The Effective and Ineffective Uses of the Epistolary Form: Assessing ‘Pamela’ and ‘The Coquette’
Literature is often used as a medium to explain some facet of human emotion. It exists as a way for people to gain an understanding of others. Certain narrative forms achieve this goal with greater ease than others, but it is truly the implementation of the form that determines the degree of success. Pamela utilizes epistolary form in a way that poorly represents the human condition and makes it nearly impossible to properly empathize with the central characters, but The Coquette gives the audience a superior form of narration by tapping into the omniscience that occurs when reading from the perspective of varying characters.
In Pamela, particularly, the epistolary form makes it very difficult to trust the narrator. When nearly every letter begins with “Dear Father and Mother,” everything Pamela writes must be seen through more skeptical eyes (Richardson 11). Because Pamela’s parents are the recipients of her letters, she becomes an incredibly unreliable narrator. Her parents are obviously very concerned about her virtue, especially when they say “But we would sooner live upon the water and clay of the ditches I am forc’d to dig, than to live better at the price of our dear child’s ruin,” (Richardson 13). It seems as though Pamela’s parents value her virtue above all else, and the loss of it may harden them towards her. With this in mind, it is easy to assume Pamela edits her letters to emphasize her great virtue and how hard she works to maintain it. But this also means that the audience cannot be sure of anything Pamela writes and many of the events of the novel are thrown into question.
This knowledge is particularly important with the characterization of Mr. B. He writes to Pamela’s father that what she has written about him is clearly “so injurious to my honor and reputation,” trying to convince him that he is not being as horrible to Pamela as one would think from her letters (Richardson 115). Mr. B, at the very least, wants to believe he is not the man that Pamela portrays him as in her letters. The way Pamela writes Mr. B makes the audience distrust him, but if Pamela’s perspective cannot be trusted, maybe Mr. B is actually being unjustly slandered. Pamela could be writing these encounters to make her parents think she is the perfect, virtuous daughter while painting Mr. B as the villain to remove blame from herself. With what the audience knows about Mr. B, it is difficult to imagine him as anything other than the detestable rapist he is described as, but the story also becomes more palatable if Pamela’s description of him is at least slightly embellished for dramatic effect. The literary trope Richardson utilizes in the subtitle of the work suggests one the enduring themes of literature: those who are virtuous and good are rewarded, while vices are punished. As such, it would seem that Mr. B cannot be the monster Pamela paints him as, or by the logic of the novel he would not be rewarded with Pamela’s hand in marriage. It would certainly explain Pamela’s reluctance to return home at the beginning of the novel when her parents believed Mr. B was too great a threat to virtue. If Pamela truly felt threatened by Mr. B, the smart decision would be to get away from him at the first opportunity, but she does not. Pamela only explains her hesitation with the fact that she wanted to finish the waistcoat she had been working on, and without any other perspective, the audience must take this as the only answer that will be given.
When Mr. B demands that Pamela let him read her letters, there is another layer of deceit embedded in her words. Her audience has changed, and now Pamela is concerned with what Mr. B will think of the horrible things she has attributed to him. This could easily be used to her advantage because Mr. B will believe what she writes to be her candid, unfiltered thoughts. Her newfound love of Mr. B could be embellished, or entirely imagined, for the purpose of falling further into his favor. If he believes she is in Lincolnshire now because she loves him, he could grant her greater freedoms, like being allowed to leave the estate more often or hire a nicer maid. While this kind of manipulation may be beyond Pamela’s capabilities, it could explain the shift in her attitude from desperate to escape to complacent and content.
Beyond Pamela’s potential for willful deception, there is a degree to which she could believe she is telling the truth. She is young and may not necessarily understand everything that is happening around her. The simple fact that everyone seems to instantly adore her throws her perceptiveness into question. It is unclear whether this is a result of a poor understanding of others or a lie told to her parents (and later to Mr. B) to convince them that she is doing okay. Additionally, Pamela’s descriptions of people tend to be fairly surface-level. The limited perspective she gives of those around her make Pamela seem shallow and unperceptive, or at the very least self-centered. Her untrustworthy view hinders the readers’ understanding of the characters in the novel. Their motivations are not known, along with many other aspects of their lives. This is particularly interesting in the case of Mr. B. If the way Pamela describes Mr. B is accurate, he must have some serious underlying psychological issues. But as much as Pamela talked about him in relation to her, she does not mention much of his formative years or what made him into this monster of a person. This could easily be a result of her self-centered nature, but these limits of her perspective in this epistolary form leave gaps in her stories that make it much more difficult to relate to the characters.
It becomes very difficult to empathize with or like characters when everything they say cannot be fully trusted. Because Pamela is written with an unreliable narrator in an unreliable form, the kind of relatability a reader is often looking for in a main character is lacking. When a character is in a situation like Pamela was, readers generally feel sorry for them. But with Pamela, it is easy to find her annoying and frustrating. Disliking a character in such a pitiable situation is uncomfortable as a reader and adds a layer of separation from Pamela. She is not accessible as a character because of her obsession with her virtue and her writing about the constant praise of others is off-putting. This focus on her virtue is understandable with how society has ingrained in Pamela that her virtue should be her most treasured quality. To navigate the world she resides in, she must carefully guard her virtue from the likes of Mr. B. Above all, the love of her parents would certainly be lost with the loss of her virtue, so it is reasonable that it permeates her thoughts so frequently.
It is also worth noting that nearly all the letters in Pamela are written by Pamela, and if they are not, they are written to her. There are no letters providing an alternate perspective on what Pamela is like or why everyone is so fond of her. Humanity is generally disinclined to believe the face-value of a person’s words and as readers, varying perspectives on a situation are incredibly helpful in the understanding the truth of what happened. Because Pamela never offers this, the audience is naturally going to doubt her authenticity, particularly when her antagonist is the only character that offers up any criticism. This lack of dislike is simply unrealistic and contributes to a flatter interpretation of Pamela. In contrast, The Coquette offers varying perspectives on Eliza. Readers see how her friends and potential love interests think about her as she navigates the world after the death of her long-suffering fiancé. This allows readers to get a far more in-depth view of the true feelings of the characters and know the accuracy of the events that occur. It also provides a much better-rounded image of Eliza. By giving Eliza flaws and telling the audience about them, Foster creates a character that is a person. Eliza becomes relatable and interesting, where Pamela is this pillar of virtue, which is difficult for a modern audience to relate to.
Because Foster utilizes the epistolary form with multiple perspectives, The Coquette is able to portray a deeper understanding of the supporting characters and the general world in which they are residing. The audience is better able to understand society within The Coquette when Eliza’s friends encourage her to be less coquette-like or when Major Sanford visits Eliza almost daily. Through instances like these, the audience is able to imagine this setting without outside knowledge. Additionally, the alternate perspectives serve to make the story less focused on the individual and more focused on the cast of characters. While the majority of the letters do have the primary focus of Eliza and events surrounding her, there are notable insights in to the other characters in her story.
A particularly interesting insight is that of Eliza’s mother upon news of her daughter’s death. When she read of the news, she “with inexpressible anguish depicted in her countenance, pointed to the paper,” to indicate to Julia why she was so upset (Foster 119). She is in such severe emotional pain, and even though the audience sees this through the eyes of Julia, the reaction stings in a way that would simply be impossible if the story was told only from Eliza’s perspective. This kind of epic despair is lacking in Pamela because the audience never sees people other than Pamela reacting to the events that transpire. While Pamela notes the way others may behave, there is something less accurate in her descriptions. Pamela just seems to not be able to read people particularly well, which leaves the audience to doubt her understanding of them. Conversely, Julia seems to provide a fairly reliable account of the events in the Wharton home during her time there, especially because being observational is one of the primary goals of her stay.
The perspectives of Eliza’s friends play a key role in the narrative. Their letters are of principal importance in the characterization of Eliza. Lucy, in particular, knows Eliza very well, as can be seen when she writes, “You have hastily perused the preceding lines, and are straining your eye forward to my part in the farce,” (Foster 18). Lucy understands the many child-like attributes of her close friend, including her impatience and easy excitement. While some of this could be noted from Eliza’s correspondence, the way her friends communicate with her betray the less savory aspects of her character that she is less likely to immediately own up to. Lucy warns her against being overly flirtatious because she knows that this newfound freedom might affect her reputation negatively. But this kind of friendship also betrays that many of the positive character traits Eliza possesses are not exaggerated. Early in their relationship, Mr. Boyer says that, “I find the graces of her person and mind rise in my esteem, and have already enjoyed in her society some of the happiest hours of my life,” (Foster 22). While this is the opinion of one of her suitors, the words ring a little truer than the praises of Pamela. This is a quote from the man himself, explaining his feelings, instead of Eliza telling the audience she believes he feels this way. Additionally, she has these strong, knowing friendships that imply that Eliza is a good friend, even though she may sometimes behave like a coquette. These kind of strong relationships and altering perspectives give the audience a clearer understanding of Eliza.
Eliza, on her own, is still not an entirely reliable narrator. The quality of her information varies depending on her mood and other circumstances. When Eliza is her energetic, effervescent self early in the novel, her accounts of events and herself are more detailed and provide greater insight into the happenings of her life. But later, when she falls into a depression following the rejection from Mr. Boyer, her voice becomes a little lost as she is less inclined to be around people or talk about events. It is vital that Julia is with her during this time, corresponding about Eliza’s well-being with Lucy. Without her narrative voice, the audience would lose many pieces of the plot through Eliza’s omission. By simply reading Eliza’s letters alone, readers may understand that she is upset and unsociable, but it takes a third party to fully understand the degree to which Mr. Boyer has cut her.
Mr. Boyer is also more significantly fleshed out as a character through reading his correspondence to friends and to Eliza herself. When he feels betrayed by her, he tells her, “I write not as a lover, – that connection between us is forever dissolved,” indicating how easily and permanently he can resolve himself against her (Foster 59). Mr. Boyer represents himself in his letters slightly differently than those around him do. His tone has an air of resoluteness and strength that is markedly absent from Eliza’s letters. He seems to possess an air of self-awareness in that he will not be trifled with and will not accept less than he deserves. There is a great degree of strength in this, and it is possible that this reaction to the incident in the garden with Major Sanford helped Eliza realize that Mr. Boyer would make a fine husband. She is far more indecisive than Mr. Boyer and only realizes how strongly she felt for him once she understands she can never have him. It is an unfortunate effect of her youthful mindset; Eliza becomes too caught up in the notion of freedom once her fiancé dies to understand that there are limitations to what she can do to still end up happy. When she realizes this, the scramble of having to choose between her two suitors seems to fluster her and possibly affect her decision in a negative way. Her friends repeatedly tell her that Mr. Boyer is the proper choice in husband, but she does not agree until it is too late. By seeing the letters of Eliza’s friends and of Mr. Boyer, the audience is better able to understand the true appeal of a husband like Mr. Boyer.
In reading letters from Major Sanford, the audience becomes privy to his rakish nature. While the perspectives of Eliza’s friends provide this view as well, the purity in Major Sanford’s own writing proves so entirely how horrible he is. When talking about Eliza, he claims that he cannot marry her because “It would hurt even my delicacy, little as you may think me to possess, to have a wife whom I know to be seducible,” (Foster 116). This is a fairly despicable thing to say considering he was the one seducing her. At the very least, it is hypocritical, especially with the knowledge that she is carrying his child. By that point, one would hope he could get over this ingrained desire to not marry unless it benefited him financially, but it is not so. The biggest issue with this is that Eliza is convinced that her love could reform this rake. Even though her friends warn her against it and push her toward accepting the hand of the respectable, if boring, Mr. Boyer, Eliza is still attracted to the excitement that surrounds Major Sanford. If this story was only viewed through the eyes of Eliza, the audience would not be able to fully comprehend the full spectrum of Sanford’s debauchery.
A large portion of the plot in The Coquette would be lost if the story was told by a single narrator. The novel would be much less enjoyable and would be missing the theme of ongoing friendship that is so prevalent through the letters. It would not be able to properly function without the various perspectives. In contrast, the way Richardson utilizes the epistolary form in Pamela exhibits the problematic aspects of the form. Because he limits his perspective to the correspondence of one character, there is little trust or empathy from the readers. The plot and characters are lacking the deeper development that can only be provided by a trustworthy narration and the novel becomes less enjoyable because of that. While that might not be the purpose of the work, it should be noted that The Coquette had a fairly similar premise and cast, yet was able to provide things that Pamela could not. While this could be an effect of Eliza’s older age or the fact that she is more likely to own up to her mistakes than Pamela, a lot of the blame rests on the way the information is presented. Richardson does accurately portray a fifteen year-old girl stuck in a horrible situation, his story just lacks a mature voice to give a less biased account of events.
Because The Coquette was published so many years after Pamela, Foster had the opportunity to compare and build up her work in the areas Pamela was lacking. Readers can be certain of so much more in The Coquette which creates a deeper understanding of the characters. Doubting the veracity of events keeps readers too uncomfortable to form attachments to characters and hinders the novel’s ability to elicit an emotional response. With this as a primary objective in the creation of most art, it is clear that Pamela could not achieve this in the way it intended. It brings up feelings of disgust or abhorrence, but does not quite reach the level of sad empathy Pamela’s story should provoke. Because The Coquette utilized multiple perspectives in its epistolary form, Foster created a novel that easily depicted the human condition, while Pamela could not measure up.
Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. New York: Published for the Facsimile Text Society by
Columbia UP, 1939. Print.
Richardson, Samuel. Pamela: Or, Virtue Rewarded. New York: Norton, 1958. Print.
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