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’ or ‘immoral’ 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.”
Goodness was a preoccupation of the littérateurs of the eighteenth century no less than of the moralists. In an age in which worldly authority was largely unaccountable and tended to be corrupt, Fielding seems to have judged that temporal power was not compatible with goodness. In his novels, most of the squires, magistrates, fashionable persons, and petty capitalists are either morally ambiguous or actively predatory; by contrast, his paragon of benevolence, Parson Adams, is quite poor and utterly dependent for his income on the patronage of squires. As a corollary of this antithesis, Fielding shows that Adams’s extreme goodness, one ingredient of which is ingenuous expectation of goodness in others, makes him vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous world lings. Much as the novelist seems to enjoy humiliating his clergyman, however, Adams remains a transcendentally vital presence whose temporal weakness does not invalidate his moral power. If his naïve good nature is no antidote to the evils of hypocrisy and unprincipled self-interest, that is precisely because those evils are so pervasive; the impracticality of his laudable principles is a judgment neither on Adams nor on goodness per se but on the world.
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.”
Fielding’s novels are full of clergymen, many of whom are less than exemplary; in the contrast between the benevolent Adams and his more self-interested brethren, Fielding draws the distinction between the mere formal profession of Christian doctrines and that active charity which he considers true Christianity. Fielding advocated the expression of religious duty in everyday human interactions: universal, disinterested compassion arises from the social affections and manifests itself in general kindness to other people, relieving the afflictions and advancing the welfare of mankind. One might say that Fielding’s religion focuses on morality and ethics rather than on theology or forms of worship; as Adams says to the greedy and uncharitable Parson Trulliber,
“Whoever therefore is void of Charity, I make no scruple of pronouncing that he is no Christian.”
Fielding aims to show human beings in various shades of vanity and hypocrisy 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 take joy in helping others. Fielding says:
“I don’t know a better definition of virtue, than it is a delight in doing good.”
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.