The Problem with Pamela… and Most Romantic Novels to Follow

As recent class blog posts claim, many of us—myself included—are struggling with Pamela. Why is this? I think the main problem, as Grant alluded to in his “Feminist Rant #1,” is that our 21st-century collegiate selves cannot wrap our minds around the idea that our passive Pamela ultimately succumbs to the mind games, power, and financial stability of Mr. B. Not the most empowering statement for us young women and men.

We are not alone in our struggles with Pamela, whether frustrated by the plot or the character herself. Is Pamela the precursor to all the frustrating and cliché romance novels to follow? Or is this too bold of a claim?

While searching for feminist critiques of Pamela, a surprising amount of sources connected Richardson’s novel with modern romance novels. I even found a course in Germany (class field trip anyone?) called “The Seduction of Romance Fiction – From Pamela to Twilight” (Greta-Olson.com). This course synopsis asks the provocative question, “what attracts readers again and again to the plot of a woman who is attracted to a dangerous man, who in the course of the story is reformed by love into being a veritable prince?” Let’s relate this back to Pamela.

Woman: Pamela.

Dangerous man: Mr. B.

Dangerous man is transformed by love = Marriage!

No wonder our class is struggling with Pamela. Sure, it’s a very simplified plot outline, but it still fits the essential plot outline for Pamela and the thousands of contemporary romance novels. Actually, make that millions of other romance novels if you include the teenage vampire section in that count. When I think about it, the time, location and names of the characters are the main differences among romantic novels, whether dealing with dramatic western romance novels or fantasy romance novels. Let’s take a look at the cartoon below critiquing the romantic-novel plots and characters in Disney movies:

Image                                                                                                Photo courtesy of Google images, 2012.

So how does this relate to Pamela? Well let me ask you: how is Pamela much different than any of the Disney princesses? Besides being thin and flawless young women, Pamela and the princesses also lack direct control of the direction that their lives are going in. They are nearly all are from humble backgrounds and their beauty and pure virtue transforms the gorgeous, perfect prince into an even more handsome suitor.

How would Pamela or these Disney princess movies be different if the female protagonists were ugly? Are any of the princesses or Pamela praised for their inner character, intellect, humor, creative abilities, etc.? While Pamela is admired for her musical and writing skills, her beauty and virginity are by far her most prominent assets, which is no different than poor Snow White. Not only do all these characters fit the essential romantic novel plot, but their beauty also wins the affection of loyal yet lowly servants, and in Pamela’s case, of creepy yet powerful sexual-assaulters-slash-magically-transformed husbands. Is this perhaps the overarching reason that we are struggling to admire Pamela in the way Richardson wanted us readers to?

Researchers Ann Burnett and Rhea Rheinhardt explored the subliminal messages in romance novels in their article “Reading Romance Novels: An Application of Parasocial Relationship Theory.” I find their overall explanation of the problem with romance novels relates to our frustrations with Pamela. This passage claims that some

“[…] scholars argue that romance novels reflect and reinforce a patriarchal society. Modleski (1980; 1982) was one of the first scholars to analyze romance novels from a feminist perspective. She states, ‘The heroine of the novels can achieve happiness only by undergoing a complex process of self-subversion, sacrificing her aggressive instincts, her pride, and–nearly–her life…. The reader is encouraged to participate in and actively desire feminine self-betrayal’ (p. 435).”

Now does this statement exactly fit the predicament of Pamela or is that just me? Let’s go through the list. Does Pamela subvert her thoughts and morals? Yes. Although one could argue that her thoughts are shared with to Mr. B, thus explaining his transformation. But I personally am struggling with the believability of Mr. B’s metamorphosis into a better person. Let’s be real. Pamela completely abandons her initial and instinctual feelings about Mr. B, therefore self-subverting herself. Now for the second component. Does Pamela sacrifice her instincts, pride, and almost her life? Yes. She decides to marry the moody, violent and scandalous man who sexually assaulted her. Seems pretty risky to me.

Regardless of the problems I am finding with Pamela, which parallel the problems with most romantic novels, the novel is still a good read. I think the humor and societal critique in the novel is often overlooked (by myself included) because of Pamela’s dominating and melodramatic ways. To many of us, she appears a weak protagonist who thinks about her situation but hardly acts on it. However, we need to remember that the norms and societal expectations in 18th-century Britain differ so much from our contemporary times. Perhaps this is the main reason that we are struggling relating to and sympathizing with poor Pamela. After all, Richardson wanted his readers to sensibly connect with Pamela and admire her steadfast virtue and morals. Yet our overall class interpretation of her is far from admiring. I think this relates to our inability to dismiss our contemporary interpretations of this novel. I imagine, and I hope, that most of us do not idolize and praise Pamela for her actions and outcome. But again, maybe I just need to minimize my contemporary mindset so I can see Pamela the way Richardson saw her.

I would like to conclude with a quote from literary scholar Terry Castle. Her quote aptly summarizes the gist of Pamela in his article titled “Pamela as Sexual Fiction.” Really, take a look at this one, for Castle acknowledges our cultural biases and the problem with Pamela, as she writes that

“the novel affirms, finally, a cultural stereotype of female sexuality; it celebrates the normative pattern in a powerful imaginative form. Pamela is an exemplary character in an exemplary drama. As the crude determinism of P and B suggests, she is fated to act out the prevailing Western fantasy of woman as castrated, as ‘maimed’ human being. Her discourse thus may appall us, but it cannot surprise us” (489).

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3 thoughts on “The Problem with Pamela… and Most Romantic Novels to Follow

  1. You make several good points, and I second the recommendation of the Castle article.
    Also, check out her The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny for one of the best discussions of eighteenth-century sexuality.

    One tiny correction: Terry Castle is a woman: http://english.stanford.edu/bio.php?name_id=36

    One of the tensions in your posts is aptly summed up by Castle: we might be “appall[ed]” by Pamela’s decisions, but is it really that unfamiliar to us?

    Your example of Disney Princesses (and the massive marketing juggernaut they represent) illustrates how these narratives are still with us, and remain relatively unchecked. I’d go as far as to argue that in some of the adaptions, the heroines are more submissive, more “maimed” than in earlier incarnations from the oral tradition.

    Remember, too, that this holds true for other texts we continue to read and adapt:

    From Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Ch. 59:

    “My dearest sister, now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved him?”

    “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

    For Fun:
    https://www.youtube.com/show/advicefromacartoonprincess?feature=context&s=1

    • I really enjoyed the mocking videos of the Disney princesses. It’s interesting, because as a young girl, I idolized those princesses and completely absorbed most of their subliminal messages, especially the “damsel-in-distress” idea. You bring up an interesting point that that even after several centuries, the perception of women in works like those is largely submissive, perhaps even more submissive than in earlier works.

      Also, I updated the article to address the fact that Terry Castle is a woman – thank you for that not-so-minor detail. Her other article analyzing the 18th-century idea of a female thermometer measuring sexual arousal and Freud’s later idea of “the uncanny” is really interesting. I think it relates to several of the scenes in Pamela. For example, when Pamela is so terrified that she faints and when she imagines the bulls in the field as Mr. B and Mrs. Jewkes, several uncanny themes seem to emerge.

      I do not think it’s a stretch to conclude that the princesses (and women in other novels) become even more “maimed” than previous traditions. Maybe this is because many of the modern heroines, such as the Disney princesses, are initially displayed as “perfect” females with “perfect” fates? The fact that even in Pride and Prejudice, which largely satirizes gender and societal expectations, Elizabeth admits to falling in love with Darcy upon seeing his large estate is appalling indeed.

  2. I, too, liked the mocking videos of Disney Princesses. Ever since I understood what the word “objectify” meant, I’ve come to see the process of objectifying women play out more and more in Disney movies. A part of me is depressed that some of my childhood heroes have become sex symbols with no mind of their own, but another part of me sees this as a learning experience. I’m currently taking a sociology course this semester titled, “Sociology of Gender,” in which we’ve discussed the symbolic characteristics of what constitutes a male and a female according to respective societies. According to Judith Lorber – a well known Sociologist whose primary focus is on gender – gender is ascribed, taught, maintained, and achieved. Lorber speaks a lot on the notions of gender inequality, in a sense that it is supported by society and lasts because it influences other parts of society that, in turn, reestablish the roles of gender. As Allie mentioned, with Disney, we see a very limited perspective of the female/male spectrum because the women are only praised by their outwardly appearance, regardless of “big dreams” or their hearts, whereas the men are always the hero that comes out on top.

    By looking at Pamela, we see a very similar take on gender differences. On one hand, we have Mr. B, who’s persona as a male is chiseled from the Prince Charmings’ in pursuit of the pretty woman, where, on the other hand, our Pamela is the damsel. Obviously, at the time Pamela was written, Richardson would have most likely portrayed Pamela in the view of women of her time, which would have been submissive like some of our Disney Princesses. Funny how the male/female binary show up where you’d least expect it.

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