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  • Author: Klaus Stierstorfer x
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Reassessment in Literature, Theory, and Culture

Abstract

Fielding's novels have repeatedly been read as narrative representations of a moral, divinely ordained order. More particularly, Fielding's treatment of chance, a hotly contested field in eighteenth-century British culture, has lent itself to interpretations built on such premises. To critics like George Sherbourne or Martin Battestin, the instances of chance in Fielding's work have appeared as the novelist's application, to essentially didactic ends, of the doctrines on providence, fate and fortune propounded by the leading Anglican preachers of that time.

These views on Fielding's art show themselves well-suited to some of his non-fictional writings as well as for his last and least successful novel, Amelia. A close analysis of the instances where chance and cognate concepts occur in his first three novels, however, proves these to be such heterogeneous, contradictory and indeed playful variations on this theme that it is impossible to subsume them under any underlying concepts of order or moralizing dogma. By implication, this evidence of unredeemable heterogeneity also undercuts more recent, sophisticated work on Fielding wherever the argument hinges on a systematic reading of chance in his first three novels.

While structural and formal aspects typical of prevalent Anglican views on chance of the period are clearly discernible, their rhetorical application in Fielding's first three novels is eventually geared to different objectives. The most important of these are identified as comic effect in the sense of Hutcheson's theory of laughter and as the didactic experience of rhetorical instrumentalization of chance by persons of all persuasions and ideological backgrounds.