Pamela’s Extended Happy Ending

Having concluded Pamela’s correspondence and himself recounted the generally happy fortunes of most the characters in his novel, Richardson declares that he has “brought this little History to a happy Period” (500). Richardson’s approach to ending the novel here would seem to be in line with D.A. Miller’s observation that comic novels are necessarily ended when the troubles are resolved and a happy ending is achieved.

However, many readers may find that Richardson has actually transgressed Miller’s formula quite egregiously. Miller argues that, after a happy ending has been attained, the novelist must stop writing since the happy ending itself is non-narratable. Narrative requires difficulty or conflict, but happiness makes for a stultifying story. To the modern reader of Pamela it might appear that the novel bears out Miller’s thesis quite painfully (for the reader) by negative example. The first three fifths or so of the story are driven by Pamela’s battle of wit and will to preserve her virtue from the lustful Squire B, but after the first three fifths of the novel this issue has been rapidly and implausibly resolved and Pamela has been joined in holy and happy matrimony with the now (allegedly) praiseworthy squire.

However, Richardson does not seem to regard this event as adequately constituting a “happy period” and thus sets about a project for nearly two hundred fifty pages which looks an awful lot like narrating a happy ending and which, in this reader’s humble opinion, attains nearly to the levels of boredom predicted by Miller. Nonetheless, if we clear from our vision the obscuring mists of irritation, it may be possible to determine why Richardson chose to include in the narrative several weeks after the joyous (insert sarcasm) wedding of Pamela and Squire B.

I believe the answer is that Richardson understands himself to be following Miller’s formula, but he considers the essential movement of the novel to be not merely Pamela’s preservation of her virtue or her attainment of love in wedlock. Rather, as Nancy Miller recognizes in “How Novels Think,” the essential movement in Pamela is Pamela’s progress from a lower social position to a higher one. To be sure, this movement is one and the same with the testing and rewarding of Pamela’s virtue (it’s in the title after all), but for Pamela’s virtue to be fully rewarded, as Richardson for reasons probably more religious than aesthetic desired it should be, it is necessary to establish Pamela in her duly earned social promotion.

We can see that this is what Richardson is up to in the latter part of the novel through the several minor sources of tension which occasionally raise the narrative from mind-numbingly dull to marginally interesting. These tensions all involve threats to Pamela’s happiness and especially to her acceptance in her newly elevated social status. Much of the narrative is dedicated to revealing whether Pamela was accepted by her Lincolnshire neighbors (no real tension there), by Lady Davers (a refreshing amount of tension!), and finally her Bedfordshire neighbors (little more than a smidgeon). Most of these obstacles are overcome quite simply through the sheer magnitude of Pamela’s virtue, and any confrontation ultimately resolves in an exchange of rather extreme compliments, although Lady Davers’s resistance (by far the most exciting post-wedding event) requires a one-two punch from both Pamela’s virtue and one of Squire B’s stately temper tantrums.

Richardson probably considered each of these events necessary to narrate because, in that period, it would have been very uncertain whether a woman who advanced socially as Pamela does would be accepted in that position by her new peers. In fact, it would probably be rather unlikely for her to be accepted. Thus, the sources of conflict which seem inadequate to some modern readers (like myself) might have been sources of more immediate worry to Richardson’s immediate readership. In attending to their concerns for Pamela then, Richardson is able to not only address these threats which precluded a happy ending but to address them in a way which makes it clear that Pamela’s social advancement is validated only because it is the result of her truly vast reserves of virtue.

If Richardson’s readers were left wondering whether Pamela had only earned a lifetime of social ostracization, Richardson would not have fully achieved either his artistic or his moral purpose. If the novel were merely Pamela perhaps it might resolve earlier, but the subtitle at least requires a more extended exposition.

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