Feminist Rant #1: Quid Pro Quo Relationships and Commodification in “Pamela”

good old joseph ducreux

I’m having some trouble with Pamela. Indeed, the feminist in me hath been aching and thus moved to speak; and yea, verily, I thrust forward, for thine inspection, trepidations about the philosophical implications of the lovely Mr. Richardson’s novel thus far.

Madam Ingrassia, in her essay “I Am Become A Mere Usurer”: Pamela and Domestic Stock-Jobbing,” posits that “Money, property, and capital, in any form, are, to Pamela’s mind, designed to be put to use, to be invested for a profit, to bear some form of interest” (303). Ingrassia goes further, clearly locating Pamela in a system of manipulation in which she co-opts her sexuality and body for social and economic gain, by saying,

She transforms the good opinion and fine reputation she has within the household (a measure of her worth based on past behavior) into a growing source of credit (faith in her future value and performance). She further invests in herself for herself by creating her own negotiable paper or “paper credit,” letters and a journal, which acts as an indicator of her worth. (304)

My spidey-feminist-sense was already tingling, and then I came across these gems:

She reveals an awareness of her attractiveness to Longman, and the potential profit of that attraction. She makes this observation in the context of a longer letter that suggests her potential for advancement with Mr. B. as well. (309)

Indeed, Pamela has done precisely what Lady Davers initially suggested; she has held B. at a distance and consequently made herself more attractive and thus valuable as a result. Through resistance and savvy negotiation, Pamela is able to achieve the end she wants [marriage] and to transform her credit into virtue. (316)

All these quotes cohere around the idea that Pamela has commodified not only her body, but her very identity. Her every action, through Ingrassia’s lenses, is an investment in her future attractiveness and only serve to further her upwards social mobility. Mr. B. and ol’ Pam are not in love in Ingrassia’s estimation; instead, they are Wall Street business people, operating on solely economic terms.

At first, I didn’t know if I could buy Ingrassia’s argument. It seemed creative, but speculative. However, have you noticed the coldness of Pamela and B.’s relationship? I have, and it’s kind of spooky how it’s never “love” that crosses Pamela’s mind, but worry over her “virtue” and thus self-worth. The very tone of the novel seems to support Ingrassia’s claim of Pamela as a “domestic stock-jobber.”

Perhaps Ingrassia’s article makes Pamela a powerful female figure in the literary canon. It could definitely support an argument that Pamela has figured out the rules of the Old Boy’s Club, and is manipulating the system to achieve her own ends, regardless of what society thinks of her.

However, I see deep philosophical implications for this conclusion. The first is that the quid pro quo relationship between Pamela and B. which Ingrassia claims she “rejects” because “it relies on B.’s word rather than a documented exchange and because it is not the best deal for her,” is not exactly “rejected” by Pamela (312). Instead, she merely changes the face of it, “shifting the relationship and the terms of the exchange from the world of goods (kisses for stockings) to an imaginatively based world of speculative investment, paper credit, and negotiable paper,” ultimately failing to transform the rotten root of their capitalistic relationship (313).

The problem with a quid pro quo relationship is that human beings should not view the aspects of interpersonal relationships–conversations, memories, actions themselves–as coin to later be used for or against someone, or to manipulate a situation with the person to benefit you. It makes life competitive, surface, vacuous. Suddenly, everyone is against you. Instead of wondering, “What makes this person special?” one thinks, “What can I get from this person?” When relationships become transactions, it prevents equality, and perhaps even perpetuates inequality. The British are famous for viewing people in terms of their economic value–the institution of slavery is a case in point. It’s not that far of a stretch to say that Pamela affirms the cycle of manipulation brought on by the advent of capitalism.

And the problem presented by focusing on her “virtue” instead of material goods as the currency of the transaction between Pamela and Mr. B., is that it is the identity of Pamela that is put on the market, that is co-opted by the capitalist system, that is traded for a life in the upper class. Her roots as the daughter of a ditch-digger are sold for rides in a chariot with Mr. B. And also, I do not believe, as Ingrassia insists, that Pamela “resists being seen as tangible property that can be easily bought” (312). Her ultimate “goal” is marriage to Mr. B., which is by definition a sexual relationship. Even though she does not sell her kisses to B. in exchange for marriage, the basis of theirquid pro quo relationship is sexual; and therefore, Pamela’s body is commodified. She loses her identity. Pamela is not a happy book, in my opinion.

Also, Pamela marries the man who sexually assaulted her. WTF?

Okay, that’s enough of a feminist rant for right now.

Grant, out!

P.S. I once had a music blog, and I feel I can’t end a post on WordPress without posting some good music. I’ve been listening to this mix while writing this very blog post. Best music for studying ever. http://8tracks.com/glitch-cypher/hypnotic-bass


2 thoughts on “Feminist Rant #1: Quid Pro Quo Relationships and Commodification in “Pamela”

  1. Grant,
    I completely agree with you in that I see this narrative as a tragedy and at the heart of that tragedy is the sad irony that Pamela believes she is evading the commodification of her body all the while she is being almost made a perfect example of the scope of this commodification. And, it is one that starts at the beginning of the novel, when even the reader is lead to believe (courtesy of the skewed nature of the epistolary style) that by protect her sexual naivety and purity, Pamela can rise socially through this (sexualized sense of) virtue rather than through capitalistic means. Yet, I also see Ingrassia’s reading of Pamela a little one dimensional because even though I do agree with the conclusions she draws, I think she leaves out what Pamela does kind of garner outside of this system in the novel. For example, this conversion phenomenon that we’ve discussed in class where Pamela achieves respect through her stalwart adherence perhaps not to virtue but a code of conduct in which she believes. Her ability to envision a system outside the one that she is a part of is still a type of freedom in the novel, one she shares for example with Jon Arnold and which we see in this betrayal of Mr. B’s privacy.

  2. Going off of Ingrassia’s implications that Pamela used her attractiveness to gain what she wanted-economic stability from the marriage with Mr.B makes sense within the context of the novel, from the way that Pamela acts and the way she perceives beauty. Pamela continuously judges characters based on the way they look, for example with Mrs. Jewkes connecting her nasty personality to how ugly she was with paws for hands and how horrible she looked when she laughed. Pamela also was aware of her own beauty, as seen in the way that she reacted to herself in her country dress, going on and on about how she had never liked herself so much before. Pamela could be seen as a deceitful text, that Pamela is aware of her power through her appearance and uses it to gain what she wants but looking at from a different view it actually is a sad story because she can only gain things through her beauty and if it’s really what she wants.

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