Character on Trial: Reading and Judgement in Henry Fielding's Works
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To be placed above the Reach of Deceit is to be placed above the Rank of a human Being - Henry Fielding, A Clear State of the Case of Elizabeth Canning, 1753.
Throughout his literary and legal careers, Fielding was concerned with the difficulties of reading and judging character accurately. He saw society as being rife with deceptive and duplicitous individuals and articulated his concerns in his writing, offering various advices to his readers. This thesis examines Fielding’s changing approaches to characterization and his proposed methods for judging character.
There is a strong tradition within Fielding criticism, particularly prevalent in the mid-twentieth century, of seeing Fielding’s characters as ‘essential’, that is to say, innate and unchanging: the product of his theory of ‘Conservation of Character’. As such, his characters are often deemed easy-to-read and lacking fully-determined internal lives. Since the mid-1990s, however, critics have begun to argue that his characters are more dynamic than first supposed. While critics have noted the role of judgement in Fielding’s novels, it has not yet been explored in depth in his plays. With some notable exceptions, few studies have explored the interrelation between his novels and plays in a sustained way. I argue that Fielding examines questions of discerning character in both his plays and his novels, and that the early plays are essential for understanding the concepts which are central to his theory of judgement. This thesis contributes to studies of Fielding in three ways: by intervening in long-standing discussions of Fielding’s characterization; by analysing themes of good nature, perception and gossip which develop from his early dramatic work into the better-known novels; and by exploring its relationship to wider ideas about character in the eighteenth-century theatre and novel.
Beginning with his plays, I consider Fielding’s presentation of the judgement of character in a range of his works from 1728-1753. I suggest that the early plays gave Fielding the space in which to experiment with the presentation of character and his relationship to his audience. His novels build upon concepts first introduced in the plays, such as good nature, perception and gossip, which he suggests are key to perceiving character. Fielding encourages his audiences and readers to engage with character as a process of discovery (as it is in life), but does not punish or mock them when they make mistakes. In doing so, he gives his audiences and readers indulgences he could ill afford in his magisterial career: time for judgement and the luxury of occasionally being proved wrong.
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