Samuel Richardson World Literature Analysis
Richardson was concerned with what George Sherburne has labeled “the distresses of love.” Coming to the most creative part of his career relatively late in life, Richardson had prepared well for it, not only reading voluminously but also—more significantly—listening to the inmost revelations of dozens of young women who confided in him, finding him a ready listener and a nonthreatening companion. Richardson came to know and understand women better than any prose writer before him. His greatest triumph as a writer lay in his ability to create the complex fantasies out of which his stories grow. This complexity is achieved by Richardson’s apparent realization that every major sentiment his characters reveal in their letters must be paired with a countervailing sentiment shown by characters in their responses, epistolary or reported. The tension that this sort of complexity exacts is the dramatic tension that keeps Richardson’s mammoth novels moving.
Richardson’s most celebrated novels, Pamela and Clarissa, are centrally concerned with virtue that is sorely tried by the sexual cravings of, respectively, Squire B. and Robert Lovelace. When Squire B. is on the brink of raping Pamela Andrews, a cleric’s fifteen-year-old daughter who has come into the household as a servant for his late mother, the girl’s innocence and sincerity unman him. He becomes putty in her hands and ultimately marries her, rewarding Pamela’s virtue. In the two final volumes of Pamela, Richardson deals with another problem, that of determining how a simple girl, low of birth, can survive and function in a stratum of society higher than that to which she has been accustomed. Clarissa Harlow is less fortunate than Pamela Andrews: Lovelace, an earl’s nephew, succeeds in raping her. Psychologically, both books offer remarkable insights. Clarissa moves beyond Pamela, however, because it deals sensitively with the emotions of the male and female protagonists, especially as these emotions are revealed in extensive correspondence from both of them to their two confidants, Anne Howe and Jack Belford.
Richardson’s basic morality in Pamela is not unlike that found later in Charles Dickens’s novels. Goodness is rewarded, evil punished. The reward, as in Pamela, can be either material or, as in Clarissa, simply the satisfaction of knowing and doing what is right. Richardson had a sufficiently puritanical attitude toward sex that he avoided reporting direct, explicit sexual situations, although he perhaps titillated his readers more than he could have had he described in late-twentieth century detail what went on behind the closed doors and voluminous tapestries.
Each of Richardson’s major protagonists—Pamela Andrews, Clarissa Harlowe, and Charles Grandison—is faced with difficult decisions. Pamela has to decide, after her mistress’s death and Squire B.’s advances, whether to remain in Squire B.’s house or to do the obvious thing and return to her parents. She makes her decision and in so doing must realize what the consequences are likely to be. Her later attempts to escape from Squire B.’s estate are so ineffective as to be hardly attempts at all. Clarissa Harlowe, raped by the libidinous Lovelace, also has a decision to reach: Having been raped, will she marry Lovelace, or will she go through life bearing her shame and being shunned by her family? Opting for the latter alternative, she dies soon afterward. Charles Grandison had to contend with similar divisions of mind. His major problem was whether he would marry an Italian Catholic or a more conventional British Protestant. These two women represent for him the temptation of the mysterious versus the secure. Such indecision is characteristic of Richardson’s characters; it is this indecision that supplies the well-controlled dramatic tension in his rambling works.
Richardson himself was of a divided mind. He was blindly—or at least myopically—admiring of rank and class, but he firmly...
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