Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Learning to Read Richardson: 'Pamela,' 'Speaking Pictures,' and the Visual Hermeneutic

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Learning to Read Richardson: 'Pamela,' 'Speaking Pictures,' and the Visual Hermeneutic

Article excerpt

I 'art du grand poete et du grand peintre eat

de vous montrer une circonstance fugitive

qui vous avait echappe . . . Peintres,

poetes, gens de gout, gens de bien, lisez

Richardson; lisez-le sans cesse.

Denis Diderot: Eloge de Richardson

In a recent essay. "Richardson's |speaking pictures,'" Janet E. Aikins addresses Samuel Richardson's use of paintings as physical objects within his novels, his keen visual sense, as well as his method of portraiture.(1) She stresses that:

Richardson expected his readers to recognize the implications of these

aesthetic choices. for all three of his narratives urge us to understand the

complex subjectivities of sight. whether figurative or literal. In Pamela we

witness the imperfect efforts of the heroine to create speaking pictures of

the shifting sights around her. (p. 165)

Richardson expected his readers to develop strong powers of observation, including a sensitivity to the visual dimension of his novels. Pamela contains the understated beginnings of a visual hermeneutic which works more forcefully in Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison. Richardson derives this visual hermeneutic from traditions in emblem literature and from practices in the visual arts. Each time a picture appears as an object, or. more importantly, becomes the object of Richardson's text, essential meaning is expressed. For the purposes of this essay, and because Pamela s speaking pictures' establish an iconotext which conditions and informs our readings of Clarissa and Sir C harles Grandison I will limit my discussion. for the most part, to Richardson's first novel. I will concentrate on the second aspect of the |speaking picture.' the "imperfect efforts of the heroine to create 'speaking pictures.'"

Although Richardson promotes a visual hermeneutic with the object of establishing and sustaining Pamela's essential naivete, he often places its operation beyond her perception. Since she cannot comment on what she does not perceive, Pamela benefits not only from her naivete, but from her lack of perception as well. Her inability to sense the novelist's visual semiosis sustains both her artlessness and her reputation as virtuous ingenue.

These pictures appear rhetorically (figurative or semiotic) and as events in themselves (literal or mimetic). The 'speaking picture' functions as a hermeneutic device working simultaneously to semiotic and mimetic ends. The picture seldom challenges or disrupts the narrative's historicity--that supposed lack of intention--rather, it finds expression as a visual overlay, as an iconotext which marks the significance of events which might otherwise pass without overtly inviting interpretation.

Richardson's use of pictorialism in Pamela is an early conditioning of reader-response similar to what is often observed in Fielding's fiction. The distance of the novelist from the text initially marks Richardson's approach, distinguishing it from Fielding's and adding new interpretive challenges. Because Richardson denies authorship, and because he pretends to be disinterested, he is not allowed to openly intrude upon events in the way Fielding does. While reading Pamela we are not overtly instructed how to engage with the text by a comparably affable and disinterested voice--one who chides us for not fully apprehending the circumstances of events--for not seeing the |speaking picture.' Fielding, as Murray Roston suggests, provides the "quality of the teasing challenge constantly posed to the reader to utilize his own powers of observation and deduction in a work calculated to withstand and indeed to reward such close scrutiny."(2) The narrator often tells us precisely what we should have seen and understood. Richardson's iconotext is not nearly so facile, and, because a similar voice cannot flatter our understanding, the rewards of interpretation are often of our own making. …

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