Realism means conceiving and representing the things as they are. The basic essence of human life is embodied in realistic literature. Besides it, we have also realistic picture of contemporary society. We, thus, have realism of particular order i.e. a true picture of society, manners, people and customs. We also have what we may call the “universal realism”.
While it is true that Richardson and Defoe have some claim to have brought realism to English fiction, it is Fielding who can be called the real pioneer in realistic mode of novel writing. Fielding’s realism is called “universal realism” as well as global. As Fielding says in the Preface to “Joseph Andrews”:
I believe I might aver that I have written little more than I have seen.
Fielding’s novels present the fairly comprehensive picture of English society in eighteenth century. Though Fielding does not give us material about the environment of the people, yet their mental and moral characteristics are displayed with “power of realism”. The landlords, landladies, doctors, lawyers, clergyman, postilions and coachmen – all go towards making the picture of society as comprehensive as possible. Dudden remarks that Fielding has provided,
… a peculiarly vivid representation of the life and manners, the interest and pursuits of the people who lived in the country, or rather in the west country, which he knew so well – in the early Hanoverian time.
The eighteenth century society which appears on the pages of “Joseph Andrew” is not very pleasant picture. It is marked by an astounding callousness and selfishness. The insensitive hardness of such a society is brilliantly portrayed by stage-coach passengers who are reluctant to admit the naked wounded Joseph. The surgeon, who is summoned to look at Joseph’s wounds at the inn, refuses to come out of his comfortable bed for a mere foot passenger. Parson Trulliber uses his Christian teachings to speak against beggars and refuses to lend Adam even a few shillings. We have also flashes of kindness amongst this all repressive inhumanity. Parson Adams, four postilions, the reformed Mr. Wilson, Betty the chambermaid and four peddlers are only one to act with generosity.
The society is divided into clear cut classes – the high and the low. The two classes may have dealings with one another in private, as Fielding tells us, but they scrupulously refuse to recognize each other in public. The rich regard themselves as the better and superior in every sense to the poor. Lady Booby does not dream of admitting Adams to her table, for she considers him to be badly dressed. Mrs. Slipslop does not deign to recognize a ‘nobody’ like Fanny at an inn. While Fielding exposes such behaviour to ridicule, we realize the hollow pretension of a society which indulged in so much of affectation.
The poor are not only disregarded but they are also the victim of the cruelty of rich. Lady Booby is least concerned about paying her servant’s wages on time. Even the law which should help the poor in their misfortune is manipulated in the favour of rich. Lady Booby’s instruction to Lawyer Scout shows the conspiracy of the rich against the poor.
The professional classes in general show a marked inefficiency and indifference. They do not take their work seriously. Parson Barnabas, Parson Trulliber, the rural magistrate, the Lawyer Scout – all is the illustration of the corrupt and selfish politicians of the day. Parson Adams is merely one good being against so many bad clergymen.
In his novel, Fielding has concentrated more on the countryside. But the little that he describes of town society is enough to give us its characteristics. The wealthy society of the town shows a high degree of degeneracy. The story of Mr. Wilson and Leonora as well as Joseph short stay in London provide us with the clear idea about the vulgarity, degeneration of morals, the vanity and hypocrisy which infested town society.
Fielding represents human nature as truthfully as he presents the society. His lawyers, as he himself says, have been alive for four thousand years and will continue to eternity. He was a man of wide experience in different areas of life. The portrait of society and human nature in “Joseph Andrews” is the consequence of his close and keen observation. He includes life in all variety and frankly presents the ugly as well as the beautiful.
Fielding does not present society realistically merely for entertainment. He has a moral purpose behind the realism. He wants to present reality so that the reader would observe it and correct themselves. To laugh making out of folly is his professed aim. He satirizes bad priests and bad lawyers so that people may learn to be better.
I have endeavored to laugh at mankind, out to their follies and vices.
As a painter of real life, he was equal to Hogarth; as a mere observer of human nature he was little inferior to Shakespeare.
He not merely presents society but also criticized it in order to make the world a better place to live in.