Monday, September 19, 2011

Hannah Keller Secondary Lit Post: Pamela

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?

Works Cited

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.


  1. Although I agree that for this time period, a woman was expected to subject herself to her husbands wishes, I do also believe in the validity of Hillard’s claim. My questions for my mandatory blog post alludes to Squire B’s demanding obedience from Pamela, and how she, servant-like (or childlike according to Hillard) assents to his wishes, constantly praising her gracious Master. The fact that even as a wife, Pamela still calls Squire B., Master, might be indicative of this perpetual subjugation. I found her wit and sharp tongue in the beginning of the novel to be refreshing. While reading the Part II, I honestly felt like punching Squire B. I wanted Pamela to assert herself as she had in the first half. Instead of voicing her beliefs, it seems as though she has lost her own voice and is completely dictated by Squire B. Perhaps, the only voice she had was in regard to her virginity. Perhaps Richardson equates a woman’s sole value with her Innocence. Once she has already given that away albeit through marriage, she no longer has anything to fight for. Squire B. gave Pamela 48 numerated instructions and many other rules regarding what he expects out of a wife throughout the Second Book. If a man were to give me 48 rules to our marriage and everyday instruct me on how to act, I would probably give him a karate chop in the guy’s nether regions. Pamela, however, kissed up to him non-stop and praised him for his constant tutelage. Maybe my reactions are simply based on a contemporary point of view. However, like Hillard, I do believe that after fighting ardently for her virginity, Pamela no longer had anything to fight for and did stoop to a status of child-like obedience.

  2. I agree with Kirsten in the fact that her calling him "master" is indicating that Pamela is "under his wing" and may seem child-like and dependent. But I thought she was immature/silly/dramatic throughout volume one with her letters to her parents. Haha! Towards the middle of volume two, I'm beginning to think that for a girl in her time... she's actually maturing really fast. Her station in life changes drastically as well once she gets married to Squire B. She's young but pretty wise for her age in that she adapts to change very quickly. Although she's very submissive as a wife and very "obedient" this gives her a avenue to learn that "station" and status in life. This book is in the 18th century where we can't expect her to have the kinds of liberties women have now, so for that time, I feel like she has achieved a lot for a girl of her class. And I feel like Squire B, for a man of his time is just teaching her the ways of "higher class" marriage. But I'm not too sure about that... Although she felt that Squire B was diabolic and terrible in the beginning, she realizes later that she actually cares for him and she is able to make a conscious decision to marry him (and he is in a way "begging" her to marry him), which I feel like is a step towards maturity. Also The title of the book itself is "Pamela" or "Virtue Rewarded." And her name means "All Sweetness." I feel like this book is saying, "Because she's so sweet, she was rewarded with a man like Squire B." I wonder if Richardson wanted us to like Squire B.

  3. I agree with both Kirsten and Christina. Like Kirsten says, I, too, found Pamela's caustic wit of the first half of the novel to be refreshing and empowering that she relayed what was on her mind. I agree with Hillard's claim that there is a parental-like hierarchy at work in the novel with Squire B in the role of father. Such a hierarchy may have been "normal" for the eighteenth century, but I see it as MORE problematic for Pamela to be submissive in her marriage than I found it when she was simply (or not so simply) a submissive servant. Like Kirsten, I wonder if my opinions are based on my 21st century vantage point...but...I could forgive Pamela's ignorance as a child; however...I don't know...I'm just frustrated with her as a character and as a woman.

  4. I agree with Megan, Kirsten and Christina. Towards the beginning of the novel Pamela acts like such a young girl and is mesmerized by the power that her "master", Squire B has. Since he is a member of the upper class, and he has a "crush" on a lower class girl - Pamela is excited and giddy to be in this position. Although he does like her as a potential sexual partner, she sees him as her master and almost as a father figure. He not only gives her clothes and money, but he also tries to give her moral support. I feel that it is problematic that she is forced to marry Squire B and she is so submissive in her marriage. I see Pamela as more of a servant than a wife even once they are married. I also feel her ignorance contributes to this role. I feel bad for Pamela.