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.
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:
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).