‘Pamela’ and Nietzsche’s master-slave morality

In Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, the low-born Pamela exemplifies virtue in all her thoughts, words and actions. She is honest and pure and refuses to be seduced by Mr. B’s early attempt to make her his mistress. She maintains her virginal purity, even when her master attempts to sexually assault her after she refuses his initial affections. After he imprisons her and she is sure he means to “ruin” her, she states more than once that she would rather die an honest and innocent woman than live as a kept mistress (and even briefly contemplates suicide by drowning in order to control her own fate). Eventually, her persistent virtuousness is “rewarded” when he miraculously transforms into a man of honor and states his intention to marry Pamela. (Poor Pamela clearly has Stockholm Syndrome, but that is a topic for another day.)

The novel fits nicely into Nietzsche’s theory of master-slave morality, which he explains in his 1887 work, “On the Genealogy of Morality.” To summarize, the morality of the “master” weighs what is useful and not useful — what is useful is inherently good and what is harmful is inherently bad. Wealth, power, strength, and nobility are “good” while poorness, weakness, powerlessness and humble beginnings are bad.

In contrast, the “slave” morality is based on ressentiment (resentment) of all things the nobility and upper class hold dear and is based on values that can be created (instead of inherited). It pushes back against wealth, power, strength and nobility — all things the lower class are deprived of — and exemplifies the values of humility, meekness, submissiveness, kindness, sympathy, virtue and more as being truly “good.” Nietzsche explained:

“The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment  itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those being who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.”

Pamela certainly says “no” on principle to everything she was not born with — she does not want the money gifted to her, she does not want the clothing and accessories gifted to her that are above her station — in fact, all she wants is to return to her poverty and to her poor mother and father to live out her days, as she feels that is where she belongs and will be happiest.

It is worth noting that Richardson was of low birth, especially since Nietzsche’s master-slave morality is clearly amplified in Pamela. She is his servant, she is submissive, she is good and sympathetic and kind — she exemplifies all that is virtuous and “good” to the lower class. He, however, is noble, wealthy, powerful, and, until he reforms in Vol. 2, he is, in Pamela’s words, the devil. Only when she begins to impart her “slave” values upon him does Mr. B finally become a suitable match for her. It is very understandable how this novel was so popular among the masses at the time (and why many noble men and women were offended by how they were portrayed).

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