Analyze this

Today’s post is a question I really can’t answer. Another essay in the Norton Critical Edition (1983) of Humphry Clinker is by Wolfgang Iser, “The Generic Control of the Aesthetic Response: An Examination of Smollett’s Humphry Clinker.” Iser examines the epistolary form of Humphry Clinker and compares it with that of Richardson’s novels, and finds them different. According to the essay, “[t]he letter-form offered itself as a means whereby Richardson could capture the introspection he sought to portray” in “deal[ing] with the spiritual life of the characters.” Iser claims that “[t]he letter-form facilitates this self-examination insofar as it externalizes inner emotions.” On the other hand:

If Humphry Clinker is considered against this background, only the form of observation that we find in the different correspondents can be equated with that developed by Richardson. The individual personality of the letter-writer is present in everything he records. However, in Smollett the observations are no longer concerned with self-analysis, but with the changing situations that occur during the journey through town and country. For Richardson, the letter-form was a means of self-revelation to be achieved through a variety of situations, and it was on this central theme of self-discovery that the events of the epistolary novel were hinged. For Smollett, this central theme loses its importance. Richardson attached importance to the individual situation of his heroines only insofar as it led them to self-analysis and all the consequences resulting from it, but Smollett takes the situation itself as a theme.

Now, I should say that this is not a negative thing for Iser; he is not knocking Humphry Clinker here, in fact he seems to be saying that it makes HC more complex because it can deal with more than just its characters’ inner moral life.

But my question is this: where is the self-analysis in Richardson? These claims about Richardson’s novels were what I had been generally led to believe, before starting this project, that I should expect from epistolary fiction. The idea that the letter allows the author to “externalize inner emotions” is something I ran into…I don’t know where, but that’s the impression I had of at least one notion of the “point” of the epistolary form. And I may have been unfortunately blinded by my dislike of Pamela, but I really did not see this happening there much.

Yes, Pamela thinks about herself and her situation a lot. She spends a lot of time “talk[ing] about [her] vartue,” agonizing over the awful way she’s been treated, and wishing she could go home to her poor but honest parents. But is this self-analysis? Is there any self-discovery? The little tiny bit of self-discovery there is, where Pamela realizes that after all she’s in love with Mr B., is minimized by her for obvious reasons—because it’s absurd and embarrassing. And I just can’t think of any more self-discovery than that. Pamela isn’t on some kind of spiritual journey. Is she?

Now, admittedly, Iser talks more about Clarissa in this essay than about Pamela, and my understanding is that Clarissa and Charles Grandison are better-developed than Richardson’s first novel. Maybe they really do show the self-analysis that’s claimed; I hope so. But Pamela is not excluded from those claims here, and I just didn’t see it. In fact, it was something I had expected to be able to write about after reading Pamela, since I’d expected it to be a major feature, but I didn’t mention it because it didn’t seem to be there.

I guess it’s months now since I finished Pamela and maybe my prejudice combined with the elapsed time is making me forget; that’s why this post is really a question. Did I miss it?

3 comments to Analyze this

  • A couple of notes on this.

    First, compared to Clarissa Harlowe or what’s her name in Grandison, Pamela is a simple soul, and also not so bright. Finding the inner strength to not succumb to the rich seducer probably is as much self-discovery as she’s got in her.

    Second, “spiritual journey” is definitely not the right direction. This is the 18th century. Even Clarissa’s religion-drenched Todesfuge is something else. No, that’s not right either. Maybe this: Pamela’s defense of her virtue is itself the spiritual journey. The journey is like that of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the overcoming of travails in the service of true Christian morality.

    What is perhaps unappealing is that Pamela’s self-reflection is all about how she’s right to do what she does (and, in context, she is). We’d like at least a hint of doubt now and then, right, just a little bit of complexity?

  • nicole

    Right. Or, not even doubt, per se, but some kind of change—discovery, to me, implies an action that makes a difference, an uncovering, not just constancy.

    And thanks for the info on Clarissa and…Charlotte? That’s what I figured.

  • But what if the discovery is that you were right all along? Or there was something that you assumed was true, and now you discover that it’s definitely true? Your faith was weak; now it’s strong.

    I know: lame. I’ve mentioned my strong distaste for The Pilgrim’s Progress, I think?

    It’s hard to recommend Clarissa because of its crackpot length. There’s a stretch near the beginning, of maybe 300 pages, that is tense in the vein of Pamela) yet so dull. Reading the abridgement would make genuine sense. But Lovelace, the villain, is absolutely shocking. Richardson was on Satan’s side, and didn’t know it.