The Value of Education: Formal and Informal Education in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews

Of the many themes in Joseph Andrews, one of the most complicated issues is the value of a formal education. Throughout the novel, Parson Adams is depicted as a man who has been educated in the classics, and a formal education is important to him. Adams carries with him a large Greek text by Aeschylus, writes eloquent sermons, and enjoys discussing famed philosophers whenever he has opportunity. The narrator describes him as, “an excellent Scholar. He was a perfect Master of the Greek and Latin Languages; to which he added a great Share of Knowledge in the Oriental Tongues, and could read and translate French, Italian, and Spanish. He applied many years to most sever Study, and had treasured up a Fund of Learning rarely to be met with in a University” (65). Though he is a well educated, virtuous, and charitable man, he is innocent when it comes to the schemes of man, and comedically falls victim at several times in the novel. Much like Squire Allworthy, another character of Fielding’s in Tom Jones, Adams is so benevolent and kind that he does not expect anyone to treat him with anything but honesty and good naturedness.

Despite his formalized education, Parson Adams sometimes lacks the discernment skills required to understand the true motivations of man. Parson Adams relies on book learning because he is presumably unable to learn from his past experiences, continually lacking skills in intuiting the true nature of malicious persons. His naiveté lands him in comedic situations while it also separates him from the rest of the characters in the novel as an idealist in a bleak world.

Near the end of the novel, when he claims he may never be able to pay his debt at the inn, the host forgives his bill because of Parson Adams’ honesty. What starts as a friendly conversation eventually ends on less cordial terms when Adams and the host begin to dispute over the nature of knowledge, and speculate on the value of various forms of education. The host, who had spent time at sea and traveling the world, takes the stance that worldly experience imparts knowledge, which of course opposes everything Adams stands for. The host explains, “He who goes abroad, as I have done, will always have opportunities enough of knowing the world without troubling his head with Socrates, or any such fellows” (198). The host has learned from experience, and though he may not be able to quote Socrates as the Parson can, he is still knowledgable on affairs of the world. By contrast, the Parson, whom as we have seen does not learn well from experience, must rely on his formal education as the root of his own knowledge. This passage allows Fielding to explore the theme of formal education versus the education gained by life experience.

Parson Adams represents formal education. Fielding hints at his wide breadth of knowledge by the allusions to classic texts, which is another intentional literary device used by Fielding. In the above scene Adams states, “I will inform thee; the travelling I mean is in books, the only way of travelling by which any knowledge is to be acquired…if a man should sail round the world, and anchor in every harbour of it, without learning, he would return home as ignorant as he went out” (198). With this, Adams dismisses knowledge learned by experience, which in turn is dismissive towards his kind host. To Adams, one’s own life could not impart the same wisdom as reading Aristotle, Socrates, or Scripture, and he is unable to expand his beliefs to include the type of wisdom that is acquired by experience.

The conversation then moves to the value and morality of trade and men who work in trade, to which the Parson seems to have offended the host by dismissing trade and then doing a bit of backtracking. The host describes all the luxuries of life that are afforded because of the trade industry to people and parsons alike. To this, the Parson responds, “…there is something more necessary than life itself, which is provided by learning; I mean the learning of the clergy. Who clothes you with piety, meekness, humility, charity, patience, and all the other Christian virtues” (199)? This is a fair point that the Parson attempts to make, that men should set their sights on heavenly rewards instead of material possessions. However, the Parson perhaps momentarily forgets that it is the host who has just shown a great charity to him in forgiving his debt. The host declares he never gets fed or clothed from the parsons, yet he still acts with hospitality.

Adams is the moral compass to which the reader ultimately holds all supporting characters up to. He becomes a moral instructor to a young Joseph, whom Adams sees as a person with potential and good character. The reader, in turn, may draw a similar conclusion on the morality of Joseph, because if Adams gives his approval, why shouldn’t the reader? As far as Joseph is concerned, he often seems to be one step ahead of Adams, doubting the words and promises of strangers, and is learning to be wary of what seem to be proper upper class elite, knowing that they are not above manipulation. Through Adams, Joseph learns virtues of charity and generosity, while also learning that many parsons, Adams excluded, do not embody these traits. Joseph respects the counsel and teaching of Parson Adams, and seems to be gifted with the ability to both absorb knowledge through the counsel of Adams as well as his own experiences. In this way, Joseph bridges the gap that seems to exist between Parson Adams and the host in the above passage; he is able to absorb formal learning from the Parson, and also reflects and matures through his experiences throughout the novel.

The Value of Irony in Joseph Andrews

In his novel Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding uses irony to express satire and offer social commentary. Irony “results when there is a disjunction between what an audience would expect and what really happens.” The dominant form of irony in Joseph Andrews is dramatic irony: Fielding sets up the reader to believe that one thing is going to happen, when another actually does. Dramatic irony allows Fielding to “teach” his readers “lessons” by giving examples of vain characters’ ill-fated plans while maintaining a light mood. Fielding uses verbal irony to show the hypocrisy in his vain characters. The entire novel is structured around the ironic statement that Fielding makes in the beginning: “But as it often happens that the best Men are but little known” (61). In this vein, Fielding introduces Parson Adams as the main character in the novel. Parson Adams’s character is full of irony. A clergyman’s duty is to provide guidance to his parishioners. Although “he was a perfect Master of the Greek and Latin languages”, he was also “entirely ignorant of the ways of this World” (65). Parson Adams’s naivete makes him an endearing, kind character. Readers become acquainted with Fielding’s stance on morality through Parson Adams’s “adventures” rather than through his speech. Specific incidences of dramatic irony show readers the foolishness of specific characters. Henry Fielding offers social commentary by giving foolish people who indulge their vanity unexpected outcomes. Leonora, the object of aspiring lawyer Horatio’s love, unexpectedly abandons him for Bellarmine and his “coach and six” (135). It is soon revealed, however, that Bellarmine’s does not love Leonora, but is only entranced by her money. When her father refuses to give Bellarmine money, “he proceeded directly to his own Seat” (152) with an ironic message: “I hope we shall see you at Paris, till when the Wind that flows from thence will be the warmest dans la Monde” (153). Bellarmine has no desire to see Leonora, because her money cannot help him. This is ironic, because Leonora gives up true love for a man who only wants to use her. Ultimately, her vanity fails her. Fielding shows that morality is not dependent on wealth when he describes a poor peddler who saves Parson Adams when a wealthy clergyman, Tulliver, refuses to bail out a fellow parson. Fielding also uses irony to comedic effect: the accusation that Parson Adams attempted to kidnap Fanny, Joseph Andrew’s beloved, when he actually saved her is initially alarming. However, the reader must recognize the absurdity of Adams’s bad luck, as well as his accuser’s stupidity. Even in this situation, Fielding offers a social satire when Adams’s trial is stalled by the very people who hope to benefit from his arrest. They squabble over the amount of money awarded to each person, one claiming that “he ought to have the greatest Share, for he had first laid his Hands on Adams”, another for “having first held the Lantern to the Man’s Face” (164). The selfishness of Parson Adams’s accusers causes his trial to be postponed while they argue over who deserves the Parson’s money. Verbal irony is used to reveal the hypocrisy of several other characters. Lady Booby and Mrs. Slipslop demean Joseph Andrews after he rejects both of them. In Lady Booby’s heart, however, “she had not so entirely conquered her Passion” (83). Lady Booby’s pride prevents her from admitting her affections. The Man of Courage, whom Parson Adams encounters on the road, flees upon hearing Fanny Goodwill’s screams after he lectures Adams about disinheriting “a Nephew who is in the Army because he would not exchange his commission, and go to the West-Indies” (158). Henry Fielding makes ironic statements about his own writing, and about the art of writing in general. His sarcasm in comparing the art of “authoring” to the art of “prime ministering” (119) shows his willingness to make fun of himself, giving a light overtone to the novel. The irony used to conclude Joseph Andrews further confirms Henry Fielding’s moral message, while simultaneously providing additional comic effect. The reader is amused and held in suspense by the possibility that Fanny is Joseph’s sister. Later, in an ironic twist, the reader learns that Andrews, the moral hero of the novel, is actually the son of a formerly decadent man, Mr. Wilson. One’s social class, it seems, does not affect one’s ability to be moral. On the surface, irony in Joseph Andrews is used parimarily for comic effect. The realism of the comic events allows the reader to take many of the absurd events seriously. The repetitious behavior patterns of the vain characters are contrasted with the behavior patterns found in the more noble individuals. Whereas Lady Booby and the Man of Courage say one thing and do another, Parson Adams and the poor peddler help others on their own volition. Although the number of Parson Adams’s adventures exceeds those experienced by the average person, most people do encounter hypocritical individuals throughout the course of a day. Luckily, Joseph Andrews’ fairytale ending offers both fictional characters and real-life readers “a perpetual Fountain of Pleasure” (334).