GUYS. GUYS. WE’RE DONE WITH PAMELA TODAY. PIT-A-PAT GOES MY HEART AND SHIT. [Ariel says: Any word on when the next Pamela is coming out, guys? Too soon? I thought so.]
Also, casual reminder that it’s only been 71 days since we were at “Help! I’ve been kidnapped by a psychopath!” It’s funny because one of the most common reasons defending why Pamela is in the canon is because of its contributions to realism in the novel, and it’s the exact same shit Fifty Shades, Crossfire, the Disasters, and presumably the majority of post-Fifty Shades erotica get criticized as unrealistic for.
Astute readers may have noticed that the plot completely wrapped up a few weeks ago, save for last week’s eleventh hour “oh, shit, nothing’s happened in a while” surprise. So now that we’re in the final stretches of the novel, what does this book have to offer us?
Think I’m kidding? Everything that’s happening now has happened so many times before, even Pamela is half-assing it now:
We were yesterday favored with the company of almost all the neighboring gentleman and their ladies [who] met to congratulate out happiness. Nothing could be more obliging, more free and affectionate, than the ladies. Nothing more polite than the gentlemen. All was performed with decency and order. [Ariel says: I love how this is the exact opposite of the gala at the end of Entwined with You.]
Pamela and the Master go to church and everybody loves Pamela. Wait, you’ve heard that before? A lot? Well, what if I told you that it was despite her lower class! Oh, you’ve heard that before too?
“By all that’s good, you have charmed the whole congregation! Not a soul but is full of your praises!”
Well, what if I mentioned that afterwards Pamela donated money to- WAIT! COME BACK! I SWEAR THERE’S MORE!
Yes. The only spark of life that is left in this plot is literally the Master talking about death.
“My line is almost extinct,” [The Master said.] “The chief part of my maternal estate, in case I die without issue, will go to another line. [And] I shall not care my Pamela should be at the mercy of [whoever my fortune goes to]. I have, therefore, as human life is uncertain, made such a disposition of my affairs as will make you absolutely independent and happy [and] secure.”
If you think you’ve seen novels get desperate to stretch out their page count before, Pamela is dying to- oh my God, I can’t; Pamela, just give up already.
Pamela has another twist for the most morbid denouement ever, when the Master asks Pamela to promise him one thing if he dies.
“Only resolve not to marry one person […] This person is Mr. Williams.”
Surprise! The Master still won’t let this book’s Jacob go! Even though Pamela has spent literally hundreds of pages trying to tell him that she never had any romantic feelings towards Mr. Williams. With its dying breath, Pamela is still trying to make the Mr. Williams subplot a thing.
Is it even worth wondering what Pamela makes of all of this?
He said, “I will not hear my dear creature say anything!”
Right. She’s a woman. She’s not allowed to say anything unless a man tells her what she can say when he’s, like, moved by nature or something.
“Don’t you with pleasure […] take in the delightful fragrance of [these] banks of flowers? […] You are a poetess, my dear, and I will give you a few lines that I made myself on such an occasion.”
Not even Pamela lets herself write any of her own insights in her letters. You know, the letters where the Master fell in love with her insightful personality. [Ariel says: That’s what happens in all of these books. The women just kind of lose what little personalities they had to begin with. Gideon and Christian claim to fall in love with Ana and Eva because they stand up to them and challenge them, but then as soon as they’re together it’s like, “Okay, lol, now you have to come work for me at my company, and please don’t ever question me anymore. Thanks!” As soon as Eva marries Gideon she’s like, “I’m a mogul’s wife now! It’s all so different!”]
This world is not a place for the immortal mind to be confined to […] But I shall not get out of my depth; my shallow mind cannot comprehend, as it ought, these weighty subjects.
Which would almost sound impressively Camus-like if this book didn’t already beat you over the head with the patriarchy.
So Pamela and the Master wait a few days for Pamela’s parents to show up. And Pamela stops writing her letters a few days before they show up. And then the book ends. Seriously. A dozen pages about running in and out of a house trying not to be scared of a bull, zero pages about the thing she’s waited the entire book for.
Here end, at present, the letters of Pamela to her father and mother.
Seriously, she just stops. The woman who would write that she stopped writing for a few seconds, but has just started again, just stops writing, independent of any actual stopping point. I haven’t wasted this much time waiting for a story to not tell a story since LOST.
But then it gets worse.
The reader will here indulge us in a few brief observations, which naturally result from the story and characters, and which will serve […] to the minds of YOUTH of BOTH SEXES.
Yep! Just in case it was being too subtle, Pamela is going to explain itself to us.
First, then, in the character of the GENTLEMAN, [the Master], may be seen that of a fashionable libertine, who allowed himself in the free indulgence of his passions, especially to the fair sex, [supported] by an affluent fortune, [eventually] sees his errors, and reforms […] An edifying lesson may be drawn from [this].
Unless, of course, you’re a woman.
The poor deluded female, who, like the once unhappy MISS GODFREY, has given up her honor and yielded to the allurements of her designing lover, may learn from her story, to stop at the first fault
Seriously. Lesson about learning from your mistakes not applicable to you if you’re a woman. Then you’re just an idiot.
In the character of LADY DAVERS, let the proud and the high-born see the deformity of unreasonable passion, and how weak and ridiculous such persons must appear
Unless you’re a man, in which case that “affluent fortune” won’t prevent you from “see[ing] his errors”. YAY LESSONS FOR BOTH SEXES.
Sigh… okay, so what’s the book going to tell us we should learn from Pamela herself?
Let the desponding heart be comforted by the happy issue which the troubles and trials of PAMELA met with
“Comforting” is not towards the top of the list of words I would use to describe Pamela. Speaking of describing Pamela, what are the desirable traits of Pamela that every woman should strive for?
From the low opinion she everywhere shows of herself, […] Her meekness, in every circumstance where her virtue was not concerned […] make her character worthy of the imitation of her sex. And the editor of these sheets [hopes] it inspires a laudable emulation in the minds of any worthy persons.
I realize that literally no one was expecting this to not be horrendously sexist, but this 500 page book literally ended by breaking the fourth wall to tell its readers that “worthy” women should have a “low opinion” of themselves and exhibit “meekness”, with the one exception of preserving their virginity so they stay worthy. If someone writes this sort of thing today, it doesn’t end up on English literature college course syllabi, it ends up on Men’s Rights Activism blogs.
Sexism aside, ending a novel by explicitly announcing that everyone should try to be like its main character because they’re so great is sort of a massively egotistical and delusional dick move? Like, on a scale from 1 to 10, this clocks in at a “hahahaha, wow“. I mean, can you imagine if other books were- hang on, I just made a gif for this…
- The downtrodden but pure of heart, who, like the young HARRY, may be comforted by the emulable example of the importance of friendship and tolerance and also just happening to be special, which the author hopes inspires the reader to also strive to be.
- In the character of HOLDEN, we see an example of the alienated and lonely teenager, from whom such individuals may learn how fucking annoying they are.
- The poor, average, and indistinct female, like the character of ANASTASIA STEELE, may see how special and beautiful she truly is, once an attractive and rich enough man wants to bang her. An edifying lesson may be drawn from this.
But let’s go back to what I was talking about a little earlier, about why the fuck are we still reading Pamela? Admittedly, it’s important to not just ignore literature that contains problematic opinions from the past, tempting though it may be. Censoring the past isn’t a good way to go about learning from it, which applies to everything from sexism in Shakespeare to racism in Tom and Jerry cartoons. This applies to contemporary works too. It’s okay to read (and even like) books, movies, music, video games, and any other art or media with problematic elements, so long as you acknowledge the problematic elements.
But is that really the best reason to read a book?
It’s not like there’s a shortage of media with bad representations of women, so why is it necessary to defend its worst offenders? Pamela isn’t just the product of an antiquated and offensive context. It is the antiquated and offensive context. It is a work very purposefully written to convey ideas which are now outdated and offensive, and it contains literally nothing that is not those ideas. It would be like reading a Return of Kings article to study the form of the essay. Plenty of works exist and will exist that over the course of time become sexist or racist or homophobic or some other kind of offensive we haven’t even thought of yet, and that doesn’t automatically negate their merit, but it doesn’t automatically mean they have any either.
And it isn’t like Pamela is even good. It’s a repetitive, overwritten book with underdeveloped characters and unrealistic plotting. What little story it tells is driven solely by everybody inexplicably unconditionally loving the main character (so generic that today it’s a trope of YA fiction), which has to be retold again and again, as if to convey a narrative not by character development but by blunt repetition. And the repetition. Fuck me sideways, the repetition. This book is so repetitive that I read under 100 pages of its 500 page length, and wrote an entire final paper about the whole book based on that fraction of it. And – and I really can’t stress this enough – it is misogynist as fuck, because it is literally a man writing 500 pages about how women are supposed to behave, and has literally never been anything more.
And they even knew it at the time. Henry Fielding, a contemporary of Samuel Richardson, anonymously wrote Shamela, a parody of Pamela that makes the same criticisms I am making on this blog today. It takes Pamela‘s iconic (and not very believable) scenes, like when the Master snuck into Pamela’s bed to rape her and she passed out and then immediately went into her closet to somehow write an account of all of that, and exaggerates and subverts it by having her write it in bed as it is happening:
I hear him just coming in at the Door. You see I write in the present Tense, as Parson Williams says. Well, he is in Bed between us, we both shamming a Sleep, he steals his Hand into my Bosom, which I, as if in my Sleep, press close to me with mine, and then pretend to awake.
Not only does his parody mock the epistolary (or letter-writing) form as unbelievable – one of the things that Pamela is ironically still studied for is how its epistolary form contributed to the rise of realism in literature – but it gives its female character a kind of astonishing amount of sexual agency for, you know, 1741. It’s a bit much to really go into here (I recently read a rather nice piece that goes into it more, if you’re interested), but even back then people not only knew that Pamela had a dubious claim on its moral high ground, but it’s just boring.
So hopefully the lack of SparkNotes for Pamela means that the inevitable desperate college student’s Google searches lead them to this blog, not just because I like getting the ad revenue, but because if there’s anything I hope our coverage of Pamela accomplishes, it’s that more people question why Pamela and books like it are in the canon. I don’t necessarily want fewer people to read this book, but I do want more people to read it because they want to – to understand the problems with such sexism and its social construction – and not because they have to.