Class and Culture in Pamela: Is Homi Bhabha Onto Something?

Sarah, Grant, and I worked from the first thirty-one letters in Pamela in order to find supporting evidence that pertained to the themes posted on our class’s Keywords account. We focused primarily on class, with a little bit of gender and property mixed in. I found Pamela’s role in society particularly interesting, mostly because she falls in between two classes—on the one hand, she is a servant, which would place her in a lower class. She comes from an economically unstable family, and therefore has little aristocratic nature to begin with. But as she works in the house of a Lady of the higher class, she is exposed to the ways of the higher class, and probably picks certain social cues up, allowing her to better fit with the rich. However, she still has her roots, placing her in a sort of classless (meaning without a certain class title, not “unclassy”) category. She therefore embodies Homi Bhabha’s idea of “hybridity”—that no culture, and therefore person within a culture, is pure because people’s identities are molded by their surroundings, which are never homogenous, and rather, always diverse.

Pamela, in some ways, reminds me of the modern day rapper. Let’s look at someone like Jay-Z. Before he became a celebrity, he roamed the streets of Brooklyn, New York, selling drugs and being involved in gang warfare (see figure 1). But once he became famous and rich, he started dressing more sophisticated, in fine Gucci suits, among other things (see figure 2). And yet Jay-Z still doesn’t speak proper English, especially while he raps, but also in interviews. He lives his life very much in limbo between classes, much like Pamela does. He doesn’t forget his roots—he still raps about living on the streets, but he also includes lines about living in luxury, having private jets, and owning a struggling NBA team, The New Jersey Nets. Jay-Z’s role in society is an odd one, much like Pamela’s. I would never consider him to be of the lower class, because of his fame and fortune. However, calling him an aristocrat would certainly be a stretch, especially because he was not born into wealth. He embodies the idea of the “nouveau riche.” Although Pamela isn’t “nouveau riche”—at least until after she marries Mr. B—she still possesses some of the same qualities in society that the “nouveau riche” do as well.

In the realm of society, I find Homi Bhabha’s idea that there is no such thing as “purity” in class and culture to be particularly thought provoking. If class were not pure, then wouldn’t everyone be in limbo? In some instances, I would agree that class isn’t exactly pure—someone like Paris Hilton, who is certainly of a high class, does not act like the aristocrat she theoretically should be because of outside influences in society. That makes sense that culture is not pure—it is difficult to avoid outside influences, especially with the invention of print media, the television, and most importantly, the Internet. Even the richest people in the world are not of a “pure class.” While I understand that society has changed dramatically from the 18th century, when Pamela was written, I would argue that there are some cultures and classes that are pure, even though they are exceedingly rare. Let’s look at the Amish for example. They stay within their village, use no technology, and live, essentially, in a different century. Assuming that they abide by their cultural rules, they would stay pure—nothing would distract them from exactly how they are supposed to be. The problem is that most people stray somewhat from conformity, mostly because human nature generally calls for fulfillment of curiosity.

I think that ties nicely into Pamela. Even Mr. B, whom would be considered to fit into the aristocratic class, is not purely an aristocrat. He marries a woman out of his class, and abuses her—not the classiest of actions, in my opinion. So wouldn’t that put him in limbo between classes, too? Does Pamela’s role as a transcendent of class really make her unique in the novel? Because in a sense, everyone transcends societal and cultural norms in some way or another. Perhaps what sets Pamela apart, much like Jay-Z, is that she knows that she is crossing these lines, and makes conscience decisions to be her own, unique person. Both of their personalities show through based on the fact that they breech class and cultural lines, placing them into a category all their own. We should all strive for that mindset.

Figure 1 (figure 1)

Figure 2 (figure 2)




5 thoughts on “Class and Culture in Pamela: Is Homi Bhabha Onto Something?

  1. I am enthralled by the idea that we are all indeed living in limbo. Eliza, I am glad you brought up the Amish as one of the only “pure” cultures we see; the extreme conformity required of such cultures either leaves the individual blind and numb or, as you implied, curious as to what lies beyond the boundaries of society. I believe it false to assume that any class or culture can exist in its “pure” form. Each class that exists today has, in fact, grown out of a previous melding of classes or cultures. We have discussed repeatedly Pamela’s limbo, yet not looked so diligently at Mr. B-‘s. Thanks to Eliza’s insight, we can easily see that she is not alone in her transcendence, but rather hers is simply the most shocking and taboo due to the ease of her upward mobility (and her female gender). Mr. B-, too, appears curious and interested in those who exist outside of his class, looking to Pamela for excitement and, eventually, a wife. Going forward, it is impossible to look at the rest of Richardson’s characters without examining their limbo, as well.

  2. I think it’s interesting to bring the word “purity” into our discussion of the social class hierarchy within Pamela, as in many ways it seems that Pamela too worries about the idea of purity. In the novel, Pamela seems to conflate her sexual purity with that of her moral purity or in Pamela’s own terms her virtue. Pamela worries about her virtue in terms of both her ability to resist Mr. B’s sexualization of her body and his seduction, yet she also speaks about her virtue with regard to her ability to be moral in her work and her other non-sexual interactions for instance with the other servants around the house and her ability to fulfill her duties as a servant to their fullest extent. And, in the beginning of the novel, it also seems that this sexual and moral purity is enough at least in Pamela’s eyes and the rest of the household for Pamela to ascend into the higher class, creating another kind of conflation as sexual purity transforms into a kind of class purity. Which, is why I think this idea of class purity is such a pertinent one to our discussion of where Pamela places herself within the social class and where others place her. People of the upper class seem to be convinced by Pamela’s sexual purity yet unlike Pamela they do not conflate this purity and virtue in social class terms because in terms of social class she is definitively “unpure.” And, by the end of the novel, it seems that Pamela too has changed her views of herself and sees herself as socially “unpure” yet morally still sound. For example, when she adopts Mrs. Danver’s view of her as “a piece of painted dirt”.

    • I found your analysis very thought provoking and well said. Your points on “purity” are very well-supported, though I must confess that I disagree on the example of the Amish being an example of a “pure” culture. However, my idea that even an extreme example like the Amish still proves that we are all in limbo only further supports your analysis of Bhabha’s idea that no one’s identity, with regards to their culture and class, is “pure.”

      To better explain myself, even when the Amish “abide by their cultural rules,” they are still not isolated from the tension between their culture and the rest of the world. Their cultural rules shift as the times demand it. For example, at farmer’s markets and train depots in the Midwest, I have seen Amish wearing braces, Amish riding the trains, Amish using modern farm equipment, etc. The Amish today are a different class and culture than they were 200 years ago, with influences from different classes, such as wealthier farm corporations, and cultures, such as the people they interact with every day. I am not suggesting that their distinct culture does not differ from the surrounding populations. Rather, I am suggesting that the Amish are a prime example of a class “in limbo,” relating to your and Bhabha’s ideas of hybridity, class, and culture.

  3. “He marries a woman out of his class, and abuses her—not the classiest of actions, in my opinion.”


  4. I think the idea that Pamela isn’t the only character in limbo between classes within the novel is very interesting. The idea that Mr. B goes down within the classes by marrying his servant is interesting but throughout the novel the characters that are Mr. B’s friends and neighbors never seem to look down upon him for marrying below him and he even denies it himself by saying that if the opposite happened with lady Davers he would have never have let me him gone through with it. I think that goes with concept of gender within the novel, Mr. B, a male, is able to marry below his class and still maintain his own position. His sister though, if in the same position, would lose her power by marrying a servant. The fact that Pamela realizes she can’t just go up to a new class so easily changes my interpretation of the novel slightly, bringing back the quote of being a “painted piece of dirt”. Throughout the novel we looked at Pamela’s conscious knowledge of her limbo and the deceit she uses to gain new position, which makes me question her use of deceit. She gets what we believe she aimed for but is still conscious that she can’t fully be a part of the new class even despite her marriage to Mr. B.

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