The three main themes in Pamela are the role of social class, virtue and femininity, and love and marriage.
- The role of social class: As a servant girl seduced and then married to a nobleman, Pamela wishes to be accepted into the aristocracy.
- Virtue and femininity: Pamela’s acceptance by the upper classes depends greatly on her virtue, obedience, and proper behavior as a woman.
- Love and marriage: Pamela and Mr. B fall in love and are married, and Richardson writes of a wife’s duties to her husband in the 1700s.
Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571
The Role of Social Class
Pamela covers a variety of social themes such as the role of social classes in English society. Mr. B threatens Pamela’s social mobility and reputation as he attempts to seduce her. As a servant girl about to marry a nobleman, Pamela wishes to be accepted into the aristocracy. Lady Davers is initially furious with her brother for meddling with a servant, let alone marrying her. In her eyes, and in the eyes of higher society, this would not look good for the aristocratic Mr. B. Through her character, Richardson explains to the readers how the middle class wanted to mingle with the higher class in order to gain social acceptance. By the end of the novel, Pamela with her youth, beauty, intelligence, and virtue has managed to enamor both the middle class and the nobility.
Virtue and Femininity
Many readers ask the question, what would have happened with Pamela if she wasn’t considered beautiful, pious, or virtuous? Would society still accept her? Pamela was written in a time when feminism was beginning to spread all over Europe. Women wanted to prove that they were capable of having an opinion, and they began to fight for their rights and their independence. Thus, we have the two unanswered questions of Pamela’s fate. Some readers think that her intelligence and her outgoing personality should have enabled her to climb the social ladder and obtain a higher socioeconomic position, regardless of her physical appearance. Others think that her social approval depends greatly on her beauty, virtue, obedience, and proper behavior. This is why a lot of readers argue about whether Pamela is a feminist or an anti-feminist figure. There is, of course, Richardson’s comparison of femininity to virtuosity to be discussed. Even though Pamela is treated very poorly by Mr. B—meaning she is repeatedly attacked and manipulated into giving in to him—she somehow finds it in her heart to forgive and marry him. This is intended to be perceived as evidence of her noble femininity. She is being a “good woman” by excusing his nasty, predatory behavior. Would Pamela still have been virtuous had she escaped to protect herself? Modern readers would likely argue that even though Mr. B appears to have been reformed by her good nature, he is still manipulative and preying on Pamela’s innocence. It can be dangerous to equate womanhood with virtuosity, though this is what Richardson appears to be doing.
Love and Marriage
Especially notable in Pamela is the theme of love and marriage. What is interesting about this theme is the fact that Richardson made the main characters fall in love with one another, and their marriage was actually a happy one. It is commonly known that marriages in the eighteenth century were usually arranged and were more out of convenience than love. So having both characters (especially Mr. B) infatuated with one another by the time of marriage is, in fact, very bold and even revolutionary. In the second volume of the book, Richardson writes of all the marital duties a spouse should have, focusing more on the role of the wife, saying how she must be obedient and submissive to her husband. Yet again, modern readers will likely encounter this section with distaste. It becomes clear that in Richardson’s time, men could get away with wretched, disturbing behavior while women were quieted into submission.