Innocent Until Proven Guilty: The Wanton Disregard for Political Correctness in the Novel of the Eighteenth Century
All novels to some degree are reflections of the period in which they were written; hour glasses filled with the social norms and oriented using the moral compass of the day. Time capsules, which when read, reveal more about the life of the authors than in some instances the characters in the novels themselves. The beauty of the novel is that they allow one to connect with and even briefly coexist, whilst experiencing what it was to be alive – in this particular instance – the 18th century. When one turns the pages, one clasps the hands of the author and sees the world through their eyes, hence the importance of studying literature and evaluating its context. The novel unlike government stylized, common-core suggested reading, is an unadulterated, non-politicized, cornucopia of human experience. Therefore they invariably open a window on social, political and religious views which aren’t necessarily those of are so-called enlightened society.
The classic case in point would be the Jewish question in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. Modern critics are too eager to ascribe anti-Semitism to a piece that was written in the late 16th century when, due to their banishment by Edward 1 in 1290 and until their return until 1657, relatively few Jews resided in England. Stephen Greenblatt summarizes this succinctly when he writes, “it is not the hatred of the Jew, but the idea of the Jew that is paramount.”(P.326) Just as young English children are told tales of wolves to frighten them into obeisance, wolves haven’t existed in the British Isles for thousands of years. By using the Jew as a social pariah or grotesque the same point is made. Consequently the views of those whom we read are not representative of modern thinking and so we should not judge them according to contemporary morality.
The novels “Robinson Crusoe” and “Pamela” both contain attitudes which aren’t necessarily typical of modern thinking, but which offer valuable insight into 18th century mindset. Just because their values are not representative of our own, does not make them immoral nor wanting of our modern condemnation. By comparing and contrasting their historical perspective it’s possible to separate modern sensibilities and analyze the archaic values that help us to appreciate and understand what it was to be alive in the 18th century.
Defoe throughout his novel addresses slavery in a matter of fact manner that doesn’t suggest a personal abhorrence to his contemporary readership. Slavery during the 18th century was an integral part of the Triangular Trade, adopted by Britain throughout its colonies and therefore a key concept in the practice of Mercantilism. Through this system, a nation is able to dictate and control its own resources by obfuscating the balance of trade and creating immense wealth: hence the growth of the British Empire and the acceptance of slavery. Crusoe early in the novel is aware of this system and ships out to Africa to exchange glass beads and trinkets with African natives who through ignorance, will exchange gold and jewels for items of little worth. Crusoe sees nothing wrong in this and understands that the rape of nations is simply the way of the world; the way things are done. He describes in detail his dealings with the natives and after making a huge profit determines to go again. His second voyage however, isn’t as successful and he finds himself enslaved. This, Defoe, clearly finds abhorrent – a White, Christian, Englishman in the hands of fiendish Moors! One can only imagine the sharp intake of breath and the horror of an 18th century reader upon discovering this. This suggests, and quite rightly so from the historical perspective, that it’s acceptable for the English to enslave, but not vice-versa. As acceptable as slavery was during this period, Defoe offers his readership a moral dilemma. How can it be correct to enslave certain peoples but not others; a lesson in economics perhaps, and an example of the imbalance of human trade?
Richardson plays on a similar theme and describes the gulf between those born to serve and those destined to languish. Rather than the traditional epithets of color, religion or nationality Richardson uses the class system to determine who is to be enslaved and who isn’t. Given the accepted practice of indentured servitude, one can understand why Defoe would’ve held such ambivalent attitudes towards human subjugation, common as it was in his own country. There is an allusion here to a natural order that determines where one is placed, both in society and the world at large: the unwritten laws of class distinction to which populations adhere without complaint. Pamela herself is an attractive, uneducated female, taken from an impoverished agricultural family, to serve in a country pile. No longer forced to survive, she’s suffered to live amongst the gentry, and although enjoying some of the benefits of their environs, can never hope to be part of them. Pamela knows her place and despite the manner in which she’s treated is grateful for her position; similar to the gratitude of Friday on Crusoe’s island. Despite long hours, poor, if any pay and the wandering hands of her rapacious master, she puts her faith in her own homespun values and endures knowing her own worth despite her low birth, “my Soul is of equal Importance with the Soul of a Princess; though my Quality is inferior to that of the meanest Slave.”(p.158)Instead of chains, her incarceration is enforced through the reality of starvation and abject poverty. Forced to work long hours, sleep in communal beds and to be fed on the scraps from her master’s table, hers is a life of permanent drudgery. Compelled to endure her fate, she readily accepts her rank in the social pecking order.
Distinctions between races are frequently voiced by Crusoe and human worth is a persistent theme throughout Defoe’s novel. After Crusoe’s escape from the Moor, with the help of his Black comrade Xury, he’s eventually rescued and taken to Brazil where he becomes a plantation owner. Having only the goods carried with him in the row boat in which he escaped, he sells these to the provident ship’s captain in order to garner capital. Defoe lists the chattel, knowing as he does the worth of everything and the value of nothing, and includes Crusoe’s fellow escapee. Despite having endured a difficult voyage together and suffered at the hands of their slave master, Defoe is not an author who succumbs to a sea-change. The boy in the boat is simply regarded as an object of trade and is immediately sold back into slavery. Crusoe has few qualms about this and quite happily exchanges Xury for a sum of gold.“He offer’d me also 60 Pieces of Eight more for my Boy Xury, which I was loath to take, not that I was not willing to let the Captain have him, but I was very loath to sell the poor Boy’s Liberty, who had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own.”(p.30) Not only does he profit from the transaction, but is pleased with himself at having met such a generous and affable man as the captain. One has to ponder the young boy’s fate, who’s promised his freedom after a period of ten years servitude but only if he amends his heathen ways and turns to God. Crusoe quickly forgets his heinous act and counts himself quite fortunate in having had, “so much worth about him,” (p.32) despite his desperate financial situation. Once safely arrived in Brazil and embarked upon a planter’s life, Crusoe soon realizes, or rather Defoe does, that in order to advance his wealth he must have help. Consequently a Negro slave is purchased as well as a European servant to assist in Crusoe’s enrichment, “… in the Advancement of my Plantation; for the first thing I did, I bought me a Negro Slave, and a European Servant also.”(p.33) The distinction is plain, the worth of each individual obvious by the language used to describe them. To imagine this from a historical viewpoint as reprehensible is difficult, as Defoe is simply using common parlance and describing the nature of quotidian business. There is clearly a distinction, and Defoe has no qualms when depicting the difference.
Richardson also understands the worth of humanity and plays on this in his characterization of Pamela. Being but a poor servant girl, her virtue is worthless and to ruin her wouldn’t be the end of her world, nor considered a crime as she herself knows only too well, “O how can wicked men seem so steady and untouched with such black hearts, while poor innocents stand like malefactors before them!” (p.147) Rape is as fluid in the text of Richardson, as slavery is in Defoe’s. Pamela is her master’s property, both in body and spirit. Should he choose to have her against her will – according to his prerogative and social position – Pamela should quietly acquiesce and be eternally grateful for the attention showered upon her. After all, doesn’t the master tell her that he will enrich and house her if only she will play along? By allowing Pamela to assume the morality of her betters, he adds sexual tension to his novel. In Richardson’s gentrified world, a ruined lady of substance would be a scandal, where as a sexual relationship outside of marriage for a servant girl nothing more than a fling. Pamela knows her own worth, because Richardson ascribes it to her. Subjected to the continued harassment and unsolicited attentions of her betters, Pamela has no recourse. She can’t appeal for justice as these positions are held by men of a similar nature to her master and cannot possibly dream of defaming her master for fear of imprisonment. Unlike Xury, who’s offered freedom through religious transformation, Pamela’s only escape is to surrender to her master’s desires. Pamela endures physical torment, kidnapping, incarceration and sexual humiliation and yet Richardson, similar to Defoe, describes her troubles as though they were the most natural thing in the world. He offers a sympathetic protagonist but only after allowing her – in the vein of “a willing suspension of disbelief” – gentrified manners. Pamela’s worth is considered – just as the value of Crusoe’s future plantation workers were defined in Defoe’s language – when she’s subjected to the slave market inspection by the ladies of the house. Keen to admire and view her beauty they paw and appraise her and ultimately, despite her status, condescend to her obvious beauty with proviso, “Be sure don’t let people’s telling you, you are pretty, puff you up; for you did not make yourself, and so can have no praise due to you for it.” (p.32) Coming from nothing as she does, Pamela simply knows her place. Richardson is in no way apologetic for his portrayal of Pamela and intimately understands the nature of the world and simply reverses reality to create his story. There’s no condemnation, only a matter-of-fact narrative that expects the reader to recognize the Juxtaposition of his characters.
Rational subjugation by Defoe is evidenced through Crusoe’s’ experience of the natives on his island. There is an immediate, although correct assumption that the island populations consists of cannibals and war like peoples. Without ever having met them, Crusoe knows that he must defend himself and kill them if he can. Crusoe fears the native canoes and yet welcomes the European ship. His assumptions are congruous with modern attitudes and so not surprisingly Defoe plays on the fear of Western ignorance. After meeting Friday and taking up his White man’s burden, Crusoe prepares to divest his captive of his culture, and subjugate him to his own. Crusoe is duty bound to introduce him to Christ and even to teach him God’s language – English! Unsurprisingly Crusoe’s didacticism indicates the thoughts of his author. Natural selection has predetermined that Crusoe should be defined as Master and Friday as his slave,“I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my Name.”(p.174) In Defoe’s eyes how could it possibly be otherwise? Although a bond grows between the men, Friday is never seen as his equal and the hierarchical definitions of master and servant endure throughout the novel.
Richardson similarly portrays this trait in the attitudes of the servants towards their master. No matter his crimes they refuse to see him as a bad person and even defend him despite his heinous quest to deflower Pamela. When asked point blank to defend her honor against the master, Mrs. Jewkes denies her and chooses Mr. B’s side, not only as a matter of professional survival, but through deference to her own social position. When Pamela is kidnapped and carried away in the carriage to be incarcerated against her will, it’s a fellow servant that performs the task, not the master. Even the poor tenant farmers will not recognize their master’s fault and refuse to help her despite her pleas. Most disturbingly of all when the master tries to rape her, it’s her fellow servant who holds her down whilst he attempts to mount her. As Pamela – think Richardson – remarks, “…for my master, bad as I have thought him, is not half so bad as this woman.–To be sure she must be an atheist!”(p.176) In each instance it’s her own class that thwarts her not the gentry, knowing as they do – as Richardson does- the natural order of things.
Even in the modern era it’s difficult to envision a radically different society to the one we are accustomed, and so typically in order to depict advanced civilizations we’re offered upgrades of own easily recognizable state–of–art technology. It’s hard to “look into the seeds of time, and say which grain
will grow and which will not…” (Macbeth 1.3.60) and therefore one must elaborate on that which one already knows. The crafting of a story has to be believable and so by adding contemporary sensibilities, one always contaminates with a germ of modernity. Sherlock Holmes bases his brilliance on Victorian technology. Star Wars epics fight their battles using lasers. The present is inescapable and therefore the attitudes of the day are always endemic to the writing process. The novels “Robinson Crusoe” and “Pamela” both contain attitudes which aren’t necessarily typical of modern thinking, but which offer valuable insight into 18th century mindset. Eighteenth century novelists wrote what they knew and crafted their stories according to their own world view. Just because their values are not representative of our own, does not make them immoral nor wanting of our modern condemnation.