In his article “Pamela: Autonomy, Subordination, and the ‘State of Childhood’”, Raymond F. Hilliard explores the ways in which Samuel Richardson’s Pamela can be delineated into two separate statements about the nature of subordinate relationships in the eighteenth century. The first half of the novel, Hilliard argues, is marked by Pamela’s adolescent journey toward adulthood and the self-reliance and autonomy associated with it. In this half, Pamela still operates under the assumption that she is in a subordinate position to God, to her parents, to Squire B, to essentially any character of age or authority. She displays a type of childish ignorance that, Hilliard argues, works to her ultimate detriment. “…She is reluctant, for instance, to admit that Mrs. Jervis is complying with B’s plan to delay Pamela’s departure from Bedfordshire, and unable to realize that several of B’s other servants are not the single-minded well-wishers she likes to consider them” (204). However, Hilliard notes that this subordinate mentality slowly begins to melt away as the first half progresses, as Richardson attempts to separate Pamela from “all to whom she would look for ‘Direction’ or ‘Deliverance’” (204). In doing so, Richardson induces Pamela’s introspection and ultimate move toward autonomy and self-assurance.
This transitory coming-of-age reaches a breaking point in what Hilliard describes as the “emotional center” of the novel, where Pamela asserts her autonomy and singularly makes the decision to return to B and yield to his marriage proposal (217). In this moment, Hilliard contends that the characters reach a “temporary equality, a balance of power”, a break from “the great law of subordination” that so often dominates eighteenth century literature (202). He postulates that this is the moment in which Pamela reaches true adulthood and relinquishes the ignorance of childhood that distinguished her character in the previous half of the novel. The gradual isolation of Pamela from her figures of guidance reaches a threshold when she consciously chooses to give in to B. Hilliard notes that we may view this as Pamela’s “ascendancy over her master, for she has established a portrait of herself that totally seduces him” (209). This moment is fleeting, however, as Hilliard moves to classify the version of subordination and hierarchical relations we see in the second half.
As Pamela and B enter into the realm of marriage and domesticity, Hilliard argues that Pamela experiences a regression in terms of her autonomy. Instead of fully assimilating her newfound self-assurance, she reverts to a submissive, obedient version of herself characterized by the presumptive code of husband and wife. The “law of subordination” is again placed upon the characters and Pamela is relocated to what Hilliard describes as “childhood”. He borrows from an earlier Mary Wollstonecraft suggestion about the psychological nature of subordination. She argues that eighteenth century marriage was dominated by these hierarchical relationships in which a wife, whose principal concern was to dutifully please a husband, lapses into a childlike state of obedience (210-11). This parent-child relationship is abundant in the latter half of Pamela, Hilliard argues, as demonstrated through the interaction of B, Pamela, Lady Davers, and various servants.
Reading Hilliard’s article, I found myself intrigued by his claims, but ultimately in disagreement with them. Although I think that we can view Pamela’s marriage to B as an ultimate triumph and a testament to her autonomy, I do not see that particular episode as a breaking point in that agency she comes to possess. While she does enter into the sphere of domesticity and the patriarchal code that presumably follows, I did not see this as an end to her maturity and definitely not as a regression toward a character that was any worse than she was in the first volume. While she may not assert her dominance in a way that supposes any great change, there are still instances where Pamela is arguably autonomous and, in my opinion, certainly not reflective of a parent-child relationship. Even so, a certain level of subordination was normative in this time, so to describe Pamela’s and B’s relationship as peculiar or alarming does not seem valid. As modern readers, of course we would want to see a fully developed, independent heroine, but as far as the time period goes, I think Pamela does a great deal, even in the second half, to demonstrate that she is not fully subservient.
That being said, what do you make of this argument? Is there a parent-child hierarchy at play between Squire B and Pamela? Is Pamela an ultimately dynamic character or do we see this reversion to “childhood” that Hilliard describes?
Hillard, Raymond F. "Pamela: Autonomy, Subordination, and the 'State of Childhood'." Studies in Philology 83.2 (1986): 201. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 19 Sept. 2011.