In her article, “Pamela’s Work,” Laura J. Rosenthal explores the deeper “significance of… [Pamela’s] ‘return’ to manual labor,” and the underlying implication that the labor in question is actually “sex work” or prostitution (245, 249). According to Rosenthal, the obvious conflict between corruption and virtue that saturates the novel exists within the structure of a more traditional class conflict, however, she argues, there is also a more subtle conflict present: namely that of manual labor vs. prostitution for working class women. Rosenthal bases her argument on the multiple implications of the clothing bundle selection Pamela makes early on in the novel. The first bundle, consisting of fine clothing given to her by her late mistress, represents both the end of friendship and propriety with Lady B, and the loss of a possibility, albeit slim, of a genteel life. The second, referred to as the “wicked” bundle, represents the sexual and moral compromise being proffered by Master B and the possibility of employment as his kept mistress (245). The third bundle, then, consists of working-class clothes appropriate for a woman of manual labor, which is what would await her were she to choose virtuous innocence and return home to her family. Despite their appeal, Pamela refuses both the first and second bundles, choosing instead, at least verbally, the third bundle, thus choosing virtue over luxury or pleasure.
However, even though Pamela seems to choose the moral highroad here, by choosing labor over luxury, Rosenthal claims that the virtuous significance of these clothes “quickly becomes subsumed by their erotic allure” (247). Both when Pamela sees herself in these clothes, and also when B later sees her in the simplistic working-class frock, she is said to be just as beautiful and sexy, if not more so, than she is in finer clothing. Interestingly, Samuel Richardson seems to shy away from ever testing Pamela’s resolve to return to manual labor. While it is true that her virtue is tested time and time again, her commitment to abandoning her position and running from temptation is continuously delayed either by her desire to finish her work, rerouted coach rides, or the marriage proposal she recieves shortly after arriving back home. From this, Rosenthal draws the conclusion that Richardson uses clothing as a commentary not only on class and social status, but also as a way to imply that Pamela, whose hands are too soft for actual manual labor, would mostly likely turn to prostitution were she to actually leave B’s estate (250-51).
According to Rosenthal, this invasion of sexual immorality into an otherwise virtuous way of life (that of the working-class woman who returns home to avoid being ruined by the advances of her male master), explores the possibility of virtue's failure in young women, and, more importantly, touches on the “broader crisis of labor and economic security for women, for which prostitution emerges as a symptom rather than a cause” (251). In fact, the overarching argument of the entire article, although hard to decipher until the end, is that the capitalization of labor via the rise in industry during the eighteenth century devalues the role of women within the household, forcing them to turn to the public sphere to provide for themselves and their families. Of course, this was, in and of itself, problematic because the wages, hours, and positions available to women were extremely limited. Thus, because of their decreased significance and social restrictions, many working-class women turned to prostitution as a means of employment. (252). Pamela is said to represent this conflict: no matter what she chooses – to remain in B’s service and most likely succumb to his advances, or return home to manual labor for which she was not bred nor accustomed to – she runs the risk of having no choice but to compromise her virtue for the sake of her livelihood.
Rosenthal emphasized a lot of aspects of the novel that are otherwise easy to overlook. For instance, she points out that Pamela never really has to face the consequences of maintaining her virtue in the face of B’s advances – she thinks quite a bit about returning home, but never actually does for any length of time. Prior to reading this article, I thought that the delay of her departure was simply a frustrating aspect of 18th century literature - the story would end if she followed through - but now, I am leaning towards believing it served a larger purpose than just prolonging the story. I also had never thought of manual labor being the same, or falling into the same category, as prostitution, but Rosenthal does make a compelling case that the two are one in the same in this novel.
That being said, do you buy it? Does Richardson purposefully imply that Pamela’s return to manual labor would inevitably lead her to a life of prostitution? Furthermore, if that implication exists, what does that do to the moral of the novel? Is Pamela still a book on how men and women can go about preserving their virtue and resisting temptation, and if so, does it change the temptation in question from sleeping with Master B to succumbing to a life of working-class prostitution?
Rosenthal, Laura J. "Pamela's Work." Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 46.3 (2005): 245-253. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 14 Sept. 2011.