Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded

Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded Themes

The Nature of Virtue

Richardson’s novel has often given the impression of defining “virtue” too narrowly and negatively, as the physical condition of virginity before marriage. The novel’s conception of virtue is actually more capacious than its detractors have allowed, however. To begin with, Pamela makes a sensible distinction between losing her virginity involuntarily and acquiescing in a seduction. Only the latter would be a transgression against sexual virtue. Moreover, almost the entire second half of the novel is taken up with the explication and praise of Pamela’s positive qualities of generosity and benevolence. Mr. B. values these qualities, and they have brought him to propose marriage: reading her journal, he has discovered her genuine goodwill toward him, particularly in her rejoicing over his escape from death by drowning. As a result, Pamela's active goodness merits the “reward” of a happy marriage as much as her defense of her virginity.

The Integrity of the Individual

Richardson’s fiction commonly portrays individuals struggling to balance incompatible demands on their integrity: Pamela, for instance, must either compromise her own sense of right or offend her Master, who deserves her obedience except insofar as he makes illicit demands on her. This highly conscientious servant and Christian must work scrupulously to defy her Master’s will only to the degree that it is necessary to preserve her virtue; to do any less would be irreligious, while to do any more would be contumacious, and the successful balance of these conflicting claims represents the greatest expression of Pamela’s personal integrity. Meanwhile, those modern readers who dismiss Pamela’s defense of her virtue as fatally old-fashioned might consider the issue from the standpoint of the individual’s right to self-determination. Pamela has a right to stand on her own principles, whatever they are, so that as so often in English literature, physical virginity stands in for individual morality and belief: no one, Squire or King, has the right to expect another person to violate the standards of her own conscience.

Class Politics

One of the great social facts of Richardson’s day was the intermingling of the aspirant middle class with the gentry and aristocracy. The eighteenth century was a golden age of social climbing and thereby of satire (primarily in poetry), but Richardson was the first novelist to turn his serious regard on class difference and class tension. Pamela’s class status is ambiguous at the start of the novel. She is on good terms with the other Bedfordshire servants, and the pleasure she takes in their respect for her shows that she does not consider herself above them; her position as a lady’s maid, however, has led to her acquiring refinements of education and manner that unfit her for the work of common servants: when she attempts to scour a plate, her soft hand develops a blister. Moreover, Richardson does some fudging with respect to her origins when he specifies that her father is an educated man who was not always a peasant but once ran a school.

If this hedging suggests latent class snobbery on Richardson’s part, however, the novelist does not fail to insist that those who receive privileges under the system bear responsibilities also, and correspondingly those on the lower rungs of the ladder are entitled to claim rights of their superiors. Thus, in the early part of the novel, Pamela emphasizes that Mr. B., in harassing her, violates his duty to protect the social inferiors under his care; after his reformation in the middle of the novel, she repeatedly lauds the “Godlike Power" of doing good that is the special pleasure and burden of the wealthy. Whether Richardson’s stress on the reciprocal obligations that characterize the harmonious social order expresses genuine concern for the working class, or whether it is simply an insidious justification of an inequitable power structure, is a matter for individual readers to decide.

Sexual Politics

Sexual inequality was a common theme of eighteenth-century social commentators and political philosophers: certain religious groups were agitating for universal suffrage, John Locke argued for universal education, and the feminist Mary Astell decried the inequities of the marital state. Though Richardson’s decision to have Pamela fall in love with her would-be rapist has rankled many advocates of women’s rights in recent years, he remains in some senses a feminist writer due to his sympathetic interest in the hopes and concerns of women. He allows Pamela to comment acerbically on the hoary theme of the sexual double standard: “those Things don’t disgrace Men, that ruin poor Women, as the World goes.” In addition, Sally Godfrey demonstrates the truth of this remark by going to great lengths (and a long distance) to avoid ruination after her connection with Mr. B., who comes through the episode comparatively unscathed.

Not only as regards extramarital activities but also as regards marriage itself, eighteenth-century society stacked the deck against women: a wife had no legal existence apart from her husband, and as Jocelyn Harris notes, Pamela in marrying Mr. B. commits herself irrevocably to a man whom she hardly knows and who has not been notable for either his placid temper or his steadfast monogamy; Pamela’s private sarcasms after her marriage, then, register subtly Richardson’s appropriate misgivings about matrimony as a reward for virtue. Perhaps above all, however, Richardson’s sympathy for the feminine view of things emerges in his presentation of certain contrasts between the feminine and masculine psyches. Pamela’s psychological subtlety counters Mr. B.’s simplicity, her emotional refinement counters his crudity, and her perceptiveness defeats his callousness, with the result that Mr. B. must give up his masculine, aggressive persona and embrace instead the civilizing feminine values of his new wife.

Psychology and the Self

In composing Pamela, Richardson wanted to explore human psychology in ways that no other writer had. His innovative narrative method, in which Pamela records her thoughts as they occur to her and soon after the events that have inspired them, he called “writing to the moment”; his goal was to convey “those lively and delicate Impressions, which Things Present are known to make upon the Minds of those affected by them,” on the theory that “in the Study of human Nature the Knowledge of those Apprehensions leads us farther into the Recesses of the human Mind, than the colder and more general Reflections suited to a continued . . . Narrative.” The most profound psychological portrait, then, arises from the depiction, in the heat of the moment, of spontaneous and unfiltered thoughts. Nevertheless, Richardson’s eagerness to illuminate the “Recesses of the human Mind” is balanced by a sense of these mental recesses as private spaces that outsiders should not enter without permission.

Although the overt plot of the novel addresses Mr. B.’s efforts to invade the recesses of Pamela’s physical person, the secondary plot in which she must defend the secrecy of her writings shows the Squire equally keen to intrude upon her inmost psyche. Beginning with the incident in Letter I when she reacts to Mr. B.’s sudden appearance by concealing her letter in her bosom, Pamela instinctively resists her Master’s attempts to expose her private thoughts; as she says, “what one writes to one’s Father and Mother, is not for every body.” It is not until Mr. B. learns to respect both Pamela’s body and her writings, relinquishing access to them except when she voluntarily offers it, that he becomes worthy of either physical or psychological intimacy with her.

Hypocrisy and Self-Knowledge

Since the initial publication of Pamela in 1740, critics of Richardson’s moralistic novel have accused its heroine of hypocrisy, charging that her ostensible virtue is simply a reverse-psychological ploy for attracting Mr. B. This criticism has a certain merit, in that Pamela does indeed turn out to be more positively disposed toward her Master than she has let on; in her defense, however, her misrepresentation of her feelings has not been deliberate, as she is quite the last person to figure out what her “treacherous, treacherous Heart” has felt. Pamela’s difficulty in coming to know her own heart raises larger questions of the possibility of accurate disclosure: if Pamela cannot even tell herself the truth, then what chance is there that interpersonal communication will be any more transparent?

The issue crystallizes when, during her captivity in Lincolnshire, Pamela becomes of necessity almost compulsively suspicious of appearances. This understandable defense mechanism develops into a character flaw when it combines with her natural tendency toward pride and aloofness to prevent her reposing trust in Mr. B. when, finally, he deserves it. The lovers thus remain at cross-purposes when they should be coming together, and only Mr. B.’s persistence secures the union that Pamela’s suspicions have jeopardized. While the novel, then, evinces skepticism toward the possibility of coming to know oneself or another fully, it balances that skepticism with an emphasis on the necessity of trusting to what cannot be fully known, lest all opportunities of fulfilling human relationships be lost.

Realism and Country Life

Eighteenth-century literature tended to idealize the life of rustic simplicity that Pamela typifies. Dramatists were fond of rendering the tale of the licentious squire and the chaste maiden in a high romantic strain, and Margaret Anne Doody points out that Mr. B., when he displays Pamela to the neighbors as “my pretty Rustick,” implicitly calls on the traditional identification of country lasses with natural beauty and pastoral innocence. Richardson, however, disappoints these idyllic expectations by having Pamela tell her story in the “low” style that is realistically appropriate to her class, as well as through his generous incorporation of naturalistic details. Far from idealizing the countryside, Richardson recurs to the dirt in which Pamela conceals her writings and plants her horse beans. In selecting his imagery, Richardson favors not the wood nymphs and sentimental willows of pastoral romance but such homely items as Pamela’s flannel, Mr. B.’s boiled chicken, the carp in the pond, the grass in the garden, the mould, a cake, and the shoes that Mrs. Jewkes periodically confiscates from Pamela. By refusing to compromise on the lowliness of his heroine and her surroundings, Richardson makes a statement that is both socially progressive and aesthetically radical. To discover dramatic significance, Richardson does not look to the great cities and the exemplars of public greatness who reside there; he maintains, rather, that much of equal or greater significance inheres in the private actions and passions of common people.