Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded - Summary & Overview

Instructor: Vivian Davis

Vivian has a PhD in English literature.

This lesson provides an overview and summary of ~'Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded,~' a novel published by Samuel Richardson in 1740. We'll begin with a quick overview of the novel, including information on why it was so important for the 18th century; we will then walk through a summary of the novel's two volumes.

Overview

Samuel Richardson's Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded gives us one of the eighteenth century's most famous love stories, though the novel may not sound very romantic to modern readers. In it, a rich gentleman named Mr. B relentlessly pursues the virginity of a beautiful and chaste serving girl named Pamela. An unscrupulous rake, Mr. B, wishes for nothing more than to have his way with the young girl. He repeatedly tries to rape and assault her. Unfortunately for Mr. B, Pamela is a paragon of virtue, and she always manages to escape his attacks. Eventually, Pamela's innate goodness reforms Mr. B, and he gives up his pursuit, instead offering her his hand in marriage. In a surprising twist, Pamela eventually accepts Mr. B's proposal and becomes the wife of her would-be rapist.

Before we jump into our plot summary, there are three important things you should know about this novel:

A Novel of Letters

Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded is an epistolary novel; that is, a piece of fiction comprised of letters. Why is this important? Well, letters give us insight into a character's interior world; if we read a character's letters, we begin to see how their inner life develops over time. Epistolary novels create characters who are well-rounded and complex rather than flat and one-dimensional. Promoting psychological depth, epistolary novels became all the rage in the eighteenth century and contributed to the growth of the novel as a literary form.

A Conduct Manual

The second thing you should know is that Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded was written in the style of a conduct manual. Richardson was heavily influenced by nonfiction texts written to improve a person's moral character. The result? Richardson's novel, especially the second volume, is didactic; the book attempts to teach its readers. Pamela is offered to readers as an example of virtue because she is chaste and obedient to her family and God.

Social Change

The final thing you should know is that Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded reflects anxieties about society in eighteenth-century England, namely the country's changing class structure. Just think about it: Pamela starts off as a regular nobody, and she ends up living in a fancy house with a rich husband. This may not seem like a big deal to us, but the story was quite shocking for many eighteenth-century readers who weren't used to social mobility. The novel argues that regardless of her rank, Pamela has innate value; this message appealed to growing numbers of middle class readers.

Summary

Volume I

The novel opens, and we learn that Pamela, a young serving girl, has just lost her mistress, Lady B; Pamela is now to go to work for Lady B's son, Mr. B. After a short period of normalcy at Mr. B's Bedfordshire estate, however, things start to get weird. First he gives Pamela some of his mother's clothes to wear. Then he sexually harasses her by trying to kiss her. Pamela escapes his groping unharmed.

Pamela's confidant and sometime bunkmate in Mr. B's house is Mrs. Jervis, the housekeeper. Mrs. Jervis is, for the most part, a decent woman, but she frequently apologizes for Mr. B's behavior. Ultimately, Mrs. Jervis is just a servant, and she is powerless to stop the harassment.

Speaking of which, the first volume of the novel establishes a pattern of attack and resistance between Mr. B and Pamela. Example: Mr. B hides in Pamela's bedroom closet at night and unsuccessfully attempts to assault her. The pattern continues until Mr. B figures out that Pamela is set on returning to her parents, and he has her taken away to his estate in Lincolnshire.

Once in Linconlshire, things get worse. Pamela bunks with the new housekeeper, Mrs. Jewkes, a nasty woman who is also Pamela's jailer. Pamela also befriends a clergyman named Mr. Williams, who promises to help Pamela escape. Mr. Williams attempts to save Pamela by asking her to marry him, but Pamela declines. Jealous, Mr. B makes life difficult for Mr. Williams, and the man eventually winds up in prison.

Inevitably, Mr. B himself arrives in Linconlshire and asks Pamela to become his mistress. She refuses. The climax comes when, one night, Pamela retires to bed and Mrs. Jewkes pins her down so that Mr. B can have his way with her. Pamela faints repeatedly, and miraculously, her blackouts end up fending off the attacks.

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