Richardson said that he wanted to innovate an alternative to unrealistic romance novels, with their dependence on “the improbable and marvellous” and on the cheap satisfactions of wish fulfillment. Does Pamela constitute a real alternative in this respect? Why or why not?
Richardson’s commitment to avoiding “the improbable” is most apparent in his lavish efforts to lay the psychological groundwork for the crucial event of the story, namely the union of the lovers. Whatever satisfactions the novel provides are thereby hardly cheap in this sense, since the author has paid for them with his scrupulous realism. In another sense, however, Pamela’s story is undoubtedly “marvellous”: marriages between country squires and servant-girls, even highly admirable servant-girls, are extremely rare. Richardson’s novel begins to resemble the despised romance genre even further when we consider that social elevation as a reward for intrinsic merit is the center of the classic Cinderella fantasy, the impossible dream of exceeding one’s class while maintaining one’s integrity. As Ian Watt observes, Pamela can be accused of giving "a new power to the age-old deceptions of romance."
The Marxist critic Arnold Kettle said, “Pamela remains only as a record of a peculiarly loathsome aspect of bourgeois puritan morality.” His objection is twofold: not only does the novel incorporate a set of values that modern readers must repudiate, but because of these outdated values, it is also no longer relevant as art. How fair is this criticism?
Pamela’s defense of her sexual virtue certainly incorporates motives and assumptions that are dependent on her cultural and religious context and that will appear to many modern readers as fatally dated. Her primary arguments against Mr. B.’s propositions, however, invoke ideas of individual autonomy that should be relevant in any age. The fact that Pamela’s unfashionable stand for her chastity rankles many readers today may paradoxically bring us closer than eighteenth-century observers to Richardson’s deeper point, namely that Pamela’s principles are her own prerogative, to which social distinctions and the opinion of the world are alike irrelevant.
Explain the effect on the novel of Richardson’s use of the epistolary form. How does Pamela’s writing in the first person and in (almost) real time impact the presentation of her own character and of other characters? Does this approach have any limitations? Is Richardson’s use of the epistolary form consistent from cover to cover, or does it change at any point in the book?
Richardson’s intention was to render a profound psychological study by making Pamela’s psyche as immediate to the reader as possible through the comparatively unfiltered record of her spontaneous thoughts and feelings. One limitation of this method is the difficulty for the reader of separating objective truth from Pamela’s inevitably subjective (and often over-hasty) representations of it: her nightmare portraits of Mrs. Jewkes and Monsieur Colbrand are the most conspicuous instances, and Mr. B.’s psyche, while immeasurably more important than either of these, remains distressingly opaque during the crucial period of his moral transformation. In the second half of the novel, both the action and Pamela’s subjective turmoil subside considerably, and accordingly Richardson alters his use of the epistolary mode: Pamela largely abandons her “writing to the moment” in favor of more retrospective compositions that are closer to “the colder and more general Reflections” of the narrative tradition against which Richardson had set himself.
What does Richardson suggest has been the effect of class on Mr. B.’s psychological makeup? What moral strengths or weaknesses has his upbringing imparted?
Mr. B. expounds Richardson’s practical view of the effect on character of aristocratic training: “We People of Fortune, or such as are born to large Expectations . . . are usually so headstrong, so violent in our Wills, that we very little bear Control.” The psyches of the highborn invariably encompass urges toward dominance, and the challenge of the highborn is to regulate these urges and make them productive rather than predatory. It is hardly surprising that Mr. B., whose parents raised him to be imperious, should consider himself entitled to sexual access to his female servants. The irony is that this same Squire, whose training has endowed him with such a robust id, should occupy in the social hierarchy the role of guarantor of peace and order. (Mr. B. is literally and officially a Justice of the Peace.) Fortunately, however, the rules he lays down for Pamela after their marriage show him disposed to value discipline and regularity; one simply hopes that he will not enforce these protocols with the same vigor with which he once attempted to enforce his sexual demands.
Discuss Richardson’s handling of physical detail. What sorts of details does he include, and how do they contribute to our understanding of the characters and themes?
Richardson’s employment of physical detail is generally realistic, creating an imitation of the real world through an accumulation of concrete objects. The items he chooses, such as the sturdy fabrics of Pamela’s country wardrobe, the humble plants in the Lincolnshire garden, and the soil in which Pamela conceals her papers, do carry a certain significance, though it stops well short of being symbolic: they simply add up to a general sense of Pamela’s earthiness and vitality. Occasionally, as in the case of the sunflower and the angling scene, Richardson selects details that have strongly traditional emblematic significance, and he plays with the layers of meanings associated with these images; such instances, however, are the exception rather than the rule. This very avoidance of conventional symbol is itself a statement in favor of the significance of everyday life and against the pastoral idealization of rural existence.
How does Pamela’s “low” style of speaking and writing affect our perceptions of her character and her story?
Pamela’s artless style of writing and speaking is appropriate to a story that focuses on such simple emotional drives as those that unite the heroine and Mr. B. It is not a decorous style; its virtue lies in its being as vital and real as Pamela is. By rendering the struggle over Pamela’s virtue in Pamela’s own humble idiom, Richardson executes on the level of style his moral and aesthetic claim that the soul of a servant-girl is as important as that of the princess whose virtue would be a more conventional subject for extended literary treatment.
Compare and contrast the characters of Mr. B.’s two housekeepers, Mrs. Jervis and Mrs. Jewkes.
From one angle, the two housekeepers appear to be elementary moral opposites: Mrs. Jervis is maternal where Mrs. Jewkes is lewd, and Mrs. Jervis tries to aid Pamela in her captivity while Mrs. Jewkes is Pamela’s most avid warder. A closer look, however, may complicate this stark contrast. For one, Mrs. Jervis is slow to line up with Pamela against Mr. B.; she even collaborates with the Squire at first by concealing him in cupboards and closets so that he can spy on Pamela. Moreover, Mrs. Jewkes’s insistent sexual suggestions to Pamela and her encouragement of Mr. B.’s designs may be morally reprehensible, but they show her to be a shrewder judge of sexual dynamics than is the motherly but maneuverable Mrs. Jervis. Mrs. Jewkes is more alert to the predatory nature of her Master’s desires than is the complacent Bedfordshire housekeeper. Her reflections on the appropriateness of sexual relations are darkly congruous with the whole gist of the second half of the novel, with its affirmative references to procreation and its revelation that Mr. B.’s line requires an heir if it is not to expire.
What is the significance of setting? Consider the abduction of Pamela from Bedfordshire to Lincolnshire and her eventual return to Bedfordshire.
Pamela’s removal from the Bedfordshire estate, with its friendly servants of genteel extraction, to the Lincolnshire estate involves her alienation from her human supports; it is a journey into the wilderness, where she will have to rely upon herself and, ultimately, on her God. As is traditional, the fruits of her stay in the wilderness will be renewed faith in God and enhanced self-knowledge, the latter leading to her voluntary union with Mr. B. Once the Lincolnshire landscape has done its work, Pamela enjoys triumphant Bedfordshire homecoming in which the geographical return signifies the completeness of the reversal that providence has engineered for her.
The scenes of attempted sexual assault have been called “the worst part of Richardson’s plot, Mr. B.’s clumsy and brutal attacks on the heroine.” What effect does Mr. B.’s ineptitude as a predator have on our perceptions of his character and of Pamela’s changing feelings toward him?
The fact that Mr. B. is difficult to take seriously as a rapist makes him easier to take seriously as a decent man and husband. His impulse to aggressive self-assertion is probably not abnormal for a twenty-something man of great social privilege, and at any rate, he lacks the sadism to enact it against the will of his would-be victim. When he defends himself after his conversion on the grounds that he has not committed any very horrible acts, his argument is not entirely a technicality because he had his chances (while Pamela was unconscious) and declined them. Moreover, such comical elements as his pausing during his final assault to urge Pamela’s acceptance of his “articles,” or the Hefner-style robe in which he outfits himself at one point, allow the reader to laugh at him even before his conversion and suspect that Pamela’s fears may be unwarranted. However absurd they may seem as plot elements, then, Mr. B.’s clumsy attacks indicate his basic good nature, impart levity to his character, and render credible (or less incredible) his reformation and Pamela’s eventual acceptance of him.
What is the significance of the emergence of Miss Goodwin near the end of the novel?
Miss Goodwin, being the result of a connection in Mr. B.’s past that Pamela did not begin to suspect when she married him, presents Pamela with the challenge of learning after the fact about a husband who has been more in the world than she has and whom, it turns out, she does not really know very well. Pamela, of course, responds to the challenge with the generosity that is native to her, forgiving Mr. B. and urging him to take Miss Goodwin into their household. Additionally significant is the fact that Richardson presents Miss Goodwin, the product of an illicit sexual relationship, as a sweet and exuberant child, an unambiguously “good” character who is an appropriate recipient of Pamela’s maternal affections. Some have accused the novel of propounding a too-rigid moral scheme with respect to sex and marriage, but Richardson here shows himself fully capable of acknowledging the positive fruits of even extramarital sexual alliances, and the novel as a whole, far from inculcating a fear of sex, strongly favors procreation.