Critical Evaluation

Samuel Richardson has often been termed the founder of the English novel. Like most such titles, this one is an oversimplification of a complex issue and one that has been particularly disputed by students of Richardson’s contemporary, Daniel Defoe, who is also justly noted for his important contributions to the genre. The importance of Richardson’s position in the tradition of the novel, however, is undeniable and is based on his redefinition of the form, through his success in Pamela in dealing with several of the major formal problems that Defoe and others had left unsolved.

The most significant of these problems was that of plot. Prior to the publication of Pamela, a novel was commonly defined as “a small tale, generally of love.” Although this definition has more recently been applied to the novella, most of the sources in Richardson’s era, notably Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, construed it as referring to the novel. When Pamela appeared, it was considered a “dilated novel” because its subject matter was basically the single amorous episode that the short novels had previously emphasized. Nevertheless, its treatment was on a scale much closer to the romances of Defoe and Henry Fielding, two authors who did not confront the definition problem in most of their works, which tended to deal with many episodes within a larger context. Works such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) fit more easily into the romance category (with the word “romance” understood to mean adventure more than love). Richardson combined the large scale of the romance and the intimate scope of the traditional novel to form the basis of the novel as readers have come to know it. Richardson’s use of the epistolary style—a style of which he was perhaps literature’s foremost practitioner—facilitated the birth of the new form, although it causes some problems for modern readers.

Pamela’s plot structure was based on a radically new concept in the novel form. This innovative plot structure is the work’s major strength and its major weakness. Viewed in context with later novels, it appears awkward, contrived, and lacking in realism. Indeed, a major criticism of Richardson’s novel concerns the question of how the major characters found the time in the middle of all of their adventures to be writing lengthy letters to one another. In a purely technical sense, perhaps the worst defect in the plot is that it is too long for its essential purpose, causing it to be static in movement and lacking in tension; it reaches a climax and resolution midway through the book, thus leaving hundreds of pages of dull and uneventful narrative. The account of Pamela’s married life, serving as it does only to confirm her virtue in the eyes of the world, could have been trimmed considerably, thus enhancing the overall effect of the novel. As it is, the falling action of...

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