On Genuine Sexual Morality: A (re)reading of Richardson’s Pamela – JONATHAN EMEKA PRAISEL


Samuel Richardson’s magnum opus, Pamela, is one novel that has, hitherto, been subject to various critical readings based on form/style, content and based on its moral undertone. It is one novel that, though published in 1742, has been regarded by critics such as George Saintsbury as “the first ever real novel”. But of course, his argument is based on the author’s approach to a “social problem” unlike to Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which is to be dismissed for having no “societal contribution”.

And critics have looked at the subject of the novel – the complex relationships between commoners and aristocrats; some others have studied its themes with some considering it as a “psychological novel bettered by none other”. But in this essay, we aim to contribute to the long ensuing debate about the genuiness or falsity of Pamela’s, ( the eponymous protagonist) sexual morality. One most recall that it was Henry Fielding, another prominent writer in the period, who first dismissed Pamela’s sexual morality by referring to it as “false”. His is the question of virtue being rewarded. That is, did Pamela scheme, by means of virtue (chastity), her way from a commoner to an aristocrat? But in our final analysis, we debunk such claims by rendering three reasons why Pamela is not a schemer (at least, she does not fall under the Restoration Period notorious for such schemes); and why her sexual morality is genuine.

The novel is the story of a servant and middle class girl, Pamela, who works for Mr. B, a squire; he is the man who seeks sexual gratification from his servant. Because in her narrative, she presents herself as being morally upright, she rejects such sexual advances at all times as she would prefer “to die” than lose “my chastity”. Having subjected Pamela to intense suffering, slavery and alienation, Mr. B begins to fall in love with her; and in the end, they resolve to get married. Later on, Pamela struggles to cope with the social expectations of such meteoric rise (from a lower class to an aristocrat). And that has been the issue used to render her sexual morality as being false. Indeed, has Richardson suggested that a person’s chastity has value as commodity? The writer-critic, Fielding considers Pamela as a “prostitute” and a “scheming woman”. And the fact that we only sense the story from Pamela’s view point (being an epistolary novel) makes her “truth” questionable.

However, if one considers the socioeconomic situation of the eighteenth century England which, of course, influences this novel, one may begin to see things differently. The eighteenth century English society, as Ana Vorgrinic tells us, “is one of female suppression”; it was an age where women were considered in all sorts of derogatory viewpoints that to conceive a woman being smart enough to scheme her social rise was unthinkable. As a matter of fact, as depicted in other texts within the period – Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Congreve’s The Way of the World, and many more – only men could scheme such ideas into reality. And when women do, (see the Bennet’s family in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Simply said, it is a case of disappointment. It begs the question: how can a girl; not just any girl, a young girl (under 18) and middle-class with limited education be able to conceive such meteoric rise?

Another issue to consider is the master-servant relationship. By this, we mean the relationships that existed between the masters (who were really stern and proud) and the servants (who were really weak and submissive). Indeed, one should consider that the action depicted by Richardson was a rare one; one where a servant marries her master. The ideal master-servant relationship in the period (at least as depicted in other texts, plays included) was that similar to a colonialist and the colonised, or the man and the woman in a patriarchal society as seen in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Ekewnsi’s A Stranger from Lagos where “he talked; I listened”. Even more important in proving Pamela’s genuiness is that even after marriage, she continues to refer to her husband as “master”. This begs a question: how can someone who has plotted such rise, and on getting there, still refers to her husband as “master” be considered a schemer and prostitute?

(Perhaps) even more instructive is inherent in the psyche of the novel. Because the novel is written in an epistolary format – that is, letters form – it is clear that Pamela is being genuine in relation to her sexual morality. For instance, one critic refers to the epistolary form as being “too genuine” and reflecting someone’s “real character and nature”. And it was Laura Willis who noted: “a man’s letters… are only the mirror of his breast, whatever passes within him is shown undisguised in its natural process… Nothing is inverted, nothing distorted, you discover actions in their motives” (1).

What more must be said in relation to this? Pamela’s letters are addressed to her parents who reply (in the beginning). She pours out her real self and emotions into writing that one almost feels present at every action in the novel. This is not to say that Pamela is not on the gaining side. Indeed, she gets to keep her chastity till marriage, and her social status increases after marriage; all of which might portray her to be pretentious. But, one must consider from whom this story is told. First, she is barely 10 when employed to work for Mr. B. Second, at such young age of 16, his respect and value for her parents was enormous. How can such a young girl scheme her rise? Of a truth, “Pamela’s sexual morality should not be questioned; it should be applauded” (Saintsbury).

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About PenAStory

PenAStory is a group of young individuals with a passion for literature who have decided to come together to write under one platform. We seek to educate, inform as well as entertain our readers. Also, because we are targeting young literature lovers, we would like to touch on other interests of their lives hence the relationship category and because we all need a bit of motivation in our lives, we decided inspiration won't be so bad
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