"A World Against Itself": The Dynamics of Good Nature and Virtue in Henry Fielding's Plays

Amel Ben Ahmed


In the eighteenth-century England, the aesthetic vision of most contemporary writers of the time was closely related to the social, political and religious system of belief. Augustan writers, satirists particularly, sought to reclaim for literature the morally privileged status, they thought, it supposedly held in the context of the Latitudinarian system of thought; the very rationale behind the ethic of good nature that distinguishes major writings of the time, namely the dramatic, journalistic and fictional works of the major eighteenth century novelist and satirist Henry Fielding. His major dramatic works not only display the influence of the Latitudinarian philosophy but mainly Shaftesbury’s moral theory of innate goodness, which Fielding revokes, offering then a representation of a more universal moral frame which rather reflects and criticizes the society of the author’s time.

The providential pattern that Fielding creates in his plays valorizes indeed the principle of good-nature and the triumph of virtue against all apparent social evils. Most significantly, it has positioned Henry Fielding himself in a “comedic” tradition in which characters are not ultimately responsible for themselves. In the present paper, and with reference to Earl of Shaftesbury’s assumptions about the ideal good-natured man, I intend to evince that Fielding uses the value of good-nature and virtue not as pure moral abstractions, but rather as nodal points around which he organizes, and through which he presents a broad cultural and historical vision. With reference to his major regular comedies, and a through a close study of his most representative characters, I will attempt to evince that this underlying moral vision is more than an abstract rumination of the relative power of good and evil. When we view and consider such concepts as virtue, good-nature and ill-nature in the immediate contexts of his plays, we conceive a picture of a broad cultural landscape in which ethical values become nodal points of meaning, in which Fielding represents both the most basic, traditional values and the most sordid everyday events and attitudes of his society.



good nature, virtue, value, moralism, ethics, satire, comedy, religion

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.25180/lj.v21i2.200


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