The Main Themes in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded: Annotated Bibliography Project

The Main Themes in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded: Annotated Bibliography Project


Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson is one of the earliest and greatest epistolary novels written. Published in November 1740, the novel became an instant success, so much that the third edition was published three months later in February 1741, a third edition in March and a fourth in May the same year. The novel is about Pamela Andrews, a serving maid, and her resistance of her rich master’s (Mr. B) sexual advances towards her. In a series of letters that Pamela writes to her parents and their responses to her (to a total of thirty two letters in all) and dozens of Pamela’s private journals, the reader follows Pamela as she refuses to give in to Mr. B’s seductions. She writes to her parents occasionally to advise her on what she should do and how. She manages to hold away Mr. B, retaining her chastity until he marries her ‘rightfully’ (at the end of the novel).

The question of interest here is Does Richardson’s use of the Epistolary technique positively or negatively affects how the reader(s) view Pamela and her narration through her stories? The mainon the book has largely surrounded the question of Pamela’s morality or chastity. Pamelists have argued that Pamela is honest and chaste. On the other hand, anti-Pamelists feel that Pamela was not motivated by purity but utilitarianism, and in the end managed to manipulate Mr. B to marry her. In trying to find an answer to the question above, this paper looks at the extent to which the character/behavior of Pamela in the story can be trusted as a true reflection of who she really is. The idea is to show that Pamela is merely a manipulation of Richardson’s own making (which is perhaps no different from the manipulative creations of all other characters in works of fiction, regardless of technique, epistolary or not, and that her letters and private journals do not help that intention.

Annotated Bibliography

Scott, Dale. “The Power of the Quill: Epistolary Technique in Richardson’s Pamela.

Revista Letras, Curitiba, 53 (2000): 11-22

In this paper, Scott examines how the epistolary technique helps to build Pamela’s character. However, in this regard, Scott distinguishes between the purposes of the letters that Pamela writes to her parents and her private journal. According to Scott, the letters only build the plot, pushing the story ahead. However, toward creating Pamela as a character, an individual who should be able to face her challenges and act in the best way, Scott believes the private journal do this better; that is, they build her self-esteem and social status. Scot says that the letters still put Pamela at the mercies of society, her parents in particular because they will respond in a letter that carries a message that should aim to manipulate her actions, so that she is into being independent just yet. However, the private journals are her own possession; they are her self-reflection learning without help or manipulation from elsewhere. By this, Pamela builds her own person.

What is important to note here is that Scott discusses Pamela as if Richardson had nothing to  do with her, as if she is a whole individual and not a mere creation of the novelist. By that, Scott implies that the letters and private journals (the epistolary techniques) create Pamela, but the vice versa; that is, that Pamela creates them. Scott focuses more on the letters’ and journals’contents, hardly seeing them as part of a larger theme by the author. Scott trusts Pamela to be ‘herself’ completely.

Flohr, Birgitt. How Reliable a Narrator Is Richardson’s Pamela? 1997. Print.

Flohr, unlike Scott, does not outrightly trust Pamela. Instead, she wonders and, in this paper, is out to find an answer. First, she recognizes the place of Pamela as Richardson’s symbol of political correctness, the moral. However, she wonders if Pamela’s word of mouth, embodied in the letters she sends home and her private journals can be trusted. Unlike Scott, Florh explicitly acknowledges that Pamela is Richardson’s creation and to understand her better, it is important to understand what the intentions of the author (Richardson) were in ‘allowing’ her to tell the story from a first-person point of view. Richardson’s intentions, Flohr notes, is to present Pamela as an example of virtue. In fact, Flohr quote Richardson himself saying in the preface of the book that he hopes the story “inculcates religion and morality” (1). However, to what extent does that technique help that intention? How does it make the reader view Pamela to the extent that he or she does inculcate the religion and morality?

Flohr’s central thesis is that the epistolary technique does not help that intention. This is because for Pamela to be trusted with telling her own story of virtue, the reader must find her a reliable narrator. It is not clear if, one, Pamela can be truthful of herself, her own character and, two, if Richardson’s ‘entertaining and diverting’ story telling can go hand-in-hand with truth (on virtue). In other words, the epistolary technique might raise suspicion in the minds of the readers. 

Hurlbert, Jarrod. “Pamela: Or, Virtues Rewarded: the Texts, Paratexts and Revisions

that Redefine Samuel Richardson’s Pamela.” Dissertations, 194 (2009): 1-522.

Hurlbert, in this paper, tracks Richardson’s many revisions of the story of Pamela from its first edition to the last one over his lifetime. Hurlbert, therefore, compares and contrasts all the four variant volumes of Pamela’s story, looking at the ways in which they may be similar and different and accounting for them.

Perhaps the most important statement that Hurlbert makes in this work’s Abstract is that it was well known Richardson “responded to antagonistic and friendly “collaborators” by making emendations’ (3). This statement raises the question of Richardson’s intentions in telling the story of Pamela and, perhaps most importantly, whether those intentions can be trusted to have been his own. This question subjects Pamela’s letters to interrogation, the extent they may have been used to speak for Richardson and his “collaborators”. In the end, Hurlbert asserts that these revisions have had impact on how readers view the characters, particularly, Pamela. This paper implicitly questions the reliability of Pamela’s letters and journals, the epistolary technique.

Willis, Laura. The Use and Reliability of Subjective, First-Person Narration within the

Epistolary Novel. Innervate, 4 (2011): 185-191

Willis also contributes to this debate, examining the reliability of the subjective, first-person narration in epistolary novels. Willis begins by reporting what novelists who used the epistolary technique believed that letters were “immediate imitation of individual experience” (185) and because the writer is having a private communication with the person/people he/she trusts, letters are a form of confession. However, like Flohr, Willis does not believe that these views of the letter are entirely true, particularly in a novel.

In Richardson’s Pamela in particular, Willis starts by looking at the arguments of the anti-Pamelists, their questioning of the fact that Pamela’s voice is all the reader hears. She agrees that there is some validity in what the anti-Pamelists says; because of the lack of another ‘outside’ voice, an authorial voice that interrogates the ‘subjective realities’ of the letter-writer’s narration, there is simply no way for the reader to ascertain the truth of the event depicted. The lack of the ‘outside’ voice means that the reader is too involved with the narrator and does not have the opportunity to gain distance enough to put things into perspective.

However, Willis refutes the argument that Pamela’s letters are her way of trying to manipulate the reader’s minds. To Willis, Pamela’s letters are not meant for public consumption, but as a form of self-determination and empowerment. Therefore, Willis seems to agree with Scott says of the private journals.

Zahid, Maria. “Didacticism and the Male Reader in Samuel Richardson’s

Pamela”. Undergraduate Review: a Journal of Undergraduate Student Research, 12.8 (2010), 28-31.

Zahid, in his contribution, also questions the reliability of Pamela’s letters as a product of Richardson’s intentions. However, Zahid takes a new approach in this regard, focusing on how what themes could have been more appealing to the female audience, and those that would have appealed the male audience. On this, and like the authors above, accepts that virtue, submissiveness, and obedience would have been the main message that Richardson’s intended for the female audience. The message is however more complicated for the male audience. On the surface, the message of more traditional elements of society, such as male dominance of women, may be one appealing theme to the male audience of the time. However, while Pamela may appeal to all women regardless of social class, she provokes different emotions in men across social classes. For example, the men closer to the social class of Pamela then Mr. B may see Pamela as a source of hope, evidence that they may also climb up the social ladder. However, the individuals closer to Mr. B (in characters and social status) might see him as a symbol of ‘masculinity’.

This paper, therefore, implicitly states that Pamela’s letters cannot be relied upon to bring out a particular message. Richardson’s technique might have no effect, its interpretation depend on individuals and their position in the society.

Conclusion/Self Reflection

I have learnt some valuable lesson in the process of doing this annotated bibliography. First, the technique used in writing a work of fiction has its purpose. The epistolary technique that Richardson uses in Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded was meant to give Pamela’s voice more believability and reliability. Second, the technique chosen also depends on the intention of the novelist. In this case, the intention of Richardson determines his choice of technique, his goal to send a message of virtue, and morality as exemplified by Pamela. However, this is the third important lesson, whether the technique works depends on many other factors. In Richardson’s case, the question is whether Richardson attains his goals, his desire to pass his message. The success of Richardson’s story depends on whether Pamela is a reliable voice. On this note, whether Pamela is to be believed depends on not just how she tells her story, but also on the general question of whether an individual can be truthful of him/herself and his/her character. Ultimately, how successful a novel is in passing the message intended depends on the technique used and characterization (Flohr; Scott; Willis).

Works Cited

Flohr, Birgitt. How Reliable a Narrator Is Richardson’s Pamela? 1997. Print.

Scott, Dale. “The Power of the Quill: Epistolary Technique in Richardson’s Pamela.

Revista Letras, Curitiba, 53 (2000): 11-22. Web, 19 November 2014.

Willis, Laura. The Use and Reliability of Subjective, First-Person Narration within the

Epistolary Novel. Innervate, 4 (2011): 185-191. Web, 19 November 2014.