1 Jun




Samuel Richardson’s PAMELA


Loss of liberty, rebellion, and the archaic notion that people are defined by wealth and blood are what makes “Pamela” an extremely dangerous novel. There’s little wonder the likes of Rousseau were inspired by the writings of Richardson, as the underlying themes of the book are undeniably revolutionary. The epithets to human worth, personal dignity and the establishment of utopian social ideals juxtapose the hierarchical privilege in a novel that purports to be about vice and virtue. Although Richardson is keen to distract the imaginations of his readers with the scandalously, titillating solicitations of a wealthy man to a buxom serving wench, it isn’t so much the loss of virtue, but rather the restrictions of personal freedoms that he addresses. In an age of monarchy, religious constraint and an affluent moneyed class it’s the hegemony of the rich, and their usurpation of the poor that polarizes Richardson’s writing. By applying Marxist theory to the story, the demarcation lines of class conflict are self-evident and easily distinguishable.

               Hegemony is the accepted disparity of status that must be enforced in order for the Proletariat to accept the superiority of the Bourgeoisie, and so perform their duties without hesitation or complaint. It is this disparity, coupled with the duplicitous blurring of societal divisions that Richardson repeatedly asserts throughout “Pamela”. Richardson cleverly twists this relationship, and instead of unilateral oppression allows Pamela, through the traditions of “fin amors” and courtly-love, to control the advances of Mr. B. Unrequited lust affords Pamela a position of power, and despite the wealth, breeding, and position of her would-be rapist, permits Richardson to indulge in literary, social experimentation.

               In order to create the necessary hierarchy we’re plunged into a milieu of master-and-servant where those with no hope of upward mobility are subservient to their perceived betters. Thanks to the support of her employer and her favored position, Pamela is given an opportunity for betterment, and is taught the refinements of music and dance and given access to her mistresses’ library. Richardson elevates a member of the working class, allowing her to experience a life beyond her imagination. Although remaining staunchly proud of her upbringing and parentage Pamela coyly recognizes an achievable world beyond that of institutionalized poverty. Whilst in captivity, although yearning for an idealized Arcadia, she’s well aware of her status as a class-climber and expresses unthinkable possibilities to contemporary readers. Richardson alludes to the arbitrary nature of social pedigree and promotes the idea that given the opportunity, education, and wherewithal, even the meanest of women can achieve greatness.

               To accept this so-called natural order their must exist cognitive dissonance – the holding of two separate and opposite beliefs and believing them both to be true – which is the key to status quo or rather the Capitalist system. Pamela does this exceedingly well by continuing to harken back to her parents poverty and their carefree idyllic lifestyle, while at the same time recalling fondly the mistress who treated her as a daughter and introduced her to new experiences. The virtue she possesses as a commoner seems to be unapparent in the gentry, and Richardson offers commentary on the accepted inequality that exists between the classes.

               The novel begs the question, “Does being born with money and land make one a better person and therefore the natural betters of those born poor?” Clearly the argument as Richardson expounds is one of human worth rather than monetary wealth. Mr. B although gentry, as demonstrated by his lusts and desires, is no better than a “rough ploughboy.” Pamela, according to her social inferiority, should hold herself at no great worth, and simply accept the unsolicited advances of a man who would ravish her and yet, clearly sees herself as equal if not morally superior to him. Money plays no role and is dismissed by Richardson as being irrelevant to the argument as despite being offered great wealth and position, Pamela continually refuses financial advancement. Any money she’s given is immediately shared, stolen, or denied and so wealth plays no role in her moral standing or character. The rich clothes left to her by her mistress are deemed superfluous and Pamela, dressed in home-spun cloth, still manages to be the center of attention, her inner beauty outshining those dressed to impress: allusions perhaps to a “Cinderella” figure, of a kitchen maid transformed into a society beauty. Here Richardson plays with older tellings of social disparity and we’re reminded of “Cap-o-Rushes” and even Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Pamela is a “Cordelia” figure who would rather suffer than forfeit her virtue, desiring nothing more than equality and respect before relinquishing that which she considers her only possession of worth.

               Throughout the novel there are allusions to slavery and the subjugation of the working class. Servants are dismissed in an instant for speaking out of turn or for not taking their master’s part and yet Pamela is continually allowed to cross the threshold of class with little or no consequence. She is free with her thoughts and views, and through her letters we come to understand her incomprehension at her superior’s behavior despite her own base birth. The occasion of the slave market at Mr. B’s house when after dinner, the wealthy women retire to the kitchen to inspect his property. They paw Pamela’s skin, comment on her form, and make lewd suggestions to their host’s desires. Amusingly Richardson lists the blazons of the inspecting ladies and does them no favors in his descriptions, suggesting that beauty and manners are not class distinctions.

               Richardson intimates that wealth, beauty, education and social position are not indicative of worth, as many of these attributes are to be found in his proletariat. Pamela is the empowering voice of the common man; a “Common Sense” figure that lends weight to the idea that all men are equal. Richardson’s work would probably have been read by the gentry before the general public – given the costs of frivolous items such as a novel and the disparity in disposable incomes – and therefore one has to hope that the Marxist maxims were not wasted upon them? Within a few years of its publication two great revolutions shook the natural order – one in 1776 the other in 1789 – and one can only imagine the turmoil, to which Richardson alludes, they created in universal class perceptions. Given Pamela’s small part in world events, the young lady clearly had more to offer than just her virtue.



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