When readers come to JOSEPH ANDREWS--at least outside of a class on the 18th century novel, they usually have heard that this novel by Henry Fielding is funny, sort of an early Keruoac's On The Road. And while it is funny--a closer analogy might be to Hope and Crosby's On the Road films--its less obvious humor lies in its sharp satire, an understanding of which requires a bit of understanding how to place this book in its proper historical and cultural milieu.
To begin with, Fielding wrote JOSEPH ANDREWS when novel writing was still very nearly a brand new genre. The only models he had were from classical antiquity and a few more recent innovators like Swift and Samuel Richardson. Fielding felt that his efforts were so new that he had to justify them, which he did in the often overlooked and unread "Preface" to the book. Reading this preface sheds some much needed light on the genesis of his novel. Fielding notes here that he wrote JOSEPH ANDREWS according to what he saw as the models first used by the classic ancient poetry writers. They wrote mostly poems and epic poems. What Fielding was writing was a genre unknown to them: prose fiction. Fielding thus tries to draw an analogy between what he was writing and what these ancients had written: "Now, a comic romance is a comic epic-poem in prose." Since Fielding clearly saw JOSEPH ANDREWS as a comic romance, it made sense to him that he should follow the strict unities of time and place that the ancients followed in their epic poems. But one often overlooked irony is that this stern self-reminder from his own preface he then abandoned wildly, often, and at the drop of a hat. Thus, for his contemporary audience who had more than a passing acquaintance with classical training, Fielding gets his JOSEPH ANDREWS off with a satirical bang.
The book's plot itself defies explanation. It involves lost heirs, children stolen at birth, secret birthmarks, beatings that somehow leave no bruises: and all these occur fairly early on. The events are so convoluted and over the top that it is difficult to read them or remember them in their listed sequence. Yet, Fielding had good reason to believe that these wildly unbelievable events were precisely what his audiences wanted, since both Swift and Pope were still living and their respective satires much read and appreciated. Fielding chose to write on the book's title page that JOSEPH ANDREWS was "written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes, author of Don Quixote." With that subtle hint, Fielding feels free to allow his hero to go off tilting at every object in his path but windmills. This tilting results in the kind of slapstick humor that most readers mean when they talk about how "funny" the book is. Yet, Fielding knew that humor could and should have a more serious aspect, which he saw as sober satire. For him, as for Swift, satire meant holding society up to a crooked mirror--sort of the kind that one sees at fun houses--and exposing by crooked exaggeration the misdeeds of that society. This concept of sober satire is hinted at in the person of Parson Adams, who also figures prominently right there on the title page with that little note about Cervantes. Parson Adams is Don Quixote reborn. He does ridiculous things for which the reader rightfully laughs at for that. Yet, Parson Adams has a more reflective side too. Though he is betrayed, he forgives. Though he is injured, he holds on to his innocence. And though he is hurt, he laughs. Compare his actions to the half dozen other parsons and what emerges is that these other parsons are licentuous, venal, and downright corrupt. Fielding was concerned with the same worry of every writer from Chaucer to himself: what can the ordinary man hope for when his supposed exemplars of virtue--the clergy--are unvirtuous? Well, in the satirical world of JOSEPH ANDREWS there was a little bit of an otherwise evil world that was evil free. When Fielding's readers laughed at the foibles of Andrews and Adams, their laughter was tempered by the realization that their funny universe was only a hairsbreath away from one was that tragic too.