"O Vanity!" Fielding's Other Antisocial Affectation

By Holm, Melanie D. | Philological Quarterly, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

"O Vanity!" Fielding's Other Antisocial Affectation


Holm, Melanie D., Philological Quarterly


The narrator's uncharacteristically emphatic apostrophe to vanity in Joseph Andrews suggests that Fielding is worried--worried about how vanity affects his readers and worried about what they, like his characters, may unknowingly do in its service:

O Vanity! How little is thy Force acknowledged, or thy Operations discerned? How wantonly dost thou deceive Mankind under different Disguises? Sometimes thou dost wear the Face of Pity, sometimes of Generosity: nay, thou hast the Assurance even to put on those glorious Ornaments which belong only to heroick Virtue. Thou odious, deformed Monster ... The greatest Villanies are daily practised to please thee ... All our Passions are thy Slaves. (1)

Readers familiar with Joseph Andrews may recall that Henry Fielding begins his novel with a meditation on affectation, carefully separating vanity from hypocrisy as two causes of affectation, and emphasizing hypocrisy's "violent Repugnancy." Joseph Andrews presents hypocrisy as "an Endeavour to avoid Censure by concealing our Vices under an Appearance of their opposite Virtues." Vanity, on the other hand, deceives us by concealing our vices from us as virtues. It is clear why "these two Causes are often confounded"; however, as "they proceed from very different Motives, so they are as clearly distinct in their Operations: for indeed, the Affectation which arises from Vanity is nearer to Truth than the other; as it hath not that violent Repugnancy of Nature to struggle with, which that of the Hypocrite hath" (8). Because hypocrisy is the practice of conscious deceit in social relationships, the narrator ridicules and castigates hypocrites for what are consciously villainous acts. It is an evil that knows itself to be so, yet it persists nevertheless. Fielding, therefore, rates hypocrisy higher than vanity; this prioritization, however, doesn't negate the very real concerns he raises about vanity. I am interested in exploring what is less recognized about Fielding's fictional works, both in Joseph Andrews and beyond: his critique of self-deceit in the form of vanity and the way it too creates problems of sociability.

Vanity poses a significant moral and epistemological problem for characters in Fielding's fiction. While it is a commonplace that the vain cannot perceive their own vanity, Fielding puts pressure on this observational bias by asking questions about how vanity affects the processes of our understanding. The broad outline of influence that the narrator of his Joseph Andrews proposes is not encouraging. It is the self-deceptiveness of vanity that troubles Fielding the most, and with good reason, for self-deception indicates that our participation in "villanies" is not strictly consensual, nor is our moral understanding reliable. Fielding believes people want to be virtuous but are encumbered in that pursuit by an unacknowledged, self-interested syllogism: our judgment is "deformed" such that we believe we act virtuously because we are inclined to understand our actions to be so. We don't consider ourselves villains or our actions "odious"; instead, we act assured that we are moral, even "heroick," without any external, verifying standard of meaning for these categories. The deceptions of vanity are problematic not merely because we end up acting in immoral ways that we do not recognize, but also because they corrupt how we think, disabling our ability to make clear or accurate judgments. Fielding therefore suggests that we exist in a paradoxical condition in which our best impulses to be moral, sociable, and good-natured are inverted by an inveterate, enslaving, and invisible predisposition to be the opposite.

In these terms, vanity is a complex epistemological problem with deep implications for how we understand our world and participate in it. Fielding explains that vanity is fundamentally the pursuit of adulation or "applause" from others, a pursuit that overrides our critical faculties; it "puts us on affecting false Characters," persuading us that we are other, better, than we are (JA, 8). …

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