In “Torrents of Emotion,” Historian Lynn Hunt argues that eighteenth century literature endorsed the modern human rights movement by developing personable characters with whom readers could empathize. Taking Hunt’s ideas into consideration, the opening of Pamela by Samuel Richardson allows the reader to directly relate to characters by drawing on techniques of the epistolary novel and thus creates a universal “interior” of characters that ultimately cultivates the human rights idea of equality; in comparison, the opening of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan constructs a bystander perception of the protagonist’s experiences and thus detaches the readers from direct experience of the individual’s emotions.
Congruent with Hunt’s conversation on the link between the novel and importance of empathy through literary characters, both texts essentially center on moral virtue–one religious virtue and the other personal–yet the exposure to raw, uninterrupted emotion in Pamela develops a more identifiable character. In Pilgrim, the the seventeenth century protagonist Christian states, “I fear that this burden that is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave,” giving the reader the first real emotion to attach to the character (Bunyan 3). While the audience reads a few snippets of speech by Christian, they do not have direct access into his thoughts. Rather, the reader interprets Christian’s feelings through the eyes of the narrator. Hunt argues that learned equality stems from “experiencing identification with ordinary characters who seemed dramatically present and familiar” (Hunt 58). Unlike Pilgrim, Pamela’s specific language through her uninterrupted thoughts reveals more about her character and her specific situation with her family. Her letters enable the reader to be present in her experiences and undergo the situation at hand with her. In the first letter, Pamela writes, “For I was sobbing and crying at her pillow” revealing sorrow of losing a loved one that many readers can probably identify with (Richardson 1). She then describes, through her emotions more than the actions of the scene, her treatment by her lady’s son and her concern for her family’s wellbeing, another humane aspect easy to relate to. Hence, the reader sees Pamela through her own thoughts and as a result strays from judgement, leaning instead towards personal connection. With no other material but her letters, Pamela’s unfiltered feelings cause the reader to feel concern when she does, to become affected by her troubles and to care for her foreshadowing conflict within the first few pages. The shared “interior feeling” that allows one to shift perspectives is essential to humanitarian feeling, and thus human rights, as it ties the reader to the literary character (Hunt 56).
A novel’s propagation of empathy essentially provides subsistence for the human rights movement by creating a universal idea that all people share the same interior of emotions. As described by Hunt, “all selves [are] in some sense equal…in their position of interiority” (48). While Pilgrim details the plague of sin that Christian attempts to run from, the reader has no clue what the sin is or how to identify with Christian other than the fact that he or she may also have a sinful burden. In Pamela, however, the reader is much more sympathetic to a cause and able to identify across social lines by seeing the Pamela by her inner emotions and not just through the surface of what’s going on as with Christian. In her third letter, Pamela claims she would rather “be content with rags and poverty” rather than to lose herself (Richardson 3). Whereas Pilgrim has a set authorial point of view, Pamela’s lack thereof allows the reader to develop with the character. Pamela’s humble nature revealed through her thoughts creates an alluring persona through which the reader can experience her cautiousness and relate to her trusting naivety. The process of recognizing oneself in Pamela is an accessible task. While not every reader may literally know how to identify with “rags and poverty”, the common individual knows the risk of material versus personal tradeoffs. The female perspective, too, which lacks in Pilgrim provides the perspective of someone who has social, moral, and political restrictions placed upon her. Therefore, Pamela’s state of vulnerability provides the readers with character substance to stick onto–if it isn’t one predicament of Pamela’s that he or she can identify with, then it is another. In fact, the only female perspective in Pilgrim is through Christian when he refers to his “dear wife” hence placing the woman in the traditional role of being but a maiden to the man and stripping her character of any sort of elasticity (Bunyan 1). On the other hand, Pamela’s flexible commonality allows the reader to empathize with Pamela and develop with her through her letters, and it is this ability to empathize that translates into the human reality of rights.
While Pilgrim’s Progress estranges the reader from the direct emotions of the character, Pamela works to place the reader directly within the characters’ emotional dilemmas. While literature may not have been the sole reason for the human rights movement, the emotional ties of the reader to a character generated through words and letters ultimately enables the reader to experience something–whether that is emotion or a completely novel adventure–greater than the self. And it is this sentimental acquaintance through literature that stimulates the inner uniformity of all people.
Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Minneapolis: Desiring God, 2014. pp. 1-8.
DesiringGod.org. Desiring God. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.
Hunt, Lynn. “Torrents of Emotion.” Inventing Human Rights: A History. pp. 35-69. Print.
Richardson, Samuel.. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Eds. Thomas Keymer and Alice Wakely.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.