The Problem of “Pamela” for Pamela

Pamela is an early English sort-of-novel showing the triumph of the virtue of Pamela: one of the more insufferable characters ever to appear in literature. For those tempted to believe that Elsie Dinsmore, her American soul sister, would be tolerable if English: wrong. Virtue is supposed to be triumphant in Pamela and a certain virtue is, but meanwhile virtue becomes unbearable.

How could virtue be anything other than desirable? It is a ploy of the Evil One to twist an evil around a virtue so that the virtue becomes less desirable than the opposite vice. If a glutton is jolly while the fit man is dull, then it might appear better to be a glutton than fit. Of course, there need be no  natural correlation between overeating and jolliness or fitness and grimness, but if I believe there is then I might accept the wages of gluttony, death, in order to be jolly.

Sin as sin has no virtue, but since sin twists a good thing or associates with other goods, then sin can seem attractive. Any loving relationship has this going for it: the relationship is mixed up a form of love. In many ways this makes the vice worse, because it hides behind virtues of self-sacrifice, humility, and moderation and so cheapens them while elevating sin. The self-sacrifice of a father who stays with an abusive mother for the children becomes morally questionable if he enables vice.

The problem with Pamela is that it mixes sexual virtue with unjust social structures and preachiness. The chief problem in Pamela, the problem for Pamela the character, is a world where the powerful, particularly powerful men, can act in vile ways and be tolerated. The rich are treated differently than the poor and most of the evils done to Pamela are due to this social injustice. Everyone, mostly, in the book agrees on sexual morality generally, but many give the rich and powerful (or simply men) a pass on morality.

“Boys will be boys” is false, damaging to men, and also an excuse for sin. The answer is not for women to adopt the vices of these powerful men, but to get rid of the double standard.

The preachiness of Samuel Richardson is an advertisement for sin. First, Richardson talks about vices while condemning them providing an accidental titillation to a certain sort of reader. If not done carefully, and Richardson has little literary skill, the “testimony book” to virtue can end up being most interesting when it describes the sin and least “fun” when describing the “virtue.” Many Christian testimony books are “cool” when they talk about the pre-Christian life and dull when the person is “saved.”


The life of a drug addict is fascinating to an outsider if utterly destructive to the addict and those around him or her. A drug addict is happier clean and sober, but in the hands of a hack the story lags. Anybody can dramatically relate apocalypse, only the best can make a pleasant dinner party interesting to a reader.

All of us are sinners. Occasionally media outlets will breathlessly report on “sin in the Church” as if pastors did not know all about it. Jesus makes bad people better, not perfect. Who is stupid enough to believe that in a society awash in a particular vice that those opposed to it are immune? Hate racism with all your heart, but growing up in a racist society will corrode your values.

For all but the hypocrite, who pretends to have no sin when he does, or the morally blind, who do not see their sin, there is a strong temptation to condemn nothing. We hope that if we can keep anybody from throwing stones or glass houses will be safe. Richardson and his endless preaching about virtue in the mouth of Pamela breaks that rule. He annoys us and tempts even a moderately skillful writer to parody virtue. Shamala wrote itself.

And so virtue is harmed, because it is not chastity that is annoying and repulsive, but the preachiness, the misogyny, the injustice.

In my life, virtue has been better than vice, but I also know whenever I talk about this truth my lack of literary skill and my own continuing faults make virtue less appealing. I might also make my own failings seem less serious if a careless reader thinks “I got away with it.” How to avoid the problem of Pamela? 

I must acknowledge that I am a sinner. Always.

I must do what I can to separate the few things I do well from the many things I do badly. My failure does not undermine the goal. Hope and I long for a happy marriage, we are getting closer to it, but we also fail. Our failures are real, the come with a price, but still we aspire to the good goal and it is better so. We are sinners saved by grace and being saved by grace.

So the Christian faces a tough challenge: communicate the sinfulness of sin without defrauding the pious, without preachiness, and with grace. I love Jesus and Jesus, the person, is altogether good and beautiful. Christian morality is rigorous, but the law of the Lord is also life to me. How can I share that story without the problem of Pamela?

God help me, God help us all.


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