Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1205

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 the novel, consisting of Mr. B——’s adultery and Pamela’s forgiveness as well as the growing appreciation on the part of Mr. B—— of his wife’s virtue, is unconvincing and sentimental.

The strength of the plot structure lies in Richardson’s epistolary form; notwithstanding its shortcomings, the author’s form does convey a degree of realism. Letters are normally a means for the relation of one’s doings, and they presuppose an actual writer and an actual reader. Preconceived notions concerning the normal functions of the mode make believable an actual maiden, an actual seducer, and an actual marriage. Richardson’s manipulation of the machinery governing the epistles—the hidden pens and ink, the evasions and discoveries, and the secreting of letters in bosoms and undergarments—causes the effect to grow. The realism is further enhanced by the clustering and lingering effect that comes to surround each incident. An incident occurs and is reflected on, committed to paper, entrusted to a porter, and spied upon; it is either intercepted or received, reflected upon, and responded to. Although it slows down the action, the whole complex, repetitious effect lends great credibility to the original incident.

Richardson’s epistolary form, after establishing the necessary suspension of disbelief in readers regarding a servant girl who can read and write, also logically excuses much of Pamela’s smooth and affected rhetoric; since a letter is an editing of life rather than life itself, the writer has an editorial option to tailor and refurbish experience. By positing a servant girl with a certain flair for writing, Richardson can justify a further suspension of disbelief, although sometimes not as much as the circumstances demand.

The weakest part of the plot’s structure in terms of realism is Richardson’s handling of the sequence of incidents. While perhaps the incidents in Pamela do not disappoint the reader’s preconceived notions of drawing-room and boudoir reality, they are little more than interesting fits of manners and rarely reveal any depth of character or morals. These incidents are little more than stylistically balanced situations; outrages in the summerhouse are followed by contrition and tearful farewells by triumphant reunions.

The same shallowness applies to some of Richardson’s characters, who, being allegorical as demanded by the instructional premise of the novel, offer little depth of personality. The heroine herself, however, presents an interesting study: Pamela begins as the most fully allegorical figure and concludes by being the most fully human. Beginning in ignorance, she presents the prospect, particularly to readers used to the less sentimental Fielding, of becoming a satirical figure; yet she never does. Pamela is an incorruptibly good woman. What is interesting about her characterization is how the author converts readers to accept the reality of his protagonist and her maidenly dilemma. He manages this by placing her in a crisis that is inherently genuine and appropriate to her way of life. He supplies her with neatly counterpoised groups of friends and enemies and fleshes out her vulnerability with an impressive strength and a striking ability to cope—a believable middle-class trait. The implied spectacle of her parents nervously hanging on from letter to letter adds further believability to the picture.

Richardson also imbues Pamela with little vices which she realizes she has. Pamela, for example, knows that she is long-winded, prone to construe motives to her own advantage, and inclined to cling to praise and flattery. This realization of some of her own faults makes Pamela much more credible than a character who is merely symbolic and displays no insight into herself.

Despite Richardson’s virtues and faults as a writer, it is his redefinition of the form of the novel that most makes him worth reading. Pamela was a radical departure from accepted concepts. While subsequent novelists learned from and modified Richardson’s techniques, they for the most part drifted away from his epistolary form; while keeping his idea of treating a simple episode on a larger scale, they tended to follow the techniques developed by Fielding and Defoe. Pamela is thus as much of an anomaly in the twenty-first century as it was in the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, it is a vital part of literary tradition and was instrumental in creating the novel as it is now known.

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