Character Reliability

In class on Wednesday, our discussion on Pamela as a character turned into a debate about whether or not we can believe in the character of Pamela. I found it very interesting that some in the class found Pamela unrealistic as a person. They argued that her actions seemed not like a fifteen year old would, and they found it hard to believe that Samuel Richardson was able to accurately capture the mindset of a fifteen-year-old girl at that time. I felt there were some very interesting points brought up; first of all, the perspective of an older man varies significantly from that of a teenaged girl, especially at the time that this book was written. Richardson would have had to do some pretty extensive research to fully capture the mindset of the Pamela-character. Secondly, Pamela herself seems like a fairly ridiculous character; she seems very unrealistic as a female. She is young and employed by a well-off man who adores her. As a female, I, too, find it hard to believe that Pamela would not embrace her feminine power more and take advantage of her master’s infatuation. In an era where women’s rights were coming into the forefront of public scrutiny, Pamela’s actions seem as if they would not match with young women of her time.

Here is a link to a site discussing a history of women’s rights. Check it out:

However, I would like to argue that this is a novel, and therefore holds a power over its readers to expand their imaginations. There are plenty of authors out there who may not have done their research and simply put their thoughts to paper. Now, that is not to say that Richardson did not research the mind of a teenaged girl, but he has the authority as an author to exaggerate. Likewise, as I mentioned at the end of our discussion, as a novel, Pamela has the ability to be a commentary on social issues of the time. Although we cannot gage exactly what Richardson had in mind during his writing stages, I can guess that he took some of the issues of the time and reconfigured them to fit into the context and plot of the novel. Many authors embrace their writing talents and utilize their abilities by inserting political, social, religious, etc. biases, subtly or not, into their work. Particular authors of Richardson’s time, trying to avoid as much scrutiny as possible, show their viewpoints by shaping their characters so that they will embrace the characteristics they are trying to emphasize.

The imaginative process of writers and authors fascinates me. Reading Pamela, I have been intrigued by Richardson’s characters since the beginning. Not only is Pamela a fascinating specimen of a female, but she also is very unpredictable with her thoughts. In the passage we chose for class of John Arnold’s letter and her reaction, you see a wonderful example of Pamela’s interesting personality:

“I am now come to MONDAY, the 5th Day of my Bondage and Misery.
I was in Hope to have an Opportunity to see John, and have a little private Talk with him before he went away; but it could not be. The poor Man’s excessive Sorrow made Mrs. Jewkes take it into her Head, to think he lov’d me, and so she brought up a Message to me from him this Morning, that he was going. I desir’d he might come up to my Closet, as I call’d it; and she came with him: And the honest Man, as I thought him, was as full of Concern as before, at taking Leave. And I gave him my two Letters, the one for Mrs. Jervis, inclos’d in that for my Master: But Mrs. Jewkes would see me seal them up, for fear of any other— I was surpriz’d, at the Man’s going away, to see him drop a Bit of Paper, just at the Head of the Stairs, which I took up without Mrs. Jewkes’s seeing me; but I was a thousand times more surpriz’d, when I return’d to my Closet, and opening it, read as follows:

Good Mrs. Pamela,
I am griev’d to tell you how much you have been deceiv’d and betray’d, and that by such a vile Dog as I. Little did I think it would come to this. But I must say, if ever there was a Rogue in the World, it is me. I have all along shew’d your Letters to my Master: He employ’d me for that Purpose; and he saw every one before your Father and Mother, and then seal’d them up, and sent me with them. I had some Business that way; but not half so often as I pretended. And as soon as I heard how it was with you, I was ready to hang myself. You may well think I could not stand in your Presence. O vile, vile Wretch, to bring you to this! If you are ruin’d, I am the Rogue that caus’d it. All the Justice I can do you, is, to tell you, you are in vile Hands; and I am afraid will be undone in spite of all your sweet Innocence; and I believe I shall never live after I know it. If you can forgive me, you are exceeding good; but I shall never forgive myself, that’s certain. Howsomever, it will do you no good to make this known; and may-hap I may live to do you Service. If I can, I will. I am sure I ought— Master kept your last two or three Letters, and did not send them at all. I am the most abandon’d Wretch of Wretches.
‘ J. Arnold.

‘You see your Undoing has been long hatching. Pray take care of your sweet Self. Mrs. Jewkes is a Devil. But in my Master’s t’other House you have not one false Heart, but myself. Out upon me for a Villain!’

My dear Father and Mother, when you come to this Place, I make no doubt your Hair will stand an End, as mine does! —O the Deceitfulness of the Heart of Man! —This John, that I took to be the honestest of Men; that you took for the same; that was always praising you to me, and me to you, and for nothing so much as for our honest Hearts; this very Fellow was all the while a vile Hypocrite, and a perfidious Wretch, and helping to carry on my Ruin!

But he says enough of himself; and I can only sit down with this sad Reflection, That Power and Riches never want Tools to promote their vilest Ends, and that there is nothing so hard to be known as the Heart of Man! —Yet I can but pity the poor Wretch, since he seems to have some Remorse, and I believe it best to keep his Wickedness secret; and, if it lies in my way, to encourage his Penitence; for I may possibly make some Discoveries by it.

One thing I should mention in this Place; he brought down, in a Portmanteau, all the Cloaths and Things my Lady and Master had presented me, and moreover two Velvet Hoods, and a Velvet Scarf, that used to be worn by my Lady; but I have no Comfort in them!

Mrs. Jewkes had the Portmanteau brought into my Closet, and she shew’d me what was in it; but then locked it up, and said, she would let me have what I would out of it, when I asked; but if I had the Key, it might set me a wanting to go abroad, maybe; and so the insolent Woman put it in her Pocket.” (Richarson, 152-154).


3 thoughts on “Character Reliability

  1. I think the idea of “Character Reliability” is not only applicable but an interesting way to approach this novel, not only in terms of the readers relationship to the text and the believability, but as a way to speak about the characters’ relationships with each other. I agree with Eliza in that I think despite the cynicism one can easily apply to the believability of Richardson as a 15 year old girl, I think the context of the novel enables us to suspend our disbelief. And, in a similar way to the operation of the novel, I think one can observe the ways that Pamela despite her wariness of Mr. B at the beginning is able to suspend her doubts about Mr. B once he is legitimized by financial stability and she is legitimized as his legal wife. After she is engaged, her questions about his reliability and intentions as a character go away because his character is now anchored by outside obligations and systems namely, the legal and financial system within which he must operate.

  2. I think that the concept of ‘character reliability’ within Pamela is interesting for a lot of the characters. Can we really believe Pamela, who is only a 16 year old girl, and take true everything she says about the other characters within the novel. Also with the epistolary type of novel it’s hard to know what parts Pamela is holding back. In the beginning it’s uncertain whether Pamela likes Mr. B or not and the unreliability continues, is Pamela exaggerating her interactions with Mr. B? The idea that Pamela isn’t reliable is strengthened when she marries Mr.B and decides she is in love with him. Another part of character reliability is Pamela’s naivety. Pamela is only a 16 year old girl yet the readers hold true everything she says, are the other characters actually converted by her? Has the aggressive Mr. B changed his ways to become a doting husband? Has abusive Mrs. Jewkes changed by Pamela to respect her? It’s hard to believe that these characters portrayed so extremely by Pamela to change so drastically and so quickly. It’s either that Pamela exaggerates dramatically on their characteristics or she is naive enough to be deceived by their perceived change.

  3. Character reliability is certainly an aspect of the novel that deserves close attention. I agree with Eliza (and Molly in her post) that analysis of Pamela becomes infinitely more substantial when considering both that she is a 16 year old girl and that there exists a stark difference between her public and private sphere. Epistolary novels by definition require the writer to retell a story with some purpose, as the write tells the story to someone else. Pamela has an inordinate amount of power as she can tell stories from her perspective, possibly misinterpreting what transpired. I’m glad that Eliza decided to post on this issue, as I feel that neglecting Pamela’s possibly flawed interpretation of events ignores a large component of this novel. Considering this possibility may help us understand some of the character changes people have described as unbelievable. Maybe, Pamela perceives certain changes that haven’t quite transpired, and she reports an incorrect interpretation of what happens. Pamela has a large amount of influence over the reader, and taking the time to note the possible fallacies within her narrative can serve to show the ways in which her representation of events may not correspond to reality.

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