parity of understanding among those who must socialize: "It would be greatly therefore for the Improvement and Happiness of Conversation, if Society could be formed on this Equality: but as Men are not ranked in this World by the different Degrees of their Understanding, ... [they] must ex necessitate frequently converse, [and] the Impossibility of accomplishing any such Utopian Scheme very plainly appears." (9) Fielding abandons this impossible "Utopian Scheme" because he understands the very nature of society as predicated on the inclusion of various dispositions and perspectives. The wish for such utopian parity would remake society in one of two ways. It would either isolate factions according to ideologies, thereby reinforcing biases by suppressing alternatives, or it would calibrate all minds to understand the same things in the same way: both result in a sociability wherein public conversation is merely reciprocal adulation and affirmation.

Any projected utopia "takes up and refunctions the ancient topos of mundus inversus: [it] is a formal inversion of significant and salient aspects of the author's world which has as its purpose or telos the recognition that the author (and reader) truly live in an axiologically inverted world." (10) Resolving into a dichotomy of ideal and not ideal--of ought and is--utopian thought universally conflates all possible states as wanting and all persons as corrupt. The result is a highly subjective vision of a faultless world disguised as a journey to another place or time affirmed by selective interpretations of present and past experience. Fielding implies that these are not discovered, innate, or natural ideals; they are projections of one's own idealized categories and sense of privileged difference from contemporaries. It follows that utopian fantasies are contingent on homogenizing human understanding so that it reproduces the tacit biases of their authors.

In practice, utopian enthusiasm threatens sociability because it denies the present possibility of productive sociability with a wholesale denunciation of social institutions or of humanity itself--a move that more often than not reflects the subject's own paradoxical view of himself as an ideal or perfect subject, a supposed exception that proves the rule. There are therefore two types of utopia that Fielding addresses in his works, the social and the antisocial, which presume opposite causes for the perceived dystopia of the present. Nevertheless, they arise from the same dysfunctional tendencies of the understanding. In the social utopia, people are perceived as flawed because social and moral institutions are flawed; people therefore can be salvaged, reformed by a change in the ideological structure of their society and its "trickle-down effect" on individual understanding. In the second, the antisocial utopia, humanity itself is considered intrinsically flawed in comparison with an idiosyncratic, idealized standard. It is therefore only in the absence of sociability that a utopia is feasible: a utopia of one. Fielding specifically attacks each of these approaches in Tom Jones as products of the same problem, demonstrating that the utopian curative mode and that which it seeks to cure are symptomatic of the same problematic influence of vanity on the understanding.

Addressing the case of social utopias, the gypsy episode of Torn Jones supplies a traditional utopian travel narrative. Tom and his companion, Partridge, lose their way during a journey; they are isolated in a threatening natural landscape; on the edge of despair, they "discover" an ideal society that succors their immediate needs while providing an idealized foil to normative social behavior and public institutions. Tom and Partridge become lost in a foreboding night forest, only to stumble across a vibrant and welcoming gypsy camp. At face value, the gypsy episode presents an ideal community based on an economy of honor that challenges the corrupt institutions of contemporary Britain, thereby suggesting that modern dysfunction is institutional and conventional, not inherently human. Yet as political allegory, the episode is a particularly unsubtle satire of the contemporary expression of this utopian desire in the form of Jacobitism. Here Fielding disenchants the contemporary fantasy of centralized absolutism into an ideological projection of the enthusiasm that lies at the heart of institutional remediation. It is no idle coincidence, then, that Bonnie Prince Charlie is thought by locals to be wandering the same forest. He is both figuratively and literally proximal to the gypsy king, and, given Partridge's persistent fear of spirits and enchantment, the Prince of Darkness as well--suggesting that there is something diabolical in this "political gypsy-ism." (11)

Fusing the Pretender, the satirized gypsy king, the devil, and all would-be absolute monarchs implies that Tory satires and their royalist cause are similar expressions of vanity. (12) Tory satire "presents an absurd universe in which the assumptions of Quixote--or Achitophel, or Satan--have come true," ironically reproducing the same myopic tendency as the object of its satire by participating in privileged, partisan ideologies of either/or. (13) While utopias such as More's Utopia or Bacon's New Atlantis posit final, singular visions of society as a critical alternative to contemporary institutions, Tory satire presents oppositional utopian schemes as ridiculous dystopias, affirming the sanctity of modern institutions by reducing the would-be utopians to a deviant minority. The norm becomes "utopia-proof" because it is itself aggrandized by a utopian articulation of permanent, universal, and vain principles.

Fielding's critique of utopianism extends beyond specific systems into a denunciation of utopianism as deceptive ideological projection, understanding the utopian eu-topos ("perfect place") to be necessarily ou-topos ("no place"). He explicitly articulates this position in the critique of absolute monarchs as a utopian solution in the gypsy episode: "In reality, I know but of one solid Objection to absolute Monarchy. The only Defect in which excellent Constitution seems to be the Difficulty of finding any Man adequate to the Office of an absolute Monarch" (TJ, 672). If no man can be trusted with absolute power, then no man may justly claim the absolute authority of any judgment as an enduring, universal truth, nor can the currency of ideas, nor their social saturation, nor individual confidence render any set of absolutes more or less true than another; neither can they argue for enthusiastic adherence. The universal pretensions of utopian conventions, utopian schemes, and utopian satires are therefore, on their own terms, dubiously "utopian."

Fielding's treatment of absolute monarchy broadens the utopian critique from principled places to principled persons: utopia is then not only a case of no (perfect) place, but also one of no (perfect) man. From this position, Fielding takes aim at what I call antisocial utopians with the figure of Tom Jones's Man of the Hill, and augments the argument with an attack on neo-Epicurean philosophers. Both groups maintain dichotomies of ideal and un-ideal persons: the antisocial utopian judges himself as ideal and all others as corrupt, while the neo-Epicurean, as Fielding understands him, sees himself and all others as falling short of his absolute standard, permitting vanity of understanding to take priority over vanity of the self. Reprising the Gulliver idiom, Fielding's Man of the Hill travels through a series of what he perceives as dystopias, concluding that all man-made states more or less reproduce the corruption. Fielding is careful to show that this is a self-interested judgment, a nasty example of the extremes of flattering conclusions drawn from limited experience. A handful of disappointing personal relationships conjoined with the denial of private fallibility persuade the Man of the Hill that all men are inherently evil, a judgment that posits an ideal, himself, against which everyone disappoints. His self-privileging I/other categorization biases understanding to the point that the Man of the Hill becomes "warmly" suspicious of the very man who saved his life, considering the well-meaning act as no more than a ruse or knavery to put him off his guard (TJ, 486).

Constructing a utopia of one disposes the Man of the Hill to find evil at the root of all human actions, blinding him to the true nature of his companion and minimizing his own potential for goodwill and good nature. His vanity closes down the possibility of sociability, "taking the Character of Mankind from the worst and basest among them" Fielding characterizes this as a flawed practice "committed by those who, from Want of proper Caution in the Choice of their Friends and Acquaintance, have suffered Injuries from bad and worthless Men; two or three Instances of which are very unjustly charged on all the human Race" (TJ, 485). Contextualizing this tendency as vain foolishness, Fielding argues that vanity encourages people such as the Man of the Hill to deem all men universally evil rather than admit complicity or want of prudence in their own disappointments.

Tom's response to the Man of the Hill's misanthropy makes the influence of vanity on such judgments explicit. "In Truth,' he explains, "None seems to have any Title to assert Human Nature to be necessarily and universally evil, but those whose own Minds afford them one Instance of this natural Depravity." This indictment widens the scope of Fielding's critique beyond the Man of the Hill's solipsism to include such philosophers as Mandeville, La Rochefoucauld, and, as Fielding understands him, Hobbes, who have surmised "that there were no such Things as Virtue and Goodness really existing in Human Nature and who deduced our best Actions from Pride" (TJ, 485-86). (14) These "Finders of Truth" he explains, are similar to unsuccessful gold-finders whose method is "the searching, rummaging, and examining into a nasty Place; indeed ... into the nastiest of all Places, a BAD MIND" The narrator breaks the analogy to push his point by asking, in sharp opposition to the enthusiast, "who ever heard of a Gold-finder that had the Impudence or Folly to assert, from the ill Success of his Search, that there was no such thing as Gold in the World?" (TJ, 268-69). Fielding moves his investigation from results to practice, exposing the efficient vanity of anyone who presumes to truths as solid, real, or valuable as a nugget of gold. Fielding asks, "Why will we not modestly observe the same Rule in judging of the Good, as well as the Evil of others," pointing out that men also clearly have a taste for virtue. Modesty proves to be the hitch; for elaborating from the general "Good" would not personally flatter--it is a problem of judgment wherein "Predominant Vanity is, I am afraid, too much concerned ... This is one Instance of that Adulation which we bestow on our own Minds, and this almost universally" (TJ, 271).


Fielding identifies a methodological symmetry between utopian enthusiasm and moral exemplum literature such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded. By demonstrating their common adherence to precepts and absolutes, he links the perfection of a utopian place to the perfect, utopian type, of which Pamela is exemplary. The externalized ideals of policy and institution that social utopias express relocate, in Fielding's reading, into the interiority of individual adherence to moral truths that Richardson's novel dramatizes. This shift accommodates the emergence of the individual in eighteenth-century thought, moving away from the laws that govern a perfect society to the internalized laws that govern perfect beings. Unlike in the case of an absolute monarch, whose judgment is meant to publicly regulate belief and behavior from the outside, this utopian type exemplifies a moral telos for all mankind and is meant to privately inspire mimesis, working from the inside out.

It is not surprising that Fielding's first major experiments in fiction begin as militant parodies of what he interpreted to be the enthusiastic blindness of Pamela. Fielding understands Richardson's novel as participating in the same false claims to historicity or locality that validate utopian travel narratives as diverse as New Atlantis and Robinson Crusoe, as well as the same tacit enthusiasm. This is amply evident in Mrs. Heartfree's autobiographical episode in Jonathan Wild, during which Mrs. Heartfree unconvincingly represents herself as a Pamela qua Crusoe. Shipwrecked on a savage island, she maintains her personal and protestant virtue, for which the ruler of the local tribe, itself represented as a utopian government, rewards her with a "very rich Jewel, of less Value, he said, than my Chastity" (JW, 175). The episode conflates the ideologies of ideal places and ideal persons, ridiculing both. Fielding sees Richardson's Pamela as just such an idealized person, and little more than the animated projection of the author's own prejudice falsely legitimated with claims of authenticity.

The historicity of Pamela's letters, as well as the objective truth advertised by the lack of narrative mediation and immediacy of composition, suggest that both Pamela and her precepts are disinterested, authentic, and ideal. As a result, readers are theoretically primed to imitate her explicit behavior and attend to the precepts she details at the end of the first part of the novel as well as those "rules, equally new and practicable, inculcated throughout the whole, for the general conduct of life" that string together the plot of the novel's sequel. (15) Fielding exposes the arbitrariness of such precepts with his antihero, Jonathan Wild, who rattles off a list of maxims to aid the reader in achieving "Greatness," which is to say, sociopathic roguery. The payoff Pamela advertises with its message of "Virtue Rewarded" is an eccentric variation of the religious maxim "by his fruits shall you know him" wedded to the doctrine of justification by faith. The labor here is not productive material labor in service of charity as in the theology of works towards which Fielding tends to align himself, but the work of adhering rigidly to a pre-defined paradigm of virtue, internalizing its categories in order to become and remain virtuous for one's own interests. Richardson tends to the same method of idealizing apperception that Fielding identifies as utopian enthusiasm, mediating ought and is through the coercive fiction of an ideal who walks among us.

Fielding's parodies of Pamela attempt to expose the mechanics silently at work in Richardson's didactic novel, making explicit the narrative sham of "Pamela" from her precepts to her stylized presentation. (16) Fielding's objections to Pamela do not concern the historical reality of events per se, or even of a real Pamela. His objection is to how she is bowdlerized by an enthusiastic text, signaling broad concerns about the repression of particulars and their reconstitution through enthusiastic moral categories. (17) He puts pressure on these concerns through the perverse historian of Jonathan Wild, whose exaggerated biases make clear to readers the interpretive problem enthusiasm poses. Wild's historian conceptualizes the world through the categories of the "Great" and the "Good," eventually reducing all experience to a list of general precepts. (18) Narrative enthusiasm begets narrative irony in Jonathan Wild, making explicit the slippage between experience as experience and ideological interpretation of experience. Indeed, just as vanity precludes its own acknowledgement, so too the narrator's use of precepts necessarily precludes recognition of their ironic effect. The narrative infelicity of Jonathan Wild is not evidence that "Fielding's control of characterization, of plot-arrangement, and, above all, of ironic modulation, is clearly not yet sufficiently developed to accommodate such warring complexities or to bridge such debilitating gaps" (19) Instead, Fielding uses these gaps to illustrate the shift between the experience of an event and its enthusiastic interpretation, executing a controlled, ironic representation of someone whose vanity has consumed his understanding. A brief examination of this technique at work in the historian's representation of Mr. Heartfree will illustrate the distinction.

The historian's first description of Mr. Heartfree is plainly incompatible with his later mobilization of the character as "Good" Initially he reports that "This Person has a Regard for our Hero, as he had more than once, for a small Reward, taken a Fault on himself, for which the other, who had more Regard for his Skin than Wild, was to have been whipp'd." Accepting a bribe and suffering the repercussions is behavior hardly commensurate with the ensuing claim that Heartfree "was of that Sort of Men, whom Experience only, and not their own Natures, must inform that there are such things as Deceit and Hypocrisy in the World; and who, consequently, are not at five and twenty as difficult to be imposed upon as the oldest and most subtile" (JW, 50-51). While Heartfree is certainly naive in some respects, he is not constitutionally the martyr that the historian's divide of Great and Good demands. The historian's compulsion to laminate this division over history reveals that it is less Heartfree than the historian who cannot see clearly. The "Good" descriptions of Heartfree progressively intensify throughout the work, from generous in business and a kind family man to a Protestant Socrates of Newgate. The amassing intensity, however, cannot erase or overwhelm the historical fact of corruption in the schoolhouse; to the contrary, the contradictions invite a general suspicion of all types and conventions from the epic hero to the modern rogue, as well as the ideologies that supply them. The ideal type, virtuous or vicious, does not exist off the page for Fielding, and it is the work of narrative technique to make this distinction explicit.

Fielding's critique in Jonathan Wild encompasses all ideological or preceptual categories: the "Great" and the "Good" are just special cases of a wider phenomenon of ideological enthusiasm that programmatically suppresses particularities and forces generalizations. (20) Like Shamela, who (according to Fielding's parody) had been repackaged as the virtuous Pamela, the historian of Jonathan Wild bowdlerizes his representation of Heartfree, retailing him as a paragon of goodness and Wild as walking greatness. The gratuitous dissonance of his vanity raises him to the level of the ridiculous, demonstrating that it is not just the particular categories and precepts, but also the preceptual thinking the historian employs that are ridiculous.


For Fielding, the principal problem is not which categories people use to determine their realities; this is a concern only for enthusiasts who want to ensure the supremacy of their own precepts and thereby remake the world in their own image. Fielding's chief concern is with the unreflecting vanity that animates such determinations. His critique of didactic exemplarity theorizes that the same vanity that makes precepts and categories inadequate for interpreting sensuous experience is also responsible for the inability of reading to assimilate them empirically. The eighteenth century largely understood reading and writing as visual intercourse with image-ideas produced in the imagination, which is to say, indiscernible from the process of vision or any other sensuous faculty in terms of empirical experience. (21) For Fielding, the process of interpretation is just as vulnerable to vanity as any other form of conceptual intercourse.

In the context of the sensuous word, Samuel Johnson's prognosis for didactic fiction articulates a universal theory of empirical causation in which an ideal sensuous experience necessarily produces ideal categories of thought (morals), and ultimately ideal behavior. His belief in the power of realist fiction to regulate experience, therefore, urges authors to proceed with the utmost caution in the scenes, characters, and values presented in novels for all but the most sophisticated audiences: "They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account." (22) The theory suggests that "unfurnished minds" will furnish themselves uniformly under ideal conditions by way of a common or innate mechanical causation in the understanding. This one-to-one correspondence between objective and subjective experience theorizes that everyone who reads about a moral and just world without preconceptions will precisely develop the intended morals. Locke's theory of education shares this mimetic theory of mind, and it is here on the level of innate interpretation that Fielding's moral complication of empiricism distinguishes his project from those of contemporaries and predecessors.

As with Johnson after him, Locke privileges didactic conditioning over explicit precepts, explaining that "a fault in the ordinary method of Education [is] the charging of Children's Memories ... with Rules and Precepts," arguing instead that these rules should be made "habits." (23) Timothy Dykstal contends that "Fielding's last novel, as well as his other works, combine a Lockean faith, or simply hope, in the power of education to perfect human nature," and suggests that Amelia successfully biases the empirical experience of her children towards virtue. (24) This Lockean reading of Amelia supposes that an ideological simulation of experience in which putatively immoral acts are punished and virtue rewarded can fashion children's morality and understanding. Yet in Fielding's own analysis, this method encourages the disjunction of interior motive and external behavior, engendering such antisocial creatures as Master Blifil, whose "Zeal" for adulation from his "worthy Preceptor," Thwackum, results only in enthusiastic corruption (TJ, 133). No. Instead of inculcating morality, preceptual behavioral conditioning only encourages affectation and enthusiastic hostility.

Fielding's analysis obliquely solicits questions that enthusiasts cannot conceptualize, namely: how do we select or whom do we choose to select the correct precepts with which to covertly inculcate the vulnerable? The inquiry redoubles onto the two strands that have run through this discussion so far: the inadequacy of precepts and the vanity of human understanding. The supposition that some one can determine right principles resembles no civic theory as closely as it does the utopian convention of absolute monarchy, intimating a world of would-be moral Leviathans--a proliferation of what philosopher Susan Neiman has described as "the Enlightenment subject as dictator, calling his own pale virtues universal, the better to force them on everyone else." (25) Yet, because of the multiplicity of vain dispositions and their complex manipulations of sensuous experience, such dictatorial maneuvers are always destined to fail, no matter how covert or well intentioned.

Regardless of what well-intentioned people believe, didactic manipulations are manipulations all the same, and presume a power structure orthogonal to democratic sociability. Jill Campbell observes that Fielding's works "return obsessively, with hilarity and with horror, to the idea that people and puppets may turn out to be interchangeable" and that Fielding's metaphor of puppetry is two-tiered. (26) On one level, men are the puppets of their own vanity, which skews their judgment, perception, and actions. On another level, Fielding identifies an unsettling presumption of power at work in the subtle machinations of enthusiasts, who seek to manipulate men like puppets. The power dynamic replicates a relationship of dominance over perception not unlike vanity itself, and similar to what we see in Fielding's villainous characters who manipulate others to serve their own ends. Fielding makes the connection between puppeteers and villains explicit in Jonathan Wild: "A Puppet-show will illustrate our Meaning better, where it is the Master of the Show (the GREAT Man) who dances and moves every thing; whether it be the King of Muscovy, or whatever other Potentate, alias Puppet, which we behold on the Stage" (JW, 124). The "Great" of Jonathan Wild are puppeteers of men, pulling the strings of their enthusiasm; yet, ironically, it is their own vain enthusiasm that compels them to do so. Didactic enthusiasts, by contrast, try to attach strings themselves, which suggests that the only difference between Fielding's two real-world examples of villains--Walpole, his real-life Jonathan Wild, and Whitefield, the spiritual leader of the loathsome Blifil--is the method by which their puppets' beliefs are formed. Both attempt to manipulate people without their explicit consent.

The power dynamics of vanity's relationship with the understanding, and further, the power dynamics between people that vanity inspires, reproduce the topos of slavery explicit in Fielding's apostrophe to vanity: "All of our Passions are thy Slaves" The extension to mannikins and puppets, however, suggests something even more nefarious at work. Enthusiastic belief in individual ideologies escorts an odious cohort, namely, the solipsistic implication that another person is merely a material body, a "Person or Tool to be employed" or manipulated for private pleasure (JW, 124). On this view, "person" is synonymous with both puppet and tool, stripped of interiority and agency; the social model is no longer the war of all against all, but the war of me against those who are wholly inferior and dispensable if not useful--or useful only in their dispensability. In both Jonathan Wild and Tom Jones, Fielding follows innocent characters to the jail where they await execution, unwilling martyrs to another's enthusiasm. In each case, both Jonathan Wild and Master Blifil are insensible of any wrong implicit in sending Heartfree and Tom to hang; rather, their vanities demand it. At the same time, however, these characters progressively lose their own autonomy; they are imprisoned by their zeal. Marching to his own death, Wild is consumed by the tenets of his enthusiasm; rather than consider the life he is about to lose, he uses his last moments to pick the pocket of the executioner. Similarly, when confronted by Tom, whom he tried to send to his death, Blifil proves immune to considerations beyond the future of his material circumstances. Insulated from concepts of personal wrong, he moves so deeply into the recesses of vain subjectivity that he has no concept of a world beyond adulation, progressing to a future of "the pernicious Principles" of Methodism's sanctification by faith and the purchase of a parliamentary seat (TJ, 430). Yet for Fielding to lack the concept of personal wrong is simultaneously to want the concept of the personal. Blifil's corruption in particular exemplifies vanity's innate and ironic potential to dehumanize, to turn men into desperate puppets acting out their vices and follies. Ironically, self-love ultimately effaces the self.

Lest we assume such tendencies are reserved only for the expressly antisocial or villainous characters of his novels, let us recall that even the good-natured hero Tom is prepared to participate in a duel and murder another human being as a sacrifice to his "honour" He is prevented only by the happenstance of narrative or historical contingencies. While the prognosis for unacknowledged vanity is grim, Fielding does not leave his readers without hope. Parson Adams may suggest that vanity is a "silly" passion, but the narrator of Joseph Andrews is less naive, agreeing with Adams's interlocutor, Wilson, that "Vanity is the worst of Passions, and more apt to contaminate the Mind than any other" It is only through Wilson's hard-bought reflections that he reaches this unassuming conclusion, the diffidence of which suggests an aperture of hope in Fielding's study of the mind. In the passage with which I began this study, the narrator continues on to challenge vanity head-on, asserting: "I know thou wilt think that whilst I abuse thee I court thee, and that thy Love hath inspired me to write this sarcastical Panegyrick; on thee; but thou art deceived" (JA, 70). Nevertheless, the quality of this statement is ultimately ambiguous. Optimistically, Fielding may be suggesting that through the self-deprecating act of acknowledging vanity's potency, we can begin to disentangle our thoughts from its grasp. Supporting such a reading is the narrator's diminishment of this coup de grace against the passion, his insistence that "this Digression [is] errant Nonsense: for know to thy Confusion, that I have introduced thee for no other Purpose than to lengthen out a short Chapter" (]A, 70). To this end, I have explored his works as expositions of the ridiculous distance between the perceived and actual motives that encourage us to enthusiastically construct precepts and pursue ideological homogeneity. Such expositions may encourage us to reflect on or laugh at our own vain natures--the first step to moral liberation and clarity of understanding. On the other hand, the narrator's bold declaration of independence from vanity may merely be his own vanity speaking despite itself--in which case he is only further deceived. Fielding's continual emphasis on the good nature of man suggests that he believes it is the former and not the latter, however the narrative ambiguity invites questions about the nature and source of the narrator's judgment. And it is fitting that it should be so, as Fielding's novels ultimately advise his eighteenth-century readers patiently to consider the quality and source of ideas before trusting in them, whether they are a didactic novelist's or their own.

Rutgers University


(1) Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews, ed. Martin C. Battestin (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan U. Press, 1967), 69. References are to this edition, cited as JA, followed by page number.

(2) Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1974), 36.

(3) Nicholas Hudson, "Fielding's Hierarchy of Dialogue: 'Meta-Response' and the Reader of Tom Jones," PQ 68 (1989): 177, 182; Also, see Patricia Meyer Spacks, Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self(U. of Chicago Press, 2003), 36.

(4) Henry Fielding, The History of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild, in Miscellanies, vol. 3, ed. Hugh Amory (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan U. Press, 1997), 15-16. All references are to this edition, cited as JW, followed by page number.

(5) Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, ed. Martin C. Battestin, 2 vols. (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan U. Press, 1975), 8. All references are to this edition, cited as TJ, followed by page number.

(6) John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 699, 700.

(7) Liz Bellamy, Commerce, Morality, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (Cambridge U. Press, 1998), 63; J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels: The Cultural Context of Eighteenth-Century Fiction (New York: Norton, 1992), 232.

(8) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, IN: U. of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 53.

(9) Henry Fielding, Miscellanies, vol. 1, ed. Henry Knight Miller. (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan U. Press, 1972), 142.

(10) Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (Yale U. Press, 1979), 37.

(11) Martin C. Battestin, "Tom Jones and his 'Egyptian Majesty': Fielding's Parable of Goverment," PMLA 81 (1967): 71.

(12) See discussion of Tom as a parody of the Pretender, in Michael McKeon, The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1987), 418.

(13) Ronald Paulson, Satire and the Novel in Eighteenth-Century England (Yale U. Press, 1967), 57.

(14) To this end, the editors of the Wesleyan edition have noted that Fielding "warmly denounced the views of those 'Political Philosophers' who followed Hobbes ... in representing human nature as 'depraved and totally bad'" (TJ, 268).

(15) Samuel Richardson, Pamela H, in Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, ed. Ernst Rhys, 2 vols. (London: Dent, 1958), 2:vii.

(16) See Shamela's writing in the "present tense" in Henry Fielding, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, Shamela, and Occasional Writings, ed. Martin C. Battestin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008), 164.

(17) See McKeon, Origins, 394-95, for a discussion of Shamela as Pamela "unbowdlerized."

(18) See Richardson's maxims on wifely duty, (Pamela 1:467-71), as well as maxims of "Greatness" in JW 191-92, 82-86.

(19) Claude Rawson, Henry Fielding and the Augustan Meal under Stress (London: Humanities Press, 1991), 241.

(20) The figuration of Walpole as Jonathan Wild is well established; however, it is worth considering how the Licensing Act of 1737 corresponds to the bowdlerizing principles expounded by the historian. See Thomas Raymond Cleary, Henry Fielding, Political Writer (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier U. Press, 1984), 193.

(21) For a broad historical narrative of theories of reading in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain, see Adrian Johns, The Nature of the Book (U. of Chicago Press, 1998), chap. 6.

(22) Samuel Johnson, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, 8 vols. (Yale U. Press, 1969), 2:21.

(23) John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, ed. John W. and Jean S. Yolton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 120.

(24) Timothy Dykstal, "The Habits of Highly Effective People" Eighteenth-Century Genre and Culture: Serious Reflections on Occasional Forms, ed. Dennis Todd and Cynthia "Wall (Newark: U. of Delaware Press, 2001), 117.

(25) Susan Neiman, Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-Up Idealists (Princeton U. Press, 2008), 212.

(26) Jill Campbell, Natural Masques: Gender and Identity in Fielding's Plays and Novels (Stanford U. Press, 1995), 13.
COPYRIGHT 2010 University of Iowa
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Holm, Melanie D.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2010
Previous Article:Did Defoe write Roxana? Does it matter?
Next Article:Authors unformed: reading "beauties" in the eighteenth century.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |