English 660: The Eighteenth Century Novel

Presentation on Tristram Shandy

October 30, 2000

James Gifford  <gifford@ualberta.ca>


Sexuality and the Morally Didactic Novel;

Pamela’s Pornographic Sisters

We have difficulties as a modern audience appreciating the social anxieties reflected in Pamela, especially those surrounding morality and valuation of individuals within the social framework.  The radical stance of even using phrases such as virtue and ‘fortune’ to denote Pamela’s virginity are themselves loaded with a questioning of the social stratification in which she resides.  The term ‘Fortune’ is perhaps the most playful but problematic.  In it the issue of the commodification of Pamela’s virginity is implicated, while at the same time gaining its authority within the framework of the novel through a Protestant ethic of internal individual worth apart from social stratification.  Complicating this issue of commodification is the range of Marxist or Weberian readings of the novel that place it within a conflict between the working and aristocratic classes.  Pamela is explicitly placing value in her ‘protestant ethic’ rather than her social standing, it being “more pride to [her] that [she] come of such honest parents, than if [she] had been born a lady” (Pamela 48) and in the same letter looking disparagingly on her fellow ‘servants.’ 

My presentation will take as central the moral issues in Pamela, but this is done with a cognizance that how we reflect on Pamela’s morality is also closely related to how we read the economic and social aspects of the novel.  There have been many works written in response to Pamela, some attacking the eroticism of the novel and others the social deconstruction it implies; however, the most emphatic is likely to be the Marquis de Sade’s literary response in Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797).  As we’ve already seen in “Fantomina,” the erotic novel is not something new to the 18th century, and examples such as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill (1748) provide explicit materials to demonstrate that the pornography and sadism of the day were as explicit as our own.  As Shamela illustrates, this erotic aspect of Pamela cannot be overlooked, especially with the physicality of aspects of the letter writing and the reader’s ‘view’ of Pamela’s body through this.  David Evans describes this as

the prurience of its pre-occupation with sex disguised as moral guidance, and the travesty of Christian morality involved in showing ‘virtue rewarded’ to mean materially rewarded in this life, not spiritually in the next one.  (106)

Moreover, as Northrup Frye points out,

Readers of Pamela have become so fascinated by watching the sheets of Pamela’s manuscript spawning and secreting all over her master’s house, even into the recesses of her clothes, as she fends off assault with one hand and writes about it with the other, (Frye 324)

so that our text is supposed to have been in intimate contact with its author.  Even the first appearance of Pamela’s letters is with her hiding the texts we’re reading “in [her] bosom” from which Mr. B- “took it, without saying more” (Pamela 44).

Sade reacts to this moral and erotic ambiguity in Pamela with vehemence comparable to Voltaire’s in writing Candide.  His first version of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue is far tamer than his later emphatic pornographic extensions.  Justine, the virtuous sister, is punished throughout for her unrelenting morality, and is ultimately condemned to death by society, but after having been rescued from a cruel public execution is finally stuck by a bolt of lightning that “entered by her right breast, had blasted her thorax and come out again through her mouth, so disfiguring her face that she was hideous to look at” (Misfortunes 146).  The sarcastic moral of this tale, in response to the worldly rewards of Pamela, is that “God allows goodness to be persecuted on earth... with no other end in view than to prepare us for a better reward in heaven” (Misfortunes 148).  In Sade’s depiction, however, this is not a reward one can reasonably expect and within his atheistic view it is the ‘error’ of social constructions of moral prurience (of the Pamela-type) which affords torturers their triumphs and moralists their punishments.  Without divine retribution in the afterlife, it is only the pressure of Society that prevents crime in opposition to the ‘pressure’ of Nature.  Humanity is made with corrupt desires, but these are contained by the best interests of the collective or society; however, in this system the morality of divine retribution and ‘virtue,’ in the sense employed by Richardson, is not sensible and leads to the very corruption is tries to prevent.

Reading Justine as an anti-Pamela leaves Richardson’s heroine corrupted in the first chapter and Mr. B- unpunished, but moreover leaves Pamela the eternal victim of her own self-imposed moral code.  In a view where everything is natural, including vice, virtue is as good as self-punishment or masochism itself.  Sade himself openly allows for the redeeming feature of social influence, claiming

Yes, I am a libertine, I admit if freely.  I have dreamed of doing everything that it is possible to dream of in that line.  But I most certainly have not done all the things I dreamt of and never shall.  Libertine I may be, but I am not a criminal, I am not a murderer.  (“Introduction” xvii)

He extends this in his philosophical “Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man,” where he again states

God forbid that anyone should think that in saying this I seek to give encouragement [sic] to crime!  Of course we must do everything we can to avoid criminal acts -- but we must learn to shun them through reason and not out of unfounded fears which lead nowhere.  (159)

It is only in his later ‘deconstruction’ of the Enlightenment philosophy of individualism that the Sadistic pornography of his later rewritings of Justine appears, making explicit the place where Nature will lead us if we do not impose social controls when divine providence disappears.  Perhaps more exactly I should say, he shows us the place where Nature will lead the virtuous who will be victimized by those who are above social controls.  Even within the morality of Pamela, it must be admitted that Pamela’s pleasure is delivered through her ability to subject Mr. B- to her will, just as in a realistic situation Mr. B’s pleasure would lie in Pamela’s weakness and the subjection inherent in her status as a servant or subject.  Pamela reminds us of this power struggles throughout the novel, and her parents even write that “what a sad hazard a poor maiden... stands against the temptations of this world and a designing young gentleman... who has so much power to oblige, and has a kind of authority to command” (Pamela 52; emphasis original).  It is through the Protestant ethic that Pamela subverts Mr. B’s authority and gains power over him, recalling that she “must call him gentleman, though he has fallen from the merit of that title” (54; emphasis original) and that “well may [she] forget that [she] is [his] servant, when [he] forgot what belongs to a master” (55).  The subversion is, of course, one of economic and social power which Mr. B- holds to religious and moral power which Pamela wields.  She even reminds the reader that it is through a noblemans’s sexual desire within her moral systems that they “put it into the power of their inferiours to be greater than they!” (56).  Rather than placing the prevention of exploitation in the virtue of the weak and the immorality of the strong (an equation equally absurd to class and economic structure in any century, and the central criticism of Pamela), Sade invokes social controls, lest we release the sadistic demons he presents in his later dungeons.

Questions To Ask

Given the introduction of Sade, is the power struggle in Pamela realistic?  Can the reader reasonably accept Richardson’s presentation of the characters and depiction of the prevention of sexual exploitation through the virtue of the weak and the immorality of the strong, or must Mr. B- become Fielding’s Squire Booby?  Can Mr. B- be a real villain if his strength and immorality is so effectively checked by Pamela’s virtue? 

O how poor and mean must those actions be, and how little must they make the best of gentlemen look, when they offer such things as are unworthy of themselves, and put it into the power of their inferiours to be greater than they!  (Pamela 56)

In addition, can Pamela be thought of as having gained freedom, or just a more rewarding prostitution?  Even within the role of virtue that gains her power over Mr. B-, she is as much a prisoner as she is in the country estate.

The Marquis de Sade... had ideas of his own on the subject of woman: he wanted her to be as free as man.  Out of these ideas -- they will come through some day -- grew a dual novel, Justine and Juliette.  It was not by accident the Marquis chose heroines and not heroes.  Justine is woman as she has been hitherto, enslaved, miserable and less than human; her opposite, Juliette represents the woman whose advent he anticipated, a figure of whom minds have as yet no conception, who is arising out of mankind, who shall have wings and who shall renew the world.  (“Foreword” ix)



Misc. Quotes


Many women, from Simone de Beauvoir via Kate Millett to Angela Carter have regarded him as the ultimate misogynist and the symbol of male contempt for women....  Yet his philosophical position was much less clear cut.  If Justine is abused, it is for persisting with her policy of virtue, not for her gender.  Her sister proved to have no such illusions when Sade told The History of Juliette in 1797.  There she not only prospers in vice but becomes one of his greatest fiends.  In Sade’s world, obscenity and cruelty are the prerogative of the strong, irrespective of gender.  (“Introduction” xxvii; emphasis added)

Is Sade a part of literature or the property of science, social psychology, and psychoanalysis?  He himself is not a satisfactory case subject (there are always certain difficulties in psychoanalysing the dead), though his catalogue of psychopathological impulses is without equal.  Nor is Sade a body of work, for, like Freud and Marx, the Great Unreadable is also the Great Unread.  (“Introduction” vii; emphasis added)

In [Justine’s] resistance to “things as they are,” in her incorrigible unwillingness or her inability to learn the lessons of the world, her mysterious absence in a world ruled by laws of wickedness, where only crime pays, where there are only weak and strong, only victims and tyrants, the latter always right and the former always wrong perforce -- in this, the given and the possible world, Justine’s virtue is unreasonable and unreasoning: It is not miscalculation, it is aberration.  (“Foreword” viii)

Though written quickly, it was carefully planned around ten incidents which demonstrate that chastity, piety, charity, compassion, prudence, the refusal to do evil, and the love of goodness and truth -- in a word, virtue -- are punished while a succession of brutal and ruthless villains are seen to prosper in vice.  (“Introduction” xxix)

As a philosopher, he know that it was a matter of total indifference to nature whether an individual were alive or dead.  (“Introduction” xi)

The French eighteenth century may now seem a lost age of wit an elegance, a lavish production (decors by Watteau, music by Rameau) staged for our aesthetic pleasure.  But in reality was quite different.  In Paris, pimps and bawds bought and sold children.  They procured shop-girls and country hopefuls who had little choice but to submit to sexual slavery and, not infrequently, to the perverted tastes of their clients.  One in seven women was implicated in the vice trade.  According to contemporary estimates, 150 million livres were spent annually on ‘the pleasures of Venus’, a figure which, if correct, was fifty times the sum spent on the relief of the poor, twice the trade shortfall for 1781, and half the size of the Royal debt in 1789.  The lead was given by the King who kept a deer park at Versailles staffed by barely nubile girls.  (“Introduction” xvi)

Sade’s behaviour, however appalling it may now seem, was not much worse than that of many contemporary libertines, and when it is further set against the horrific tortures and brutal public executions which were a routine part of the legal system, he seems a very unadventurous sadist indeed.  (“Introduction” xvii)

Works Cited & Additional Readings


Acra, Adrienne.  “Two Textual Applications of Marxism.”  Textual Applications of Marxism.  Online.  14 Oct. 2000.  <http://courses.lib.odu.edu/engl/cbrooke/aacra/m4.htm>

Cleland, John.  Fanny Hill; Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.  Markham, ON:  Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1989.

Coward, David.  “Introduction.”  The Misfortunes of Virtue: and Other Early Tales.  By Marquis de Sade.  1992.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.  vii-xxxvii.

Evans, David.  The English Novel in the Eighteenth Century.  Vancouver: UBC Access, 1994.

Frye, Northrup.  “Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility.”  Backgrounds to Eighteenth Century Literature.  Ed. Kathleen Williams.  Scranton, PA: Chandler Publishing Co., 1971.

LaCorte, John.  “Marquis de Sade and the Aesthetics of Suffering.” Marquis de Sade.  Online.  12 Oct. 2000. <http://www.csudh.edu/philosophy/sade.htm>

McCracken, Susanne.  “Pamela: Economy, The Novel, & Women.”  Pamela.  Online.  12 Oct. 2000.  <http://www.muohio.edu/~mandellc/mccrac>

Richardson, Samuel.  Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded.  1980.  Markham ON: Penguin Books Canada, Ltd., 1985.

Sade, Marquis de.  The Misfortunes of Virtue and Other Early Tales.  1992.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Wainhouse, Austryn.  Foreword.  Juliette.  By Marquis de Sade.  1988.  New York: Grove Press, 1988.  vii-x.

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