Womanhood and Its Implications in Richardson’s Pamela
Pamela: or Virtue Rewarded is an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740 and set in the first half of the eighteenth century. It is said that this novel went against the aristocratic dimension of the typical romantic themes that the majority of readers were used to (Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 1, Christine Roulston, 1998). It is of every significance that the lead character in this novel is the blossoming and beautiful Pamela. Her gender and her social ranking in society play key roles in the unfolding of this story and are precisely the factors that led her to become the sexual target of her employer. We witness this controversial tale of seduction and virtue through the thoughts and words of a young woman who was preyed upon by someone who had great power over her. Gender is one of the main themes in this novel, and Pamela’s own gender in particular plays a key role in this tale.
Pamela’s gender was not as significant when her master had been a woman, Mr. B’s mother. Although they were placed differently on the social ladder, they were equally female. However, after her passing, Mr B had control over Pamela. Not only was he seen as more valuable in society’s eyes, but he was also a man. At this time, in the early eighteenth century and arguably even in the present day, men were seen as the more dominant gender. Disregarding his position as her employer, if they had been of the same social class, people probably would of seen him as having the upper hand regardless, simply because of his gender. Gender also plays a key role not only because Pamela is female, but because of the incident when Mr. B took it upon himself to dress as a woman similar to Pamela. After his many failed attempts to seduce his beautiful, young servant, he decided to lower himself to the position of his workers and disguise himself as one of Pamela’s colleagues, Nan. After the rejection that he had received previously, this act showed how desperate this man was to be with this young girl. In this scene of disguise, Pamela not only undresses her body but she also speaks emotionally which is in fact undressing her mind in front of Mr. B, her employer (Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, 14, Christine Roulston, 1998). Because Pamela is a female, it is perfectly okay in this novel to be undressing and reflecting truthfully on her thoughts in front of other female colleagues including Mrs. Jewkes but not in front of Mr. B or any other man. In order for Mr. B to get a closer look at Pamela’s body and a more intimate understanding of her mind, it was necessary for him to become a ‘woman’, even if it was just for a short period of time, it worked.
Pamela’s whole identity displays her as an easy target, Her undeniable youthful beauty attracts her sexual predator. If the protagonist had not been a character of such a young age, she would not have looked like such a naive and vulnerable aim for Mr. B. Her youth is a clear reason why she is so strongly maintaining her chastity, in honour of her poor parents.The fact that Pamela comes from a family that are severely less fortunate than Mr. B’s family, is very important in this play. This immediately places Mr. B above Pamela in the reader’s mind, even if we don’t realise it. Pamela herself even places Mr. B above her, because of his wealth and her lack of it. She is shocked that he would even consider a girl like her: “Well, but, Mrs. Jervis, said I, let me ask you, if he can stoop to like such a poor girl as me, as perhaps he may, (for I have read of things almost as strange, from great men to poor damsels,) What can it be for?—He may condescend, perhaps, to think I may be good enough for his harlot; and those things don’t disgrace men that ruin poor women, as the world goes” (Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, Letter XIX Samuel Richardson, 1740). We learn through the letters that Pamela’s parents send to her that their family was once very much above the poverty that they are experiencing at the time this story took place. “We are, ’tis true, very poor, and find it hard enough to live; tho’ once, as you know, it was better with us” (Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, Letter II, Samuel Richardson, 1740). As his servant, Pamela’s job description is to serve him. This gives Mr. B intense power over his worker. Pamela is aware that Mr. B has complete control over her, particularly when he was keeping her in captivity. “And pray, said I, walking on, how came I to be his Property? What right has he in me, but such as a Thief may plead to stolen Goods? Why, was ever the like heard, says she! This is downright Rebellion, I protest!” (Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, Samuel Richardson, 1740). This seems to be one of the main reasons that Mr. B made physical advances towards Pamela. Because he was in charge of her and was the one providing her with almost everything in her life, he may have thought that he was entitled to whatever he wanted from her. Undeniably, this was far from the truth.
In a sense, Mr. B was a villainous person who seemed to look down on the people who were not as entitled as him. He was used to getting what he desired, however he was unable to receive Pamela and her body in the way that he wanted. He tried forcing himself on her, raping her and even directly asking her to be his mistress. Perhaps he did look down on Pamela, but he also seemed to be fascinated by her and the fact that she would not accept his flirtatious offers and advances. Her role as a servant was very important to the story of Pamela, because despite what he thought, Mr. B’s wealth and the fact that his occupation was ranked above Pamela’s, did not mean that he was entitled to her in a sexual nor an emotional way.After reading this shocking yet entertaining novel, I feel quite sorry for Pamela’s character. Although this is a fictional novel, it indicates that there were countless young women in Pamela’s position. She was a young fifteen year old girl, full of youth, virtue and innocence. She was also living in such poverty that she desperately took the position of a slave to provide for her family. This character is full of kindness and goodwill, but yet she was the one who was targeted and manipulated by a man as unpleasant and controlling as Mr. B. At the end of the novel, when the couple are ‘happily’ married, the title Virtue Rewarded can be contemplated. It suggests that because of the kind of person she was, she was lucky to have ended up with her master, Mr. B. In my opinion, being married to a man who was willing to compromise her virtue was not a great enough reward for refusing to compromise her virtue all along; perhaps it was indeed her youth and social ranking that caused her naivety.
Throughout the novel, Pamela was strong minded and brave, maintaining her pride and virtue in honour of herself and her poverty stricken parents. However, we as readers may have overestimated her independence, as she proves when she eventually falls for a man who has treated her in the past with such disrespect. It is every reader’s delight to see that the lovely character of Pamela who was once so poor is no longer struggling financially, nor are her family. But it is still disheartening to read that she has settled and found her ‘happy’ life with Mr. B. Although the ending is unexpected and hard to comprehend, it is a very intriguing piece of socially-minded literature. In a letter to his friend Aaron Hill penned after he had written this novel, Richardson himself claimed that it was “a new species of writing” (Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, (Christine Roulston, 1998).
The Logic of Human Morality: Connections Between the Screwtape Letters and “Bulverism”
Throughout the book The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis addresses the topics of Christian morality with a twist: it’s written from the perspective of devils. The Screwtape Letters is narrated by Screwtape, an elder devil who is teaching the ropes to his nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape mulls on topics such as human nature and human virtue among other things, and by doing so, he talks about things that are good along with things that are evil. If a reader is to look closely into some of C.S. Lewis’ works, they would find that many similar themes and motifs show up in his works. In his short essay “Bulverism,”Lewis generally speaks about the logical misconception of assuming that a person is wrong without discussion and then explaining how that person became silly based on their background. Within The Screwtape Letters, Letter 19, Wormwood has certain questions for Screwtape and these questions waver from whether love is a good thing or if God really loves humanity. The Screwtape Letters and “Bulverism” bring about many comparable topics, but the most significant theme that occurs within both works is the act of moving the patient away from the “enemy” or God. Within The Screwtape Letters, the example would be Screwtape guiding Wormwood and telling him how he should go about seducing his patients to move them more towards the Devil. Looking closely at “Bulverism,” a person basically fails to address the primary tasks or questions at hand and instead they deal with the secondary questions, thus avoiding the main question and evading basic reasoning. And in turn, this fulfills our lives with artificial truths which moves us further away from logical thinking and from the grasp of the “enemy” or God.
In most of Lewis’ works, he is critiquing a worldview that is prevalent in our world and addressing an issue that is counter-productive to our society. The Screwtape Letters is a compilation of life tips and advice on how to move a patient more towards the Devil and away from God. All throughout Letter 19, Screwtape is adamant by saying it is heresy to believe in the existence of love, but love should not really matter to the patient because both God and Satan will try to pull the patient towards their respective grasps, no matter their view on love. Screwtape also insists that all beings are in competition with each other, by nature, so how do we know if God really loves us? Screwtape supports his claim by stating, “The truth is I slipped by mere carelessness into saying that the Enemy really loves the humans. That, of course, is an impossibility.”(Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 239) And this reiterates the point that God is a being just like us and his love is a pretext for an unknown desire. This excerpt connects to “Bulverism” in the way that, Screwtape only thinks this way about God because he is a devil and his worldview makes him believe that God follows his selfish impulses and only cares about himself. Screwtape remains contradictory in his thinking and once again states, “You complain that my last letter does not make it clear whether I regard being in love as a desirable state for a human or not.”(Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 240) In order to connect this quote back to “Bulverism”, we have to know that Screwtape is not reasoning or even clearly stating his view on love to Wormwood. By not thinking pure thoughts, Screwtape himself is a victim of bulverism and becomes closer with the Devil.
To help illuminate on what Lewis is saying in Screwtape Letters about conditioning the patient and bringing him further away from God’s light, a reader can look back on his work about “Bulverism” and can gather some knowledge from that work. Lewis states, “Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs.”(Lewis, Bulverism, 486) To explain this quote, Lewis is basically saying that when we bulverize someone, we are essentially attacking their identity in an argument and saying they are wrong because of who they are as a person which leads to illogical and ridiculous arguments that never solve the main issue. Essentially, the reasons and motives as to why people act the way they do formulates into their beliefs, ideals and what they believe to be true, according to Lewis. Lewis once again makes a good point by saying, “So we see there is justification for holding on to our belief in Reason. But can this be done without Theism? Does ‘I know’ involve that God exists?”(Lewis, Bulverism, 486) This piece still holds true to today’s society in the fact that all of our minds are influenced by physical events and our thoughts and values are all conditioned by what we have encountered. Bulverism is so frequent in conversations that when we disagree with someone, it is the first methodology we use, and we end up using fallacious arguments instead of discussing the topic and thinking about it logically. Bulverism basically means that one patient is assuming the other patient is completely wrong and they go out of their way to explain their thoughts around the one patient being wrong while never addressing the argument itself. As “Bulverism” reiterates, all of our immediate experiences depend on our inferences but if these experiences “condition” the patient to think lesser of God and higher of Satan then this point correlates with what C.S. Lewis said in The Screwtape Letters and everything comes full circle.
Taking a closer look into Letter 19 within The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape revises his opinion on God and figures God doesn’t care about people because he is a being himself and all beings are in competition. Even though the bulk of the letter focuses on Love, Screwtape thinks it depends on the situation and Screwtape explains, “In the mean-time, get it quite clear in your own mind that this state of falling in love is not, in itself, necessarily favorable either to us or to the other side.”(Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 241) Screwtape is talking about how falling in love would not be good for either God or Satan and it seems he is encouraging Wormwood to stay in a sort of grey area so he does not have to deal with the whole aspect of loving another person and everything it comes with. On the other hand, in “Bulverism” Lewis makes an interesting point by saying that the theory of knowledge would have to be assumed to be valid based off the previous inferences.
In order to know someone as well as possible, you have to know their reasons and motives and this coincides with the earlier topics in The Screwtape Letters in that the patient will act in a certain way based off their reasons and motives from old experiences. Most that look deeper into C.S. Lewis will find more overlay within his works and being able to analyze his work helps you understand his thinking about Christian values and gives you a glimpse into his mind.
Validity in Interpretation: Merging Experience and Spirits in “The Screwtape Letters”
“And anyway, why should the creature be happy?
Your affectionate uncle,
Screwtape” (Lewis 41).
In the preface to The Screwtape Letters, author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis essentially clarifies the target audience of the work: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight” (Lewis, preface). In this epistolary novel, Screwtape, a senior devil, instructs his nephew, and “junior tempter,” in how to effectively capture the soul of his assigned human, who is referred to only by “the patient.” Screwtape thoroughly describes tactics to win over and subconsciously steal the devotion of the patient, leveraging simple and seemingly natural human tendencies which he claims were created by demons. Within this interesting form of narration, all intuitive “morality” becomes reversed, as evil becomes good, good becomes evil, and the patient’s development of virtues is considered fatal. Through such an ironic inversion of traditionally accepted and encouraged values, Lewis illustrates the psychology of human beings and their moral choices as dictated and manipulated by spiritual beings.
All readers of this piece by C.S. Lewis have different beliefs and experiences which shape their interpretation of the text. Perspectives and responses are based on time period, reader gender, whether the reader is Christian, atheist, or another religion, and a general accumulation of beliefs determined by individual experience and upbringing. This idea of endless unique outlooks to every text is described by literary analyst and English professor Ross C. Murfin as the literary criticism of “reader-response,” which raises “theoretical questions about whether our responses to a work are the same as its meanings, whether a work can have as many meanings as we have responses to it, and whether some responses are more valid than others” (Murfin 337). According to reader response critic Wolfgang Iser, readers who are actively seeking to “bring ‘things’ into the text”(Cordell 292) are known as “actual readers.” In accordance with Iser’s take on the reader response theory, there are two different types of readers, the “implied reader, one the text creates for itself,”(Cordell 292) and the “actual reader”(Cordell 292) who applies experience, personal beliefs, and previous knowledge to the text, completing the work’s meaning in doing so. Somewhere between the “implied reader” and the “actual reader” lies the true intended meaning, as one is inspired by the author, and the other by the reader. This research paper will attempt to address the many factors which could influence different interpretations of Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, and how these perspectives reveal intended meaning. I will compare opposing views using secondary criticisms of the novel, two of the most essential predispositions being whether the reader is Christian or atheist. I will also discuss the validity of some views compared to others, and how that is determined. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters allows for readers to insert their own individual experiences, knowledge, and beliefs into the context of the story in order to effectively convey faults that he often sees in Christian lifestyles.
The notion of spiritual warfare, or the continual struggle of demons to manipulate and conquer individual human devotion, seems utterly absurd to many. From the lens of a reader influenced by a progressive, decreasingly religious society, this idea seems one that only the Christian interpretation of inerrancy, or the belief that everything within the Bible is fundamentally and historically accurate, would uphold. An atheist or nonbeliever could easily pin Lewis’ narrative merely as an accurate description of the human sociological condition, and that the involvement of demons in the midst of common, natural error (or morally neutral action) is completely irrelevant and absurdly false. Because of this, it seems as though the effectiveness of this piece lies within the predisposition of the reader to either the Christian faith or atheism. Lewis does not attempt to convince the unbelieving reader of the legitimacy of his claims in the existence of these demons, but rather writes in a way which very convincingly reveals their existence and practices to the already Christian reader. In reading the series of letters without any background knowledge or experience as a Christian, there seems no support for the claim that these devils dictate the evil that is present in the world.
As someone who has grown up conditioned to believe in the existence of a God and spirits, a physical manifestation of the struggles common in Christianity can be logically justified to me. This is because of my heavy reliance on what I have personally felt and experienced in my life thus far, an interesting human tendency considering our plethora of proven historical and scientific data which would more logically fuel our decisions and beliefs. This divide—experience versus fact, ethereal versus concrete, real versus subjective—is addressed from senior devil to junior as a construct of the Devil himself: “The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”(Lewis 77). According to Screwtape, the speaker, I have herein just demonstrated that I am victim to his master’s creation of the belief in subjectivity within experience. A categorization of all that occurs, all that physically exists, and all that is thought into a spectrum of reality dependant on our incredibly limited human perspective is fundamentally absurd; this notion is warped by our predisposition to recognize tangibles as more “real” than the thought of our own mental existence and capacity, which enables our rendering this question in this first place and should therefore seem the most concrete reality to exist. Lewis claims that this is one of many myopic human tendencies which Screwtape tells Wormwood the demons created in order to draw the patient further and further from God. Lewis uses the perspective of the tempters or demons to address common flaws he sees in a typical pursuit of faith: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out” (Lewis 18). This passage is a perfect example of what I see the broad purpose of the piece as a whole to be. Through the ironic perspective of the direct advocates and “creators” of all evil in the world (according to Lewis), he is drawing attention to the harmful Christian practices and habits which he personally believes need to be addressed. In the aforementioned passage, he is essentially saying, “It is funny (or ignorant) how other people always . . .” fill in the blank. Using the Devil as the lens just makes the message that much more powerful, as it is not coming from a fellow judgemental human, but rather the source and creator of the evil itself. In using Screwtape as the narrator, Lewis is simply giving his voice as an author more weight and credibility.
While Lewis attacks certain habits which Christians often fall into, he is also making the point that it is not from our own natural wiring that this happens, but rather from the work of demons like Screwtape and Wormwood. This may seem, depending on upbringing, just an excuse Christians can use for falling short. To a non Christian, this likely does seem more a petty justification for wrongdoing than anything else. Nonetheless, as Lewis uses Screwtape as a creative literary device to further his argument, he also does truly believe in the existence of demons, New York based secondary critic of the novel Adam Lee saying, “Though the book may be intended allegorically, on the whole it leaves little doubt that Lewis genuinely believed that evil spirits existed and were constantly assaulting human minds” (Lee). Regardless of the author’s intended message or personal beliefs, the work will always be seen as differently by all readers. As one New Yorker writer and secondary critic of The Screwtape Letters reminds us, “The novel remains wildly popular because whether or not you agree with Lewis that the Devil is real, the evils promoted by Screwtape—greed, gluttony, pride, envy, and violence—most certainly are” (Cep).
Lewis employs a writing style which allows for the insertion of one’s own experience into the context of what is being discussed. Rather than delve deeply into “the patient’s” life, Lewis merely uses him as a representative of the human race to reveal common Christian mistakes and the Devil’s dictation and manipulation of those mistakes: “When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s [God’s] party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part” (Lewis 18). Because the patient is not even given a name, and Lewis does not delve into his personal life but rather focuses on the devil’s part in it, the reader can easily insert him or herself into the patient’s position and recall times that the same or similar instance has occurred in his or her life. Lewis perfectly allows for deep individual and unique response, as the reader will naturally relate all discussions to his or her own life and experiences. As Louise Rosenblatt, a pioneer in reader-response criticism, suggests, “readers transact with the text by bringing in their past life experiences to help interpret the text” (Cordell 298). This response is also very much influenced by emotion in the reader along with experience, Wolfgang Iser recognizing “the simple fact that readers respond to literature on an emotional level and that such responses are important to the understanding of the work” (Cordell 292). When reading the novel, one’s emotional capacity, or the level to which they are naturally emotionally impacted, will inevitably influence their interpretation of the text. Similarly, the level to which the reader relates to the temptation methods employed by the demons will impact emotional response, and therefore overall interpretation of meaning.
With a modern, progressive outlook, one would notice certain unequal portrayals when reading this work. Throughout the novel, sexist undertones can be recognized in Lewis’ character selection, which can be seen simply in a lack in female characters, most noticeably in that all demons mentioned are male. Even in excluding females from such a negative role, there is inherent inequality. However, Lewis also demonstrates considerable awareness of sexual double standards: “It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual “taste”. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist” (Lewis 51). To attribute this unreasonable sexual standard to the work of demons in the early 1940s, whether metaphorically or otherwise, is socially progressive.
At the time during which the novel was written, the existence of God and demons was more widely accepted than in today’s culture. A modern reader, who would have a deeper scientific awareness and a conditioned skepticism of religion, might not become as fully immersed in the work as someone from the 1940s. The novel does however speak to a number of ideas and life struggles which have remained fairly unchanged through the times because of our sociological wiring: “For all readers, regardless of belief, the letters frame human experience as a familiar sequence of trials, from how you take your tea and what parties you attend to the sort of person you choose for a partner and the sort of politics you espouse” (Cep).
Because of the clearly intended audience, the meaning of this work is not as subjective or malleable to the reader’s interpretations as many other novels. Rather, the level of the reader’s understanding, and therefore interpretation, of the piece is determined largely by previous knowledge and experience with Christianity. While an endless amount of interpretations, regardless of background, are possible, the most revealing aspects of the novel can be understood only by a Christian reader. However, while there may be clear meaning intended by the author, the reader response literary criticism suggests that all interpretations are valid, as everyone experiences the text in different ways: “Even if all of our evidence for a certain interpretation comes from the work itself, and even if everyone who reads the text interprets it in the same (as improbable as that might be) it is still we, the readers, who do the interpreting, assigning meaning to the text. Reader response criticism not only allows for, but even interests itself in how these meanings to change from reader to reader and from time to time” (Millikan). The validity of an interpretation is completely and utterly subjective, as every single reader of the novel has a slightly different response and interpretation. The only sound method of judging the validity of one’s interpretation is by comparing it to the original intent of the author. Even still, other interpretations may be valid insight. As Wolfgang Iser puts it, the reader “‘completes” or ‘activates’ the text” and “In a sense . . . becomes the most important element in the reading process, supplanting even the author” (Cordell 292). If this is true, then the significance of author’s original intent is drastically diminished. Regardless, the author’s intent is completely unknown to the reader and is essentially irrelevant, as the reader will interpret the novel however he or she pleases.
The central philosophy of The Screwtape Letters rests on the principle that spiritual forces and beings do exist. Past this, and regardless of belief in this notion, Lewis calls to attention many flaws in the church, Screwtape himself saying that “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself” (Lewis 14). While I see the meaning of the work to be fairly objective and clear, someone with a different take most likely has the same extent of conviction as I do. We naturally see our own respective beliefs or interpretations as objective truth rather than opinion. Because of this innate tendency of stubborn conviction paired with the inevitable wide variation of interpretations for every literary piece, all readers view their own response as the most valid. With this considered, we can conclude that validity of response is extremely subjective and difficult to determine. The the author’s intended meaning is irrelevant to the reader, and the similarity between the author’s intention and the reader’s interpretation rests on the author’s clarity. Ultimately, the reader is very arguably the most essential element in the literary work, engagement filling intentionally left “gaps” (Cordell 299) in the writing. In this case, Lewis’ writing lends itself to easy immersion, the reader naturally assuming the role of Wormwood’s “patient.”
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Cep, Casey N. “The Devil You Know.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 16 July 2014. Web. 02 Jan. 2017.
Cordell, Ryan. “Creating Literary Analysis.” Creating Literary Analysis. Creative Commons, 29 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
Delahoyde, Michael. “Reader-Response Criticism.” Washington State University, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2017.
Lee, Adam. “The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.” Daylight Atheism. Patheos, 15 Aug. 2009. Web. 02 Jan. 2017.
Lewis, Clive Staples. The Screwtape Letters. Oxford, United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles, 1942. Print.
Millikan, Lauren. “Reader Response Criticism.” Carleton College. Carleton College, 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Dec. 2017.
Murfin, Ross C. ”Reader-Response Criticism and The Awakening.” The Awakening, Kate Chopin. Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism. 2nd Edition. Ed. Nancy A. Walker. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 291-306.
Quasi-Hopelessness and Martyrdom in Persian Letters
Persian Letters seems like a hopeless account lobbying against female empowerment. Starting from each of the wives’ opening letters to Usbek and continuing to Roxana’s death by suicide at the end of the novel, at first glance, these letters reek of despair and cyclical dread for womankind during this time period. However, while these epistles might seem to speak to insurmountable irreparability and impossibility for gender equality, deeper inspection reveals a heavily feminist manifesto circumventing this society. These feminist undertones are largely seen in Roxana’s sacrificial death, as well as the writings about the Female Paradise. But even aside from these plot points, there is a consistent tone of female rights providing an underpinning throughout all of the novel. This alternate, empowering reading encourages unique sources of power for these women; they may not be able to fully escape the hell they are subjected to in an optimal manner, but time and time again, their writings and actions remind readers that female agency is possible, depending on how they look for it.
The wives in The Persian Letters portray a prime example of protofeminity. Usbek’s wives are submissive in every way, but oftentimes, this behavior is purely displayed out of necessity or survival — later on, we learn that this is also related to them carrying on extramarital affairs and wanting the freedom to do so. As humans, they are entirely enslaved and used for their bodies, always having to submit to Usbek’s rule. They are aware of this limiting lifestyle they are forced into as well, with Fatme even dubbing herself “a free woman, by the accident of birth…enslaved by the violence of her love” (46). Each wife has a unique way of dealing with Usbek’s whims and desires while communicating with him.
While writing him, they each display their own unique style and mode of managing him in order to gain maximum freedom; they are acting on every feminist urge and ability they have. They are unable to stand openly for women’s rights or speak out against their injustices, so instead, they use specific, distinctive diction to manipulate Usbek and get their way. Zashi plays the nostalgic lover, reminding him that she is “searching for you all the time, and finding you nowhere” (43) and referencing the moments at which “they” fell in love. Zephis is the damsel in distress, griping to him about “how miserable I am!” and how “all I need is yourself” (44) to bring her happiness again. Fatme takes on the role of the unabashed lover, bordering on resembling Stockholm syndrome at various junctions in her letter. She pines over him and “still [tries] to make a habit of being attractive” (47). Roxana is unlike all of the other wives. She doesn’t write to Usbek until the last year of his escapade, playing hard to get (minus any “play”). Their different approach tactics prove significant because they are acutely aware of every word they say and the order in which they talk to him. These letters at first create concern for the women, and an urgent need to save them from Usbek, who has seemingly brainwashed them; Fatme in letter seven seems especially too far-gone. However, the way they present themselves is actually more a form of agency than anything else. In each letter, a significant amount of buttering up takes place — be it in the form of displaying weakness or withholding communication entirely, so that by the time they need or want something, they’ve swooned or impressed Usbek enough to ask for it. Through their letters to Usbek and their actions at home, it is seen that the power they have at the end of the novel is far greater than the power they were allotted at the beginning, with The Chief Eunuch even stating to Usbek that his “wives have come to think that [his] departure meant complete impunity for them” (270). The shift in the power structure here ends up leading to Usbek’s demise because it provides the wives agency over their own lives. They become characters who are able to manipulate and writhe skillfully within their adverse situations to make the best out of the hand they’ve been dealt. Roxana may not be able to be with the man she loves; Zashi may not be able to be as sexually adventurous as she wishes outside of the company of her slaves (270), but they are able to find nooks and crannies of time to carve out a life they want – given unavoidable and unfortunate circumstances. It is through this hushed, written manipulation that comes off initially disparaging that any of this agency is made possible.
The death of Roxana is sad and disheartening; she must die in order to gain power and happiness. In the midst of the Persian tale about women’s paradise, Zulema states, “we are so wretched that we cannot not want something different…I wish only to die myself…since that is the only way in which I can hope to be separated from you, I shall still find such a separation pleasant” (249). An idea of paradise for women is the exact opposite of what their life on earth is like, which is true of the four wives, as well. Zulema illustrates even in this tale that the only way a woman can attain agency in this society is via suicide. She adopts it as an act of power, and it is highly symbolic that she goes to Heaven afterwards to have her “happiness perpetually renewed” (249). This underscores how female suicide here death provides more joy and freedom opposed to a life in shackles chained to their husbands. It is also meant to lay the framework for Roxana’s suicide. It foreshadows that death by suicide in this time period is not something to be mourned, but something that could be a gateway to new realms of happiness. While suicide is typically thought of as heartbreaking, this changes it into a welcome act of power for women looking for a needed escape in this society.
The biggest source of female power — coming both from the structuring of the novel and the text itself — is found in the last letter from Roxana to Usbek as she poisons herself. Following the feminist motifs rife throughout the rest of the novel, this is not a suicide, it is a sacrifice and act of rebellion. She has manipulated everyone skillfully enough to tell Usbek, “I suborned your eunuchs, outwitted your jealously, and managed to turn your terrible seraglio into a place of delightful pleasures” (280). She is touting her accomplishments and the successful way she has undermined his power while he’s been away. She is akin to civil rights activists and valiant martyrs rather than someone who frivolously or over-emotionally committed suicide, which would have likely been seen as a sign of demented weakness during this time period. While killing herself could be seen as her acting out of desperation or finding an escape from ubiquitous power, the fact that she documents her death and writes to Usbek about it speaks volumes, as she is openly disregarding his authority, efforts, and rule. She acts against the feeling of entrapment felt by many women at the time: They would rather be killed or become martyrs rather than submit to the will of men who advance upon them. Every movement they made in spite of the men who controlled them was actually a movement toward freedom, as they were openly acting against the patriarchy and articulating the basic right of a women’s right to self-determination. She takes this act of suicide and turns it into her last word; the last word that will ever be said in their gender argument entirely. Her death might not have changed the world or granted women more rights than they originally held, but this act of selflessness could be seen as the beginning blueprints for feminism as a movement. Usbek asserts his dominance throughout the novel with his letters — especially the final letters where he gives the First Eunuch “unlimited powers over the entire seraglio” (271). He writes his wives and asserts threats, stating, “it is you who would be caught if I decided to follow the Chief Eunuch’s advice” (133), but Roxana’s last letter reminds Usbek that he is — and has always been — effectively powerless. He has spent years pining over Roxana and trying to control the seraglio and all of his wives, but this letter proves to him — definitively — that he cannot control anything. The irony in this is that he has spent his entire correspondence controlling people and running his society from the outside. In many ways, he was successful, as it would be near impossible to say his wives had wide degrees of freedom, but it is acts such as Roxana’s suicide that remind us how simply out of control he always was.
This is the note Montesquieu wanted to leave us with. The last thing that he wanted to tell us was that a woman felt so shielded by her husband that she had find happiness in the shadows and use her death as a way to escape a hell on earth. Montesquieu didn’t want to give Usbek the last word, didn’t want to give him a chance to explain himself. Throughout The Persian Letters, Montesquieu didn’t allow other people to stick up for themselves or let his wives have a say in their lives. They wrote letters and cunningly expressed their opinions, but he didn’t give them agency or power — rather, they had to find it themselves. His disregard for them is replicated, and dug in even more harshly, by Montesquieu’s — and the wives’ — disregard for him by lack of a final letter. It’s hard not to feel bad for Usbek’s wives and the people they represent, but it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, Usbek’s power is forgotten and undermined by his wives. They found glimmers of hope and unique ways to control him and eventually destroy him. Roxana had to sacrifice herself, but this act of dominance and power over him simultaneously destabilizes patriarchy while asserting female power. It’s hard not to feel bad for them. But it’s similarly hard not to see their actions as immense acts of clever, albeit saddening, power and strides toward eventual gender equality.