The Art of Parody:
[(essay date 1961) In the following essay, Johnson considers Shamela, besides being pure, humorous fun, to be a prelude to Fielding's more serious, realistic works.]
The Pamela, which he abused in his Shamela, taught him how to write to please, tho' his manners are so different.--Samuel Richardson.1
Few parodies can withstand more than one rereading. But the energetic fun that went into the composition of An Apology for the Life of Mrs. Shamela Andrews (1741) keeps it fresh even after it has become familiar. Fun, though it may be abusive or finally at the expense of the reader himself, is the distinguishing characteristic of successful parody. Laughter, the reader's first reaction, issues from recognition and is succeeded by appreciation for the parodist's aptness, wit, and daring. In the few great parodies this entertainment is not diminished by a general criticism of literature and life--upon which the greatness, as distinguished from mere "hitting it off," largely depends. One of the important parodies of prose fiction in English, Shamela amusingly and tellingly distorts its models in minute details; but the reader does not have to be aware of those details, or even to have read Richardson's Pamela, its foremost model, to share much of the sport and to recognize most of the oblique truths in Shamela.
Triumph of parody is never more laughingly evident, or more critically efficacious, than when it contrives on a single page not only to isolate and magnify the absurdities of a work at hand, and to demonstrate weakness of the literary kind represented by that work, but also contrives to show the incongruities between fictional characters as they are drawn by literary convention and as they would appear in terms of life, perhaps going further to hint at discrepancies between the codes and conventions by which we pretend to live and the antics we perform as human animals.
In The Tragedy of Tragedies; or, The Life and Death of Tom Thumb the Great (1730, altered in 1731), Fielding had parodied the absurdities of heroic and quasi-heroic plays. It remains the best line-for-line take-off in English drama, "replete," as Fielding's first biographer said of it, "with as fine parody as perhaps, has ever been written."2 But Tom Thumb, meticulously specific though it is in quarrying from more than forty tragedies identified by Fielding in burlesque footnotes, maintains its strength of fascination because it has a good deal to say about all pretentiousness and inanity, not necessarily dramatic. The parodied Preface and footnotes invite one to see how the pretentious and inane look under the heading of literary scholarship. They look, of course, familiar. If the "tragic" text of Tom Thumb seems familiar, with its theme of Love-and-Honour, its blazing hero, its inflammable heroine, its violence and bombast, these conventionally familiar elements are at once jerked into grotesque distortion; for the hero is a manikin, the heroine bears the preposterous name of Huncamunca, the hero is eaten (offstage) by a red cow, and at the end...