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An Aesthetic Perspective of Pamela and The Man of Feeling

Updated on May 22, 2013


The reception of a literary work (either upon its original publication or as it is judged by new generations of readers) seem contingent upon how the work is perceived, both in terms of aesthetics as well as ideological content. These two principals are not oppositional, as one might gather in a study of the aesthetics movement of the late nineteenth century, at least not in regard to literature; rather, aesthetic quality and ideological content are often intertwined in the creation of the text, and necessarily so. Unlike other forms of art such as painting or sculpture, the aesthetics of a literary text cannot be evaluated in terms of a golden ration or by any other means of measurement. I do not mean to diminish the other arts, they too require a certain cerebral processes in order to be appreciated, but they are able to utilize a number of techniques (color, texture, &c.) denied to literature. A written text relies almost entirely upon the cerebral mechanics of the reader, making the aesthetic qualities of the text more subtle and more psychologically oriented. Written texts, with few exceptions, appear as black lettering on white pages; indiscernible symbols to the illiterate or reader unfamiliar with the language represented. In other words, without the capacity to understand the symbols as they appear to mimic speech sounds, the text is useless – and no example is any different from any other except perhaps in terms of page length or size. Though, it can be argued that the font of lettering and such is an integral part of the aesthetic understanding of the text (which I will investigate later in the essay) such qualities are peripheral; secondary to the content which is reinforced by the predominant aesthetic qualities. Literature must rely on a different system of qualities in order to be considered art as opposed to being simply, a collection of representations of speech sounds. In this essay I will describe some of these qualities and how they define the texts of Pamela by Samuel Richardson and The Man of Feeling by Henry Mackenzie as artistic endeavors, and how these qualities reinforce the ideological content which allows these pieces to qualify as part of a literary tradition.

Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher, born in French Algeria.


Jacques Derrida, a philosopher famous for his innovative work in the theory of deconstructionism, once said: “Everything is a text…” (Rawlings). Derrida referred to the ability to recognize any sign as being fit for deconstruction, by which I mean that anything from a literary text to an interpretive dance can be analyzed in terms of binary oppositions where one half of the binary is privileged over its counterpart. This is convenient in that it gives us a solid principal of unity; if the whole of a literary text can be understood as a single artistic piece that has numerous functioning parts (some of which contradict other parts) that can be deconstructed then at the same time it must be regarded as a single sign. A text must exist as a single sign, being the whole of a signifier/signified relationship. Therefore, text, for our purposes, comes to mean the whole of a work representing all functioning parts at once. “Text” is the first ontological level in the aesthetic paradigm, that of the book itself containing qualities that can be defined.
The second level of the aesthetic hierarchy would be the relationship of megatext and context. Megatext is the collective patterns and conventions that define a genre of literature, used primarily in “genre fiction” but also applicable in any of the well-established literary traditions, such as that of the Greek tragedies (Buxton 54). Context then is the representation of the megatext in the singular; the scenario by which the patterns and conventions exist. The relationship of megatext and context is cyclical. The single text is defined by tradition (or megatext) that defines its type just as the single text (by means of accepting or rejecting conventions or by maintaining or defying the expectations of pattern) comes to more clearly define the literary tradition to which it belongs. This relationship is, in essence, the way that the author has used the expectations of a genre for aesthetic or ideological purposes. In this relationship we find characterization, setting, plot, &c. and in that we have archetypes that perform new actions, sometimes in a new setting and sometimes in an established setting. This is where narrative can be understood in terms of Genette’s criteria: order, duration, frequency, mood, and perspective (Eagleton 105-06). This portion of the text may contain many different ontological levels, dependent on the necessity of the story to reach into differing depths in order to be represented as the author sees fit. This relationship is also defined by the language used (figurative, rhetorical, &c.). Most types of criticism pertain to the mechanics used at this level.
The third level of the aesthetic hierarchy would be paratext. Paratext is information that contributes to the whole of the text as a singular artistic piece, but can be altered or removed without necessarily compromising the artistic quality of the work. I do not mean to imply that the paratext were to be altered or removed it wouldn’t drastically change the reception of the work, but by definition it must included in the text but exist outside of the narrative itself. Paratext can be “an author’s name, a title, a preface, or illustrations” (Genette 261). Paratext could even be extended to other aspects of the text as a physical object; a hardcover is different from a paperback, a font such as ”Comic Sans MS” is different from "Cambria" or "Times New Roman", and these distinctions (as examples) have a particular aesthetic affect on the reader. Ultimately, though, the paratext is secondary. These differences in presentation, though influential in their way, can be changed without altering the ideological content or the greater aesthetic techniques used in the relationship between megatext and context.
The fourth level of the aesthetic hierarchy is that of subtext. Subtext is that which is inferred by the reader about the ideological content of the text based upon the aesthetic techniques at play, regardless of the author’s intentions. This is not to say that the skilled author is not capable of influencing subtext; in fact, the relationship between context and mega text as well as the paratext do much in the way of shaping the subtext. Though it should be recognized that themes can emerge from a text without the author’s intention – this is especially true of texts as they age (and are thus encountered by new generations) or cross into different cultural boundaries. This is the level of interpretation of the aesthetics and ideological content, where the mechanics used in the creation of the text enter into criticism, which can become paratext if included in new editions.
This hierarchy implies that the text is privileged over the relationship of context and megatext, which is privileged over paratext, which is in turn privileged over subtext. I do not however value one perception of the text over another, but in terms of aesthetics this hierarchy becomes important. The text itself encompasses all of the intentions that became the edition presented, this includes context and paratext. As such, it has the fixed position necessary for criticism. Context and paratext are dependent upon the edition, meaning that changes can occur from one pressing to the next in both categories. Still, as long as an original edition exists, these potential changes are in contrast to it – linked through time and space. Subtext, on the other hand, is relative. The clever literary critic is able to use the language and mechanics found in the relationship of context and megatext to argue any number of points, whether they are Marxist, feminist, &c. Sometimes these criticisms are founded, and sadly, sometimes they are projected onto the text. The subtext of a work is conditional, dependent on the reader and divorced from the intentions of the author in terms of aesthetics and ideological content. Art, especially literature, depends upon the relation between creator and observer, however, and so subtext (especially as it is manifest in literary criticism) is an integral part of a text’s appeal and can influence further reception. I have based this hierarchy in relation to fixed points to relative points in order to create a structure through which predominate aesthetics can be organized based on the author’s perceived intentions and how they relate to the modern reader.


Richard’s Pamela and Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling are valuable resources in a discussion of literary aesthetics for a number of reasons. Both texts are collection of documents. Pamela is an assortment of letters, which places it in the tradition of the epistolary novel. The Man of Feeling on the other hand is a “found manuscript” which places it in the tradition of the sentimental novel. This makes both texts a fine example of the relationship of megatext and context. These documents imply, in their very essence, an ontological level that would otherwise not exist in a narrative with an overt author. This provides a venue for a greater discussion of the mechanics of the respective traditions. Both texts have existed long enough that they have become fixtures in academia, in with that comes subtextual documentation that is, at the same time, paratext. Also, the time that has passed since the original publication allows for changes in the conventions of syntax, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation (though Pamela demonstrates this better; The Man of Feeling was already conforming to the conventions that are recognizable today). These communal aspects along with individual aspects of the works make these texts interesting in regard to presentation.


In order to study the work in the way that is described above, the theoretical hierarchy will fall short. It is a fine means to describe the theory, but the concepts at play are far too intertwined to be taken as separate issues. For instance, the text of Pamela underwent several alterations relatively early in its existence, according to Thomas Keymer in his introduction (Richardson xxix). Being as Richardson was not only the author of the work but also its publisher he had the unique ability to alter the text easily by the standards of his time. These alterations were made, in part, due to criticisms in the language of Pamela. Keymer writes: “Richardson’s anxiety to accommodate established taste was such that, even in the earliest parts of revised editions, Pamela is increasingly made to speak in the voice of the fine lady she will later become, and not of the servant she initially is” (Richardson xxix). So, it would be impossible to separate a discussion of text from a discussion of subtext; the two were too closely entwined, sharing a relationship of causality. Pamela underwent six revisions between its original publication in 1740 and 1742 by its author. The history of alterations in Pamela is interesting, but not the primary topic of the essay, so to avoid elaborating too heavily on the topic I will say that many revisions occurred after Richardson’s death in order to better align it with social norms. These posthumous revisions are the greatest attack on the text. Where Richardson would alter some sections of language he would maintain others, no doubt to preserve the ideological content. It is, after all, possible to alter certain aesthetic aspects of a work without changing the intended message. Posthumous alterations such as those described later in Keymer’s introduction do however compromise the ideological content by drastic changes to the aesthetic of language. This is why most literary critics prefer the closest edition to the original publication.
Richardson is often regarded as the first master of the epistolary form in British literature (Birch 345). Pamela, however, wasn’t the first; it came to join the already established epistolary tradition that began with a French to English translation by Roger L’Estrange, titled Love Letters to a Portuguese Nun (1678) and was furthered by Aphra Behn with her publication of Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister (1683) as well as subsequent epistolary novels in the same vein. Common to the form was the presentation of an anonymous author, or in Richardson’s case the character of “Editor”. Anonymity in authorship preserves the suspension of disbelief for the reader, at least to a limited extent, allowing the letters to exist on an ontological level separate from that of the text as an authored piece. Though these letters are ultimately written by a single author, on this level of context they exist as letters written by one character for another. Richardson capitalized on the form by utilizing six different perspectives with their own individual voices, an innovation at this time (Birch 751).
By creating this ontological level within the context, the epistolary form allows for an intimacy with characters that does not need explanation. The reader is able to enter such a text already understanding that though they hold a published work, the letters are intended for another. This creates a sense of voyeurism in the reader that may foster interest and intimacy that would be denied in non-documentation forms. By using conventions of the epistolary form such as anonymity Richardson has placed his work within a tradition, a megatext. By taking the next logical step in the evolution of the form, namely, individualized perspective for the “authors” of the letters, along with the noteworthy language that made Pamela distinct, Richardson established a context. Within this relationship of megatext to context we have emerging themes of social inequality, seventeenth century perceptions of gender, and indications of the common view of morality within that particular culture. This would have been impossible without the aesthetic qualities that reinforce them.
Pamela, for a modern American reader can appear quite removed. It is, after all from another continent, approximately 270 years old (depending on which of the editions that is being read), and it uses syntactical and spelling conventions that seem strange or incorrect. Despite these attributes, the text is relatively modern, falling well within the scope of modern English. Beyond that, the text has been modernized through the course of time by various editors that have sought to both maintain the integrity of the work even as they attempted to keep it accessible. What remains of the antiquated original text now serves as an intellectual curiosity. Examples of this can be found on page one of the text and in (what we might consider odd) capitalizations of words throughout the work.
Page one represents what could be classically understood as paratext. It features the official title: Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded, as well as a brief explanation of what the work will consist of, namely: “In a series of familiar letters from a beautiful young damsel, to her parents.” This establishes an understanding in the reader as well as presents expectations. The use of “beautiful” and “young” both carry with them connotations through which the reader can relate. This media allows for imagination, and so Pamela can represent beautiful and young for any particular reader based on the reader’s subjective understanding of the terms. This title page is not without a particular didacticism that becomes a theme within the text: “In order to cultivate the principals of virtue and religion in the minds of the youth of both sexes.” This passage brings to mind a debate that has existed since the late nineteenth century, aestheticism versus instrumentalism. Proponents of aestheticism argued for the l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake) approach to evaluating art. Those in favor of instrumentalism, on the other hand, would insist that artistic value is found in the ability for a work to contain a moral message that reinforced the status quo and taught the reader lessons (perhaps so that the reader would not have to experience the dangers of vice first hand). This passage in put into contrast with the passage that immediately follows it: “A narrative which has its foundation in truth and nature…” This could be seen as presenting the mimetic quality that defines aestheticism in the first place. Between these two passages we have the crux of the argument, and in a way, the solution. Texts are by nature representations of language meant to communicate a message from one person to another. The language used is most affective when it has aesthetic potential, but the message must be worth hearing otherwise it does not matter how well the words have been presented. This first page is loaded with potential expectations for readers. The reader can expect to find entertainment as well as a moral message that is suitable for common discourse.

The Man of Feeling

The tradition of the novel of sentiment requires little relative to the demands of other genres; the protagonist must simply be an unwavering example of sentimentality and sensibility. This requires that the hero must be characterized by the impulse to empathize, sympathize, and demonstrate the appropriate amount of emotion relative to the experiences presented within the work. The ultimate goal of such literature was to evoke an emotional response from the reader so they too could feel the sentiment brought on by the heroes experiences. Oddly enough, one would have, by nature, already posses the sort of sentimentality that characterizes the protagonist in order to relate on that emotive level, but that is neither here nor there. Sentiment, the overpowering emotive response to situations, is privileged over reason in that reason is seen as oppositional to the human condition. In other words, sentiment represents the subjective inclinations of senses whereas reason represent the calculate objectivity that would alienate the individual. Sensibility, the ability to empathize and sympathize, served an overarching social function. It had the potential to reinforce social norms. Sensibility, as a philosophy, would carry with it the expectations of suffering; otherwise there could be no sensitivity to said suffering. This acceptance of pain as a natural state would then eliminate the possibility of utopian prospects – if pain is the natural state then it is impossible to reform society in such a way as to eliminate it. The individual wouldn’t take a revolutionary stance; rather, they would take a defensive stance toward suffering, sharing it, dwelling within it.

The formula for achieving the desired affect includes a protagonist that is relatable. If the hero of the novel of sentiment is somehow more intelligent or virtuous than the average individual it runs the risk of making sentiment and sensibility seem too difficult. Crimes which this ‘everyman’ may encounter should be shocking enough so that the average reader would understand both the lack of morality in the perpetrator and the obvious moral solution that is carried out by the protagonist, yet the crime should not be so bad as to invoke some principal of evil; rather, simply the course of misguided human traits. Also, the protagonist was to meet with circumstances that appear as natural repercussions of society. Ultimately, the novel of sentiment was a tradition based on a sort of hyper-realism which was palatable to the eighteenth century literate that had already begun to think in terms outside of spirituality in favor of humanism or a lack of humanity.
The Man of Feeling seems to take the reader to this sort of emotional level from the beginning, using the “found manuscript” as a means to subjective understanding, much the same way that the epistolary novel did. This text has a curious aesthetic however. The ontological level created is purposefully disjointed. This seems to add credence to believability of the text. This is accomplished by means of the absence of initial chapters (it begins on chapter 11), missing segments, fragmentations, as well as extradiegetic material. This in conjunction with anonymity of authorship of the “found manuscript” and the introduction from the “curator” which explains how it is that manuscript fell into such condition, seems to reinforce the ontological reality presented, bringing with it a validity normally lacking in the genre. These aesthetic qualities also seem to represent the theme of suffering, in that the life of Harley was as disheveled and worn as the manuscript left behind. In this the context of the work is established in terms of the megatext that preceded it.
A general pessimism (which then breeds socially accepted apathy) in the work furthers the message presented. This is accomplished through some of the language used such as: “There is a certain dignity in retiring from life at a time, when the infirmities of age have not sapped our faculties” (Mackenzie 136). This pessimism seems to demonstrate the natural flaw of sentimentality in regard to human nature even as it reinforces acceptance of the status quo. A person will naturally become depressed when exposed to depressing stimuli. If sentimentality suggests that one should relate to this suffering then it is only natural then the individual will eventually become entrenched in it. If one must accept that suffering is the natural state the individual will then see this as the norm and become apathetic to the suffering. The Man of Feeling counteracts this by making Harley rarely aware of the reality in which he lives, creating a sort of contrived caricature that believes in the benefit of virtue despite evidence to the contrary.


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