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Virtue as a Paradox of Autonomy in Lafayette’s The Princess of Cleves and Richardson’s Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded

By Lucy Zavitz

For moralists of the eighteenth century, the willful mixing of sensibility with principled thought leads to the degradation of human morals. The notion that emotional desire is a moral failing promotes a principled standard of duty where sentimentality is unjustified. The standard of morality in the eighteenth century was thus separated from the subjectivity of emotional thought. For a woman, this moral standard is defined by her conduct among men; the virtuous woman is chaste until marriage and loyal to her husband. In this way, the woman is forced to disregard her desires in favor of upholding an idealized standard. Thus, the concept of virtue as the foundation of a woman’s value breaks down feminine autonomy. The suppression of the woman’s sexual and emotional desires becomes the paramount indicator of her virtue. In attempting to uphold her virtue, the woman is bound by a patriarchal standard that disregards her freedom of choice, but in following her desires, she also submits to the will of the man who desires her. If the woman chooses to remain chaste, she is in control of her body but preserves the patriarchal ideal that bound her in the first place. This becomes a paradox of autonomy: whatever the woman chooses, she is both in control of choice and submitting to the patriarchal expectations set for her. In Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette’s romance The Princess of Cleves, and Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, the female protagonists are faced with a choice between maintaining their ideals of virtue and following their desires. The Princess of Cleves chooses to maintain virtuous loyalty to her dead husband, rather than marry the man she loves, while Pamela marries the man who sought after her. At first glance, the comparison of these texts perpetuates a dialectic between will and desire: the will is principled and logical and desire is emotional and uncontrolled. The novels initially suggest that adherence to a standard of duty guides one to overcome the failure of emotional desires, but heroines are put into dilemmas which cannot be solved by rationality alone. The complexities of their sentiments seem to be at odds with their strong sense of virtue, but ultimately it is their emotions that create their sense of virtue. Though they embrace opposite paths, both women actively determine their fate and maintain a sense of personal autonomy by merging ideals of virtue with emotional desire. In The Princess of Cleves and Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, Lafayette and Richardson construct morally ambiguous situations in which the heroines demonstrate their autonomy. In so doing, they ultimately configure the distinction between moral principle and emotional desire as a false binary.

Both Richardson and Lafayette characterize their heroines as figures of idealized piety to explore the binary of virtue and desire. Reading Mme de Cleves and Pamela as failed figures of idealized piety distorts the novels into a critique of the inadequacies of principled virtue, but it is unclear what these inadequacies are. Instead, their devotion to virtue is a paradox of autonomy: no outcome can be objectively placed above another. The Princess of Cleves and Pamela conform to the idealized patriarchal standard for women of the era but are still plagued with the same realities of human desire. Lafayette characterizes Mme de Cleves as the pinnacle of feminine excellence in both beauty and morality. So honorable and virtuous are her actions that critics accuse Lafayette’s princess of being inhuman. In this reading, the princess becomes a figure of idealized piety, one that exposes the failure of reasoning based on virtue in emotional affairs. The lack of vraisemblance or believability in Mme de Cleves’s honorable actions suggests that she is merely a symbolic figure of unattainable righteousness. However, the princess’s difficulties in choosing between happiness and her principles prove she is human. Richardson characterizes Pamela as similarly beautiful and virtuous, but her youthful naivety configures her as a realistic character. Though these heroines are idealized to some degree, neither text resolves the apparent binary of virtue and desire. Instead, they illustrate the necessity of navigating the world with emotion and virtue. 

The question of whom Pamela is writing for becomes a key problem of interpretation: her unreliable representation of events obscures the reader’s ability to fully understand her motivations. Given the epistolary form of the novel, Pamela’s inability to acknowledge her love for Mr. B could be construed as a calculated attempt to hide her shameful desire from her parents. A doubting reader is then inclined to think that her claims of fear and apprehension towards her master are designed to confirm her parent’s high opinion of her. However, a better explanation for her lack of authenticity is that she cannot admit or recognize her own passions. As a girl of only fifteen, Pamela is naive and unable to easily understand her own emotions. Therefore, she does not know exactly how she should behave in her situation. This naivety is demonstrated by Pamela’s long and pedantic descriptions of her daily endeavors and her encounters with Mr. B. While the Princess of Cleves almost immediately acknowledges her desires for the duke, Pamela does not express her feelings for Mr. B. Instead, she insists that he is an evil man who is determined to ruin her good name. She is detailed and indiscreet in her letters and writes of trivial and important matters with near-equal attention. In a long conversation with Mrs. Jervis, Pamela demonstrates her fixation on minute details while relating one of Mr. B’s minor offenses; “[he] thinks himself entitled to call me bold-face, and what not? only for standing on my necessary defense: and that, too, where the good of my soul and body, and my duty to God, and my parents, are all concerned” (30). Pamela writes dramatically about these small insults because she is naive: she cares greatly about her master’s opinion of her, but she expresses her care as contempt. The extent to which Pamela idly recounts every aspect of her daily toils suggests that she is not maliciously withholding her passion for Mr. B from her parents, but completely unaware of it herself. Furthermore, when her letters are intercepted and she is forbidden from contacting her parents, she continues to write to them as if she were keeping a journal: “Let me write, and bewail my miserable hard fate, though I have no hope how what I write can be conveyed to your hands” (77). She writes to understand her conflicting feelings and to work through the disjunction between her duty and desire. Although the epistolary format entails a narrator who is particularly self-conscious in how they portray their experience, Pamela is unconcerned with how she comes across to the reader. While at times she does try to present herself flatteringly, her naivety means that she is not especially careful about concealing sensitive information. Pamela’s written representations of unimportant events are so dramatically recounted that they seem to undermine her credibility, as if everything she writes amounts to nothing. These exaggerated and irrelevant details, however, elucidate how Pamela thinks and what she values. This idle prattle is inauthentic in that she does not  explicitly describe or understand what she feels, yet is also sincere as it exposes the way she understands her place in the world.

By examining this devotion to Pamela’s and Mme de Cleves’s sense of duty, the reader becomes aware of the strange paradox through which devotion arises. The high principles of Mme de Cleves and Pamela are influenced by their parents’ continual and urgent reminders of the significance of virtue. In “A Mother’s Will: The Princess of Cleves,” Peggy Kamuf asserts that Mme de Cleves’s sense of virtue is not her own conviction, but a product of her mother’s teachings. Kamuf argues that the princess has no real sense of autonomy because Mme de Chartres constructed her entire perception of value around her idealized vision of her daughter when Mme de Cleves was just a child. To Kamuf, the mother’s will dictates Mme de Cleves’s decisions rather than her own principles. In educating her daughter, Mme de Chartres “inspired her with the love of virtue” which informed her conduct in court (7-8). Kamuf asserts that the mother’s image of her daughter is tyrannical: an unattainable ideal that breaks down the princess’s autonomy. However, Lafayette employs gentle diction in describing the mother’s influence; the word “inspire” connotes matronly guidance and suggests that motherly care, rather than inculcation, brought about the princess’ love of virtue. Kamuf identifies moments of the princess’s silence as examples of submission to her mother, but this rationale overlooks the fact that the princess’s silence is a choice. Silence itself is a form of expression. Although the prince initiates Mme de Cleves’s confession, as Kamuf points out, it is the princess’s deliberate silence which brings him to ask, “[y]ou are silent, your silence tells me that I am not mistaken” (66). Mme de Cleves wants to confess even though she “had not the strength,” so she uses a quiet countenance to express herself. Kamuf views the silence as the princess’s failure to communicate but this silence becomes a deliberate declaration. Throughout the novel, Mme de Cleves speaks with remarkable frankness and candor. Her silence does not deviate from this pattern, but reflects her emotions. Mme de Cleves’s deliberate silence can be likened to Pamela’s long and rambling accounts of her experience: the real information they convey is limited but they express the full extent of their feelings about the situation. The princess’s silence is a discourse in the same way that Pamela’s naive lack of reserve authentically communicates her inner turmoil.

Kamuf positions the daughter’s will as a product of her mother’s intentions, but unlike her mother, Mme de Cleves’s motivations for virtuous conduct arise out of her own sense of compassion and goodwill. When Monsieur de Cleves begs his wife to tell him the identity of the man she is in love with, the princess refuses to tell him: “‘I shall not answer,’ she said, blushing, ‘and I shall give you no occasion for lessening or strengthening your suspicions’” (70). Kamuf argues that this silence is impelled by the mother’s will preserved in the daughter’s conviction and Mme de Cleves has no will of her own to answer her husband (225). This notion, however, disregards the idea that the princess’s silence is a willful portrayal of what she feels. Mme de Chartres wants to protect the feelings of her husband, not for the preservation of domestic bliss in marriage as her mother would have wanted but because she cares for him. Mme de Chartres views indiscretion as a threat to a woman’s wellbeing: she warns her daughter of “domestic miseries which illicit love affairs entail” (8). Mme de Chartres, believing that men are “false and deceitful,” has little concern for M de Cleves’s feelings, and only cares for the status of her daughter’s marriage. This is not the case for Mme de Cleves, who genuinely worries about her husband’s emotional state. She exercises agency in her silence, and it certainly preserves the sanctity of her marriage but it also protects her husband’s feelings. The princess’s actions do conform to her mother’s ideal, but they are motivated by deep compassion aside from duty. 

In Pamela, the mother and father also establish the importance of virtuous behavior. In her first letter she expresses nothing but admiration for her new master and his kindness. She initially feels comfortable in his presence and is proud that he “took [her] by the hand” as he tells the servants that he “will take care of [them] all” (3). Though Pamela only begins to feel “suspicious and fearful” of Mr. B after her parents urge her to beware of potential “dishonest[y] or wicked[ness],” she is not falsifying her concern to please them (6, 5). Instead, her worldview is influenced by what her parents tell her. The skeptical reader might allege that Pamela has no real sense of virtue on her own, but her duty extends beyond the eyes of her parents, as her virtue is a symbol of autonomy. Though Pamela’s parents awaken her to the threat that Mr. B poses, her fear is genuine, as his lust could ruin her. 

Pamela’s inability to authentically acknowledge her feelings toward Mr. B is not indicative of an incongruent notion of will and desire; it is a means of achieving a sense of autonomy. Despite her love for Mr. B, Pamela tells herself that she feels only apathy and disgust. Because Mr. B’s desires do not come with a proposal of marriage, his attention becomes her oppression. Her concern for her virtue is not simply an attempt to gain her parents’ approval, but a means of self-defense. Young and impoverished Pamela occupies a position of very limited power, as she is a servant who must obey her employer, but she does have control over her body. When he attempts to force himself on her, she resists and admonishes him: “Well may I forget that I am your servant, when you forget what belongs to a master” (14). She, like Mme de Cleves, abides by a framework of virtue out of necessity. Pamela obsesses over the preservation of her virtue to retain her identity in a society in which the lives of women are inherently bound to their relations with men. Though she desires Mr. B, she only has power over her physical body. Therefore, her rejection of his advances is not a reflection of her desires but a way of protecting her autonomy. She refrains from giving her master what he wants because to do so would be to give up her only power. 

The virtuous ideals Mme de Cleves was taught become the core of her sense of autonomy. Because women of the era were defined by their relationships with men, the ability to choose how they interact with men is the only expression of their autonomy. As the rest of the court lives in debauchery, the princess strives to maintain her duty to her husband for the sake of retaining her personal autonomy. The ambiguity of her motivations in rejecting the Duke de Nemours prompts the reader to investigate the standards that inform her sense of duty: her self-conception. If Mme de Cleves believes she has a duty to preserve the sanctity of her marriage, then when her husband dies, she should be free to pursue whom she pleases. Despite lacking a physical bond to her dead husband, she becomes paralyzed by her ideals and remains loyal. When she turns down the Duke de Nemours, he berates her: “you are bound by no further duty; you are free; and if I dared, I should even tell you that it depends on you to act so that your duty shall some day oblige you to keep the feelings that you have for me” (102). The duke believes that the princess’s sense of duty is to honor her husband, but it is really a duty to herself. Though she has no legal obligation to the late prince, she cannot bring herself to betray the sense of virtue that binds her to him. Mme de Cleves’s decision to reject the duke also reveals her distaste for his forward behavior and its consequences: “[i]t is only too likely that you are the cause of Monsieur de Cleves’s death; the suspicions you aroused, your inconsiderate conduct, cost him his life as truly as if you had taken it with your own hands” (102). The duke’s indiscretions violate the princess’s propriety and result in her husband’s death. If they were to pursue a relationship after Monsieur de Cleves’s death, the princess would be constantly reminded of her failure to maintain the principles that inform her self-conception.

At the end of the novel, Mme de Cleves’s paralysis of feeling suggests that she is not  an icon of idealized virtue, but a human whose compassion compels her to uphold her duty. She does not have full confidence in her decision and “mistrust[s] her own strength, supported by all [her arguments]” (104). While Mme de Cleves is in love with the duke, she cannot be with him because her guilt over the death of her husband would be too much to bear. Mme de Cleves’s sense of duty arises from her compassion and not from her husband’s expectations. She knows that she would not be happy without the duke, but in marrying him she would be betraying herself and her sympathies. Mme de Cleves sacrifices her relationship with the duke as an act of repentance: “I shall deny myself the pleasures of seeing you, whatever pain this may cost me” (104). The princess’s choice exhibits her desire for repentance; her compassion for the death that she inadvertently caused haunts her, so she sacrifices her happiness as penitence. This duty “exists only in [her] imagination” because it arises from her sense of compassion, a virtue that cannot be trained. The rejection of the duke is not dictated by the values imparted by her mother, but on her autonomous choice. Mme de Cleves’s ability to reject the duke is a demonstration of autonomy. In choosing to reject the Duke de Nemours, Mme de Cleves can make amends with her failed marriage. Her self-imposed isolation is repentance: a choice that gives her a sense of autonomy at the price of her happiness. 

Mr. B’s proposal of marriage unites Pamela’s virtue with her desire and gives her the ability to pursue her feelings without condemning her freedom. Marital love offers a solution to the inadequacies of female autonomy in the patriarchal world. When women are inherently bound to the men in their lives, the prospect of being able to choose one’s lover creates some semblance of control. Pamela is only able to admit to herself that she loves Mr. B after she reads his letter in which he reveals that he wants to marry her. Immediately after she finishes reading, she becomes aware of her feelings: “I know not how it came, nor when it began; but crept, crept it has, like a thief, upon me; and before I knew what was the matter, it looked like love” (202). For Pamela, the acceptance of Mr. B’s proposal comes with the acquisition of money and power she could never otherwise have had, and more importantly, the ability to unite her virtue and desire together in marriage. Before she knows that he will marry her, she buries her attraction. However, after she is reassured that her interests will be protected, she finally accepts these romantic feelings. While “love is not a voluntary thing,” actively pursuing one’s love is a deliberate choice (202). The promise of her livelihood allows her to decide on the basis of love without compromising her autonomy.

The reconciliation of the ostensible antimony of virtue and emotion is a deficient approach to interpretation, as the opposition between sense and sensibility is false. Pamela’s virtue and emotions are not inherently incompatible but the situation makes it so. Her virtuous conduct stems from the necessity to maintain personal autonomy, but when marriage is proposed, she can be with Mr. B without sacrificing her freedom. The choice she makes is based on her desire to be honest and honorable as well as her feelings of love. The sense of duty that defines her is based on her emotional values. While Pamela’s marriage proposal merges her virtue with her emotional desires, Mme de Cleves’s proposal results in paralysis. The princess is not able to satisfy her duty of compassion by pursuing her happiness. There is therefore a paradox in Mme de Cleves’s symbolic autonomy: her paralysis is caused by her allegiance to a sense of duty constructed by her emotions. She is bound by her legal duty to her husband, but also by her compassion for him. Her choice to reject happiness in favor of her principles reflects a commitment to kindness rather than mere duty. Through the examination of these heroines’ plights, the binary conception of virtue and desire falls apart. Virtue becomes a tool which allows the women to understand their emotional position and enact autonomy in a patriarchal world.

Works Cited

Kamuf, Peggy. “A Mother’s Will: The Princess of Cleves.” The Princess of Cleves, by Marie-Madeleine Lafayette. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1994.

Lafayette, Marie-Madeleine. The Princess of Cleves. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1994.

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. E-Book, Project Gutenberg, 2004. 

About the Author: Lucy Zavitz is a U2 Honours English Literature major with a minor in Russian Culture. She is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and loves knitting, skiing, and hiking in her free time. Lucy is interested in Modernist poetry and 18th and 19th-century novels of sensibility.