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Abraham Adams and Private Purity

Henry Fieldings Joseph Andrews, to a large degree, focuses on the tension existing
between confinement and expansion. The two terms are signified by experience, on one hand,
and the lack of experience on the other. Subsequently, the two ideas appear in various
manifestations. Where confinement appears in the novel, it is generally represented by the notion
of book learning as a preferred form of receiving education, as well as by the promulgation of the
virtues of the private sphere. By contrast, expansion is often represented by an individuals
engaging in a public space. Abraham Adams characterizations of both ideas tend to posit
confinement as a favorable ideal, relating it to purity, while tying expansion, the public space, to
vice.
Generally speaking, Adams serves as the spokesperson for confinement. From the
beginning of the novel, the reader is informed about two aspects of his character. He is extremely
bookish and deficient in worldly experience. Aside from her use of hard words, the fact that
Adams has no worldly experience grants Mrs. Slipslop the ability to maintain an advantage over
him in their religious debates. The narrator says that she,
being herself the Daughter of a Curate, preserved some Respect for Adams; she professed
great Regard for his Learning, and would frequently dispute with him on Points of
Theology, but always insisted on a Deference to be paid to her Understanding, as she had
been frequently at London, and knew more of the World than a Country Parson could
pretend to. (21)
The appeal that Mrs. Slipslop makes is to an understanding that she has gained through
experience. Regarding book knowledge of theological matters, she considers Adams and herself
to be on equal footing, despite the extent of his learning, because she is a curates daughter and
believes she is, therefore, privy to the same understanding Adams possesses in that respect.
However, because he has no worldly experience, that is, because he has not had the experience
of trying his book knowledge in the world, his perspective is accorded less merit. Mrs. Slipslop,
having ventured outside of the country to London, can argue for deference to her opinion over
Adams because of the experiences she has accumulated in her travels. Hers is an expanded
knowledge, so to speak, because it is acquired both in the country and in the city where there is
the element of vice against which religious precepts can be tested. Adams knowledge, though
worthy of some Respect, is a constricted knowledge presumably because it is not tested as a
consequence of being confined within the boundaries of the country environment (21).
Adams not only accepts this confinement, but does so with a firm repudiation of
expansive knowledge. That is to say, he argues virulently against entering into the public space.
This theme is openly expressed when Adams engages Joseph in a discussion about the
effectiveness of private schools in comparison with public institutions. He says,
I have discovered the cause of all the Misfortunes which befel him. A public
School, Joesph, was the Cause of all the Calamities which he afterwards suffered. Public
Schools are the Nurseries of all Vice and Immorality. Joseph, you may thank the Lord
you were not bred at a public School, you would never have preserved your Virtue as you
have. The first Care I always take, is of a Boys Morals. What is all the Learning of the
World compared to his Immortal Soul? (200)
The cause of Adams defense of private schools is the immorality that he believes to be inherent
in the public space. Inasmuch as it is inclusive of all things, being public, this public space
entails both knowledge and vice. It is particularly the knowledge of vice, which produces anxiety
in Adams because of its ability to taint the moral adherent. For Adams, who could not much
apprehend any such Passions as Malice and Envy to exist in Mankind because of his relative
confinement to the private sphere, this potential to taint necessitates the avoidance of public
schools (19). He argues for this avoidance despite Josephs assertions that Sir Thomas Booby,
was bred at a public school, and he was the finest Gentleman in all the Neighborhood, and that
a Boy taken from a public School, and carried into the World, will learn more in one Year there,
than one of private Education within five (200). Indeed, it is precisely this carrying into the
world that disturbs Adams. As he has remained pure through confinement, he would rather
preserve the Purity of his Child, than wish him attain the whole Circle of Arts and Sciences
which would be taught just as well in private schools (201).
Having fashioned a binary relationship of virtue and vice around the issues of
confinement and expansion, the question of whether to enter the public sphere becomes one in
which ones purity is directly affected. To learn by public means is to taint oneself, while to learn
in confinement, to gain knowledge by way of having information related to oneself rather than
by experiencing it, is to maintain ones purity. To this extent, Adams is consistent in his
repudiation of the public space, even in his travels with Joseph and Fanny. Though the travels in
themselves indicate his entrance into the public sphere, he is constantly seen receiving
information through storytelling. Instances of this occur in Mrs. Slipslops relating of the story of
Leonora and Horatio, as well as in the case of Mr. Wilson who tells Adams the story about how
he came to marry his wife, so that Adams learns about life at a distance, through discourse about
the experiences of others, thus maintaining his purity.