Novels & Human Rights Part 8: Causal Links and Conclusion

In the past two weeks, we’ve talked about the different cultural changes taking place in the 1700s, Into this changing cultural milieu came Pamela, popular for all the reasons we’ve discussed before. It interacted with the surrounding culture, establishing necessary foundations for the recognition of human rights. Taking advantage of pre-existing movements toward individualism, Pamela was the ideal book to plant the idea that all humans have equally important internal lives.

Richardson intended to promote virtue and marriage, but in doing so, he inadvertently encouraged a foundational awareness that other humans have internal lives similar to one’s own, with their own sets of fears and desires. Richardson drove this home in several passages that may have been designed as digs against the perceived licentiousness of the upper classes or appeals for defense of the poor:

Pamela Samuel Richardson coverHave I done you any Harm? – Yes, Sir, said I, the greatest Harm in the World: You have taught me to forget myself, and what belongs to me. (23 – emphasis added)

Sir, if I have not been worse than others, why should I suffer more than others? (59)

If you was not rich and great, and I poor and little, you would not insult me so in my Misery! (69)

For, Oh! What can the abject Poor do against the mighty Rich, when they are determined to oppress? (99)

How came I to be his property? What Right has he in me, but such as a thief may plead to stolen Goods? (126)

Were my Life in question, instead of my Honesty, I would not wish to involve you, or any body, in the least Difficulty for so worthless a poor Creature. But, O Sir! My Soul is of equal Importance to the Soul of a Princess; though my Quality is inferior to that of the meanest Slave. (158)

By basing his entire novel on the inner thoughts and feelings of a servant girl, Richardson made statements like these unavoidable. He seems to have been more invested in the concept than he admitted in his letters. The mention of property rights refers to John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1690), in which he asserts “every man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to but himself.” Contemporary complaints about the biased justice system are mirrored in the character of Mr. B, a magistrate – the person who would answer any accusations Pamela might make, and who dictated her life unfairly. At the beginning of the novel, Mr. B clearly believes he can and should act with impunity because of his class and station. Even in the midst of attempted rapes, he acts shocked that Pamela dares to criticize his character.

Demonstrating that this particular book had an effect on human rights may be impossible, as it would entail proving that people had particular thoughts and acted on them. However, Martin Hoffman’s study of empathy toward victims reports several possible reactions. Subjects feel little empathy for those who have caused their own distress, but if subjects perceive victims to be in real trouble, viewers are most likely to feel pity or sympathetic distress that eventually can lead to action. Most significantly, if a subject has participated in causing the victim’s distress, the subject will feel guilty and that will lead to either aversion or action. The reading classes could certainly feel themselves responsible for the lives of their servants, good or bad.
The timing also demonstrates a connection. Before 1776, “human rights” referred to passive qualities, contrasted with divine rights or animal rights. Over the 18th century the term came to be associated with legal rights, and more importantly, equal rights for an increasing number of people. Human rights historian Lynn Hunt asserts that human rights are not legal creations that come from nowhere, but “rest on a disposition toward other people.” If any one thing can affect disposition toward other people on a large scale, it is a widely-read book.

Thomas Jefferson - Wikipedia
Thomas Jefferson – Wikipedia

A letter from Thomas Jefferson to Robert Skipwith in 1771 provides one piece of subtle but significant evidence in Pamela’s favor. Jefferson sent a list of books to make up an essential starter library. In his accompanying letter, Jefferson recommended the reading of novels in no uncertain terms:

… the entertainments of fiction are useful as well as pleasant. That they are pleasant when well written, every person feels who reads. But wherein is its utility … I answer, every thing is useful which contributes to fix us in the principles and practice of virtue.

In his list of essential books, Jefferson included no less than four of Richardson’s novels, led, of course, by Pamela.

Pamela was part of a cultural transition. It responded to existing conditions, certainly, but it also provided a focal point and foundation for a new way of thinking about human rights. Contemporary reactions to the novel showed its wide appeal. Modern research into novels’ effects indicates that readers would have empathized with Pamela as a character. Widespread empathy was a necessary precursor to human rights as a concept, leading to important human rights documents such as the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, and eventually the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Already an important novel in the history of literature, Pamela also deserves a place of respect in the annals of human rights.

Here we are at the end! I’d love to know what you think and hear about your reading experiences. I’m sure there will be follow-up posts at some point, too. Go to this page for the other posts in this series, and check out the resource reviews for my sources and further reading.

5 thoughts on “Novels & Human Rights Part 8: Causal Links and Conclusion

  1. You’ve made a very compelling case that Pamela helped the cultural transition. even if it didn’t however, it sounds like a fascinating read that was maybe ahead of its time. Some of those quotes seem to ring true today with the growing imbalance between the filthy rich and everyone else.


  2. I’ve told you this before but I’ve really enjoyed this whole series! Excellent choice of quotes here, too, to show the themes of human rights and empathy.


    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂 I’m hoping to continue on with some study of Richardson’s other books, Robinson Crusoe, and some social history I didn’t really have room for… But who knows how soon I’ll get to it, lol.

      Liked by 1 person


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