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Putting Michael McKeon to the “Question”: Is Clarissa Harlowe a Prude or Saint?*
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Michael McKeon, in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740, sets forth a theoretical study of a large canon of seventeenth- and eighteenthcentury works, based upon the dialectic of genre formations, which attempts to analyze certain “instabilities” in generic and social categories — “instabilities” that McKeon identifies as “Questions of Truth” and “Questions of Virtue.” In this paper, I argue with McKeon’s optimistic reading of Samuel Richardson’s work, Clarissa, or The History of Young Lady (1740), which concludes that—unlike Pamela’s “manifest material and social empowerment”—Clarissa acquires “manifest discursive and imaginative empowerment” and “wins” (to use McKeon’s terms) the “battle” with her antagonist, Robert Lovelace. What is difficult to accept in this reading of Clarissa is McKeon’s claim that the “success” of Clarissa’s resistance to Lovelace, despite the tragic rape, is evident in her “new-found power” which is represented in the heroine’s spiritual “conversion” — her decision to die to protect her “version of truth and virtue.” McKeon’s spiritual “conversion” not only forces Clarissa to surrender her legal right to prosecute her rapist but also forces her to seek the shelter of her “father’s house” in the afterlife because she can no longer “make others accept [her] own version of events as authoritative.” Thus, in contrast to McKeon, I claim that Clarissa represents the necessary conditions for its heroine’s “empowerment” primarily in language that suggests her manifest social invalidation; language which in particular emphasizes that her rape and torture by Lovelace forces Clarissa’s spiritual “conversion” to seek her reward in the afterlife—thereby concluding that Clarissa’s discursive and imaginative empowerment does not and cannot exist in the secular, material world.

Samuel Richardson , Clarissa Harlowe , Robert Lovelace , Michael McKeon , Questions of Truth , Questions of Virtue , instabilities , Terry Castle , William Warner , Terry Eagleton
  • Michael McKeon, in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740,1 examines the works of Samuel Richardson and explains how the novel “is born of,” “reflects,” and attempts to “resolve” certain “instabilities” in generic and social categories — instabilities that form a dialectic of genre formations. McKeon claims that “the emerging novel internalizes the emergence of the middle class and the concerns that it exists to mediate” (22). Therefore, he does not look at history “outside” the novel but rather examines how the internal structures— the “instabilities” — of the novel tell its own history and the history of the emergence of the middle class (22). The novel, according to McKeon, embodies “instabilities” that are designated as “Questions of Truth” and “Questions of Virtue.” These “instabilities” become especially clear, I would argue, not in McKeon’s chapter analysis of Pamela2—which simply outlines the heroine’s “manifest material and social empowerment” and final “conversion” in marriage to Mr. B— but rather in Richardson’s more complex novel, Clarissa, or The History of A Young Lady3 (1748), which McKeon chooses to leave largely unattended. In contrast to Pamela’s story of empowerment and conversion in marriage, Richardson’s immensely popular epistolary work, Clarissa, records the struggle of the heroine defending her “virtue” and her version of “truth” against the manipulative aristocrat, Robert Lovelace. My question in this paper will focus on why, unlike Pamela’s final reward of “manifest material and social empowerment,” Clarissa’s struggle against these “instabilities” ultimately results in rape and death.

    McKeon’s analysis can be applied to explain how “power” is largely defined as the “ability to make others accept one’s version of events as authoritative” (359). Thus, in Clarissa, the heroine acquires power through the credibility of her story and the sincerity of her actions; her power strongly relies upon the “truth” of her letters and “virtue” of her struggle against the villain, Lovelace. Richardson explains how his epistolary technique enables the characters to write “while the hearts of the writers must be wholly engaged in their subjects,” and it is this immediacy in their production that produces “instantaneous descriptions and reflections, which may be brought home to the breast of the youthful reader” (Goring 175).4 To use Terry Eagleton’s term, “writing to the moment”5 emphasizes the present-tense, thereby not only providing answers to questions about Clarissa’s virtue but also convincing readers to believe that the narrative is true—that is, even the horrific narrative of a rape would not be omitted from the heroine’s letters. Clarissa’s writing technique supplies answers to questions about the proper definition and activities of virtue itself: for example, answers that call for what McKeon terms “self-consistency” as well as a sincere endeavor to “represent oneself in full” (358). Consequently Lovelace’s criminal manipulation and control of Clarissa’s letters which leads to their increased, if involuntary, circulation can, according to McKeon, only lead to her victory in this struggle with Lovelace. Applying McKeon’s analysis of Pamela to the conflict in Clarissa, we can examine how “in the battling of plotters [Lovelace], is, of course, no match for [Clarissa] . . . She tells his story far more than he tells hers” (364). In the end, Clarissa finds her reward for truth and virtue in the right to die with the assurance of having secured her will (with Belford) physically and her virtue (in heaven) spiritually.

    Despite the tragic rape, McKeon optimistically claims that Clarissa is victorious not only because she successfully resists Lovelace’s condescending scheme of marriage but also because she forsakes any possible “manifest material and social empowerment” and chooses to die. McKeon goes on to argue that Clarissa even gains a “new-found power” (365) in her spiritual “conversion” with her virtue in tact—that is, even if she has to choose to die to do so (380). The complicated theoretical machinery with which McKeon introduces his study claims that Clarissa wins in the “battle” with Lovelace. Whereas Pamela gains material rewards, McKeon states that Clarissa gains “new-found power,”

    In comparison to Clarissa’s “new-found power,” McKeon cautiously acknowledges that Pamela’s victory, despite the subtitle of Virtue Rewarded, is conditional as long as Pamela does not step over the patriarchal line of power and try to challenge Mr. B.6 Pamela’s victory and power are reined and checked not by aristocratic pride but by patriarchal power7 even within the household (McKeon 378-81). What is difficult to accept, however, is McKeon’s optimistic claim that the novel embodies a progressive ideology.8 McKeon explains that “the novel attains its modern, institutional stability and coherence at this time [in the eighteenth century] because of its unrivaled power both to formulate and to explain” social crises, which “may be understood as problems of categorical stability” (20). McKeon’s problems of categorical stability can be designated into two specific categories. The first sort of instability, “Questions of Truth,” “registers an epistemological crisis” and refers to a major “cultural transition in attitudes towards how to tell the truth in narrative” (20). The second instability, “Questions of Virtue,” involves social categories and “registers a cultural crisis in attitudes toward how the external social order is related to the internal, moral state of its members,” and the destabilizing of social problems of “status inconsistency” (20). According to McKeon, “the most striking dimension of the analogy” between these two sets of questions, is that it “lies not outside the novel, between literary and social formations, but within it” (22). McKeon further explains that the realization of this insight “is the enabling foundation of the novel” (22). The novel as a genre, then, can be “understood comprehensively as an early modern cultural instrument designed to confront, on the level of narrative form and content, both intellectual and social crises simultaneously” (22).

    In response to McKeon’s claim of the novel as progressive ideology, I would like to suggest that even before Clarissa’s escape from the Harlowe Place, the novel calls into question McKeon’s optimistic assessment of the heroine’s victory and even the success of her resistance to Lovelace, which forces the heroine to seek shelter in death—that is, in her “father’s house” in the afterlife. In contrast to McKeon’s claim that Clarissa gains “manifest discursive and imaginative empowerment,” I would argue that Clarissa represents the necessary conditions for its heroine’s “empowerment” primarily in language that forcefully suggests her manifest social disempowerment; language which in particular emphasizes that her rape and torture by Lovelace does indeed occur before the novel’s plot of Clarissa’s seeming spiritual “conversion” to seek her reward in the afterlife—thereby concluding that Clarissa’s discursive and imaginative empowerment does not and cannot exist in the secular, material world as that of Pamela’s. My paper also argues that in this power struggle over discourse to “make others accept one’s own version of event as authoritative,” the language of the novel — both in Clarissa’s letters and in Lovelace’s—indicates that Lovelace is equally, if not more, successful as Clarissa in determining the meanings of certain important “terms,” “events,” and “texts” (Warner 24-26).9

    Applying McKeon’s terms to Clarissa, I focus on the two “conversion experiences” which bring about the novel’s conclusion: Lovelace’s secular “realization” that in raping Clarissa he has lost all means of possessing her, and Clarissa’s daunting, spiritual “realization” that she must relinquish the material world to prove her version of truth and virtue. McKeon’s analysis of the characters’ motives in Pamela can be applied to Lovelace’s conversion — his awakening acknowledgment of having lost Clarissa—which McKeon glosses as Clarissa’s conquest of Lovelace. For both McKeon and the reader, one crucial problem in the novel centers around why the actual rape scene is completely omitted, and why Richardson leaves the reader uncertain as to what actually happens. The omitted rape scene, according to McKeon, only seems to emphasize Lovelace’s “irreducible and obsessive desire,” which is “not strictly sexual but political” (359). As a result, Lovelace’s behavior before the rape, McKeon argues, is not rooted in sexual desire or even, after Clarissa finally escapes, in a desire for legitimate heirs (368). Rather, Lovelace’s actions stem from a desire to win a conflict, which has been “distilled” “into terminological disputes” over the meaning and relative merits of the terms “virtue” and “honor” (McKeon 366-68). Here, I apply McKeon’s chapter analysis of Pamela to the theoretical paradigm in Clarissa: “[Lovelace’s] lust expresses his will to repossess what his behavior announces he has lost to her, both his honor and his externalized conception of honor, which is now internalized in [Clarissa’s] virtue” (367).

    McKeon claims that Lovelace is not only defeated in the terminological battle with Clarissa because “language is her medium” but also forced to possess and control Clarissa’s version of “honor” by the brutal force of rape. Even Belford warns Lovelace against the use of any “unmanly artifices” and emphasizes that there are certain limits acknowledged even within the rake’s code (2:254). Although Lovelace claims earlier in the novel that: “Abhorred be force! . . . There’s no triumph over the will in force!” his male pride will not admit defeat and refusal from Clarissa (879). Lovelace schemes to gain access to Clarissa’s letters and inner thoughts through theft and deceit and, further, attempts to control her “version” of honor and virtue through rape. Lovelace, according to McKeon, acquires the opportunity to prove one of the “modernized” ideas that make him “as transitional a figure as the heroine is”—the possibility that “a reformed rake makes the best husband”10 (1393). However, rather than follow and accept the superiority of Clarissa’s exemplar of goodness, Lovelace chooses to sin. Surprisingly, I argue, the result is not Clarissa’s conquest of Lovelace, as McKeon concludes, for Lovelace not only succeeds in charming his readers but also “makes others [in the novel] accept [his] version of events,” which entails questioning the truth and virtue of Clarissa’s steadfast refusal to marry him and refusal of a life of luxury in the secular world.

    Much to Richardson’s dismay, his contemporary friends and large audience of readers begged the author to let Clarissa live and accept Lovelace’s proposal of marriage, thereby securing Clarissa an aristocratic title and granting Lovelace her status of honor in marriage. One of Richardson’s closest friends and critic, Lady Bradshaigh, appeals to the author:

    Richardson was exasperated by critics and readers who deemed Lovelace attractive and Clarissa over-scrupulous. Terry Eagleton even defends Clarissa by arguing that “Some of the charges against Clarissa—that she is prudish, dull, naïve, chronically idealizing or tediously meek—seem merely false” (72).

    Much of McKeon’s analysis owes its impetus to a question prompted by the novel itself as it is implicit in the ongoing controversy as to whether Clarissa is a prude whose pride cannot accept Lovelace or, indeed, a saint who sincerely aspires to leave the secular world and seek truth and virtue in heaven.11 Eagleton outlines the conflict:

    Even when Lovelace—“an avenging male iconoclasm”—rapes Clarissa, he surprisingly does not proceed to gloat or flaunt his victory but rather nervously apologizes and begs that Clarissa accept his proposal of marriage and legally make him a better man. Lovelace’s acknowledgment of his moral downfall and wrongdoings begins, what McKeon would define as, Lovelace’s “conversion,” which includes complete exposure of his crime of rape and the request for help from his influential relatives to persuade Clarissa to concede to marriage. Lovelace’s motives behind his gallant attempts to be forgiven and be able to finally claim Clarissa as his wife seem all too clear in contrast to Clarissa’s refusal to accept Lovelace as a husband and live in aristocratic luxury. If the advantages that accrue to Lovelace from his marriage to Clarissa seem substantial, Clarissa’s motives to shun Lovelace and steadily choose death seem less convincing in comparison.

    Although selfish in its inception, Lovelace’s “ability to make others accept [his] version of events as authoritative” is uncomfortably convincing, as evidenced by the contemporary readership demanding a rewrite.12 In contrast to Lovelace’s largely non-material motives for his acts of abduction, attempted rape, and eventual marriage proposal to Clarissa, assessments of Clarissa’s motivation and determination to die in solitude—resulting in her tricking Lovelace to believe that she is going to her literal father’s house—have, as critics acknowledged, encouraged readers to question the extent of Clarissa’s virtue and even accuse Clarissa of being a prudish snob. Even Clarissa, after the rape, accuses herself of “spiritual pride,” and concludes that she was tainted by the capital sin of taking pride “in the applause of everyone,” while supposing “I had not that pride”—concealed as it was under the “thin veil of humility” (891). McKeon does not, however, substantially challenge or re-interpret the deconstructive readings of Clarissa’s conduct, preferring instead to claim how successfully Clarissa achieves “manifest discursive and imaginative empowerment” (381).

    My own analysis of Clarissa suggests that a closer examination of the events which precipitate the heroine’s own spiritual conversion would argue for modifications in McKeon’s account of the heroine’s “victory” in her “terminological disputes” with Lovelace, and might further suggest additional motives for her refusal of marriage and determination to die. After having suffered imprisonment, harassment, and even rape, Clarissa deliberately refuses to marry Lovelace; she relinquishes her legal right to prove her virtue in court; and, she denies herself any material comfort. Or, as Terry Eagleton would put it, Clarissa is “irritatingly inflexible at unpropitious moments and prone to masochistic self-abasement” (71).

    The central scene which accounts for Clarissa’s “conversion” from the secular to the spiritual becomes most apparent in her symbolic “father’s house” letter addressed to none other but Lovelace. In her choice of the allegorical phrase “father’s house,” Clarissa expresses both her resignation of ever returning to the Harlowe Place and her religious aspiration of retiring in her “father’s house” in the afterlife (1233). This letter accomplishes Clarissa’s “conversion” from the image of a fleeing rape victim escaping her persecutor to that of a Christian martyr preparing for a “joyful and long-wished-for-journey” (1233). Even more strikingly, I would argue that it is Lovelace’s reading of this letter which also accomplishes his abrupt “conversion” from the ruthless and dashing rake to the “forgiven” and grateful “penitent.” Lovelace, full of “thankful joy,” happily responds to Clarissa and anxiously tells Belford what he has experienced: “The dear creature cannot receive consolation herself, but she must communicate it to others. How noble!—She would not see me in her adversity: but no sooner does the sun of prosperity begin to shine upon her, than she forgives me” (1234).

    Lovelace then goes on to relate how he wakes “in plaguy fright” because of a nightmare in which Clarissa ascends through a ceiling opening, while he descends “tumbling over and over” into a “frightful hole” which turns out to be a “bottomless pit” (1234). Unlike McKeon’s interpretation of Clarissa’s victory and empowerment, William Warner argues that Richardson succeeds in creating an interdependence between Lovelace and Clarissa, making both characters pathetic in their different ways and yet enabling both to elicit the reader’s sympathy. Warner further claims that Lovelace is ultimately as much a victim of Clarissa as she of him, or he of himself. Lovelace’s response in the first meeting after the rape is significant and shocking because it is Lovelace who is abashed, and Clarissa who is dignified and composed. Lovelace’s outcry: “Whose triumph now!” he exclaims, “HERS or MINE?” is indeed in accord with McKeon’s optimistic claim that Lovelace has been in danger from Clarissa all along (901). Even the rape only “dramatically advertises that Clarissa is in [his] power while stealthily signaling that Lovelace is in hers” (McKeon 367). But the language of Clarissa’s immediate response to Lovelace’s letter suggests that his “version of events,” far from signifying Clarissa’s victory over her persecutor, has in some fashion accomplished her ruin—that is, violated her “version of events” in the eyes of the public. For example, after the rape, Clarissa refers to her own body more than once as “nothing” (1413), which is a declaration that critics have read as no more than a “puritan repudiation of the flesh” (Wendt 484). Eagleton, however, argues that this denial “cuts deeper”:

    Even the “puritan repudiation of the flesh” (Wendt 484) in the language of Clarissa’s “father’s house” letter to Lovelace and her letters to Anna and Dr. Lewen, far from signifying Clarissa’s victory over Lovelace, has brought about Clarissa’s discursive disempowerment and thereby accomplished her “imaginative” ruin. Just after the rape, Clarissa makes a statement which in any other context would certainly signify her defeat and the inevitable decision to relinquish all ties with the secular world of friends and family to which she once belonged: “But I have told you [Lovelace] as solemnly my mind, that I never will, that I never can, be yours; nor, if so, any man’s upon earth. All vengeance, nevertheless, for the wrongs you have done me, I disclaim. I conjure you, Lovelace, to leave me to my fate” (933). The key passage which accounts for Clarissa’s spiritual conversion becomes clear when she explains to Anna and Dr. Lewen why she does not, or rather cannot, prosecute Lovelace. Although Clarissa agrees that Lovelace should be brought to justice for his crime, she has strong doubts as to the efficacy of legal proceedings, which is based on Lovelace’s “version of events.” Clarissa believes that her evidence would be “bandied about, and jested profligately with [in court].” She further explains, “It would no doubt have been a ready retort from every mouth that I ought not to have thrown myself into the power of such a man, and that I ought to take for my pains what had befallen me” (1253).

    Even after the horrific rape, the reader is forced to agree that Clarissa is probably right in that by attempting to prosecute Lovelace for rape in public, she would be ultimately sealing her doom. Anna’s detailed account of the neighborhood’s ready acceptance of Lovelace, even by those who should be sympathetic towards Clarissa, indicates the likely outcome of a trial in court. The extent to which society will condone the rake is shown by Lovelace successfully presenting himself as a wronged potential husband and further portraying Clarissa as a prudish snob and cold bride. Unlike McKeon’s claim that Clarissa “wins,” Lovelace is successful in manipulating the public to believe in his version of truth and virtue. Even more shocking than McKeon’s analysis of Clarissa is Lovelace’s ready acceptance by a group of gentry from Clarissa’s own neighborhood. Although the neighboring, well-born women are familiar with Lovelace’s libertine wrongdoings, they sympathize with the rake and even choose to serve as his accomplice in the act of intercepting important letters between Clarissa and Anna. Although the public knows that Lovelace is guilty of rape, Anna is the only person who openly shows her disgust with Lovelace — other women’s flirtatious behavior with and the men’s careful respect of Lovelace show how Clarissa’s fears become reality, even without the painstaking legal process of prosecution in court. Anna is furious to see “how pleased half the giddy fools of our sex were with him, notwithstanding his notorious wicked character” (1136).

    After the rape and Clarissa’s final escape from Lovelace, in contrast to the acceptance Lovelace receives, Clarissa is forced into hiding and shuns all interaction with the secular world—that is, all except for Jack Belford, a reformed libertine. Having been betrayed by one rake, Clarissa is nevertheless reduced to completely entrusting the legal execution of her posthumous will and her entire secular welfare upon another rake. Strikingly, Clarissa unambiguously believes in Belford’s complete reformation and persuades even Anna to place her trust in him, this going against her hard learnt lesson that one cannot reclaim a notorious rake and make a penitent of him. Lovelace sarcastically analyzes Clarissa’s attraction to him as “deriding her notions [of] how charmingly it would look to have [him] . . . dangling at her side to church, through an applauding neighborhood” (1019). Clarissa later admits to Lovelace’s aunt, Lady Betty, that she did hope that she might be a humble means in the “hand of Providence” to reclaim Lovelace: a motive she now regards as “punishably presumptuous” (1030).

    Clarissa’s defeat, then, can be analyzed and interpreted in three rather conventional ways. First, Clarissa’s sexual attraction to and confession of love for Lovelace both serve to strengthen Lovelace’s “ability to make others accept [his] version of events as authoritative,” while undermining Clarissa’s. One could argue that the use of language which would conventionally signify Clarissa’s involuntary affection for her persecutor may, as conventionally, signify sexual desire and ultimate rape of her “version” of truth and virtue. In fragment Paper III, written immediately after the rape, Clarissa concludes by asking who was most to blame, and answers, “The lady, surely! For what she did was out of nature, out of character, at least: what it [Lovelace] did was in its own nature” (891). Second, one could also, less charitably, interpret Clarissa’s statements about her “pride” and “ruin” as statements referring to her lost opportunity to reform Lovelace and prove her virtue, thereby attaining “discursive imaginative empowerment.” In fragment Paper IV, Lovelace interprets Clarissa’s proud scheme to “tame a rake” as himself, while Clarissa confesses and proclaims her pride as a “capital sin” that is later “humbled in the dust” (891). Third, Clarissa’s inability to prove her version of truth and virtue results in her inability to prosecute Lovelace in public for his crime of rape: a double victory for Lovelace. Clarissa explains how the “evidence” of her virtue would be “bandied about, and jested profligately with” in the legal court usage of language, which would conventionally signify not the truth of Clarissa’s virtue but the rape of any possibility of her carrying on with her life as she once knew it. Lovelace, in fact, violates Clarissa’s discursive power to make her version of events authoritative. Hence, rather than live under the control of Lovelace’s version of events, Clarissa relinquishes not only her inheritance and hope to live in the secular world but also the legal means to prosecute Lovelace, because she has lost the discursive and imaginative power to make others believe in her version of events. It is then not so much of the rape that ruins Clarissa but the prolonged period of time spent within Lovelace’s control that has undermined her power to present her version of truth and protect her virtue. Before the rape, when Clarissa still controls her version of events, Clarissa is seen as a sexual being with interest and passion for Lovelace. However, after the rape, when Clarissa loses the ability to make others believe in her version of events, Clarissa surrenders her physical identity and passions and sexuality, thereby allowing the world to believe in Lovelace’s version of events. Rather than reaching out in public, Clarissa creates a small group of followers, who are not only insulated within Clarissa’s version of events but also excluded from Lovelace’s. When Lovelace is infuriated by this exclusion and threatens to violate this insulation, Clarissa is forced to respond with her “father’s house” letter.

    In order to fully understand the implications of the language in Clarissa’s response, it is necessary to examine an earlier exchange between Clarissa and Lovelace in which the topics of punishment and death enter the conversation more directly. Just days after the rape, Clarissa argues with Lovelace about his right to demand with physical force that she consider his proposal of marriage. Lovelace demands that Clarissa comply by threatening and even “holding her gown” — that is, physically restraining her against her will and attempting to force her to accept “his version of events” concerning her truth and virtue:

    The two types of legal proceedings described in this passage include “compelling someone to consider” (i.e. threatening somebody to accept a different version of events) and “punishment worse than death” (i.e. imprisoning and physically restraining someone in order to extract a “promise” or course of action against one’s will).13 The act of threatening someone to accept a different version of events can be seen as a request for information to verify a version of events as authoritative; thus, this act can be designated as a “Question of Truth.” The second act of imprisoning someone to extract a promise against one’s will can be seen as a means of extracting through force a course of action which can be manipulated as innocent or guilty; thus, this act can be described as a “Question of Virtue.”

    After the rape, Clarissa’s defiant refusal to marry Lovelace is her last attempt to deny him the satisfaction of “correcting” or “amending” his past wrongdoing through legal discourse of marriage, a discourse that would make his version of events ultimately authoritative. Clarissa appeals to her Cousin Morden and explains that she can forgive Lovelace but cannot—through the means of marriage—give “sanction to the most premeditated baseness” of his criminal act (902). Clarissa’s response is stern and unforgiving when she asks how Anna could think her “so sunk as that she could for the sake of patching up, in the world’s eye, a broken reputation” be forced to “vow [matrimonial] duty to one so wicked” as Lovelace (1116). Although Clarissa’s friends argue marriage as the only means of salvaging her reputation and as a prerequisite to reconciliation with her family, she realizes that the moment she marries Lovelace, she would no longer be able to assert her version of events concerning the rape and, as a result, the veracity of her virtue—both of which would be sacrificed under the title of legal marriage.

    How then does an understanding of these legal methods inflect our understanding of Clarissa’s refusal to marry Lovelace and her refusal to prosecute him? Clearly Clarissa relinquishes her legal right to prosecute Lovelace in response to the second threat. For not only does she concern herself primarily with matters of “guilt” or “innocence,” innocence here for Clarissa being synonymous with “her” version of virtue, but she also wishes to avoid at all costs the threat implicit in Lovelace’s “version of events” of having her virtue “bandied about, and jested profligately with” in public. Her capitulation clearly takes on the aspect of a legal plea, thus giving “discursive imaginative disempowerment” to the legal word “prosecute” in her response to both Anna and Dr. Lewen; as a result, Clarissa explains how she must pay the painful price for having “disempowered” her version of virtue to such a rake as Lovelace. Clarissa writes describing her discursive imaginative disempowerment as becoming reality through public response: “a ready retort from every mouth that I ought not to have thrown myself into the power of such a man, and that I ought to take for my pains what had befallen me” (1253). Clarissa’s refusal to prosecute Lovelace then both signifies her disempowerment and provides evidence of her “unauthoritative” plea of “not guilty” or “innocent,” which is offered in order to avoid the threatened punishment for non-pleaders — public disgrace. Thus, Clarissa attempts to answer what she understands as a “Question of Virtue.” But for Lovelace the question of Clarissa’s guilt or innocence, at least as far as she defines these terms is not interesting. Lovelace is primarily interested in his ability to successfully control Clarissa’s virtue: the contexts and whereabouts of her letters, “the light that [she] puts things in,” and the minute details of her fear during her imprisonment. Lovelace uses threat of torture, “punishment worse than death,” in order to prove his version of events, thereby acquiring Clarissa’s “consideration” for his proposal of marriage, and thus seeks to answer, by all methods and at any risk, “Questions of Truth.”

    What makes Lovelace’s demand for and forced acquisition of Clarissa’s “consideration” particularly nefarious, however, is his deliberate confusion of these legal methods in order to accomplish his ends. Lovelace, by substituting one torture for another, exchanging threat for threat, does indeed force Clarissa to “plead” for her freedom by kneeling “lifting up her clasped hands”—but without his ever having to “put her to the question.” In other words, Clarissa pleads and even surrenders to prosecute before she knows the charge; she implicitly declares herself “disempowered” before she has the knowledge to define the meanings of these terms and thus to distinguish the conditions of innocence from the conditions of guilt. Clarissa, consequently, along with her right to prosecute, not only surrenders to Lovelace any pretensions of judging her own guilt or innocence but also loses the discursive and imaginative power to convey her version of truth and virtue.

    How then does this enable us to reinterpret the language of Clarissa’s response to Lovelace and her motives for refusing to marry the persecutor, whom she also refuses to prosecute? In order to explain this it is instructive to look at the balance of implicit accusation and exoneration of Lovelace in Clarissa’s letter. Clarissa’s words suggests in many ways that a metaphoric rape of her ability to represent her version of events has occurred; she writes that “GOD ALMIGHTY WOULD NOT LET ME DEPEND FOR COMFORT UPON ANY BUT HIMSELF”—a construction that emphasizes, in contrast, how Lovelace’s version of events control the secular world of opinions: “once overcome, she will be always overcome” (930). Furthermore, Lovelace indicates that whatever incidents may have taken place during imprisonment, Clarissa is not free from guilt. However, Lovelace claims that he is “in danger” from Clarissa and complains that she has ultimately turned his former rake friend Belford, his aristocratic relatives, and her benefactors — the Smiths—a merchant couple against him in favor of Clarissa. Lovelace even figures himself as an all-too-partial judge in his exchange with Clarissa, which becomes evident in the scene just before the rape. Lovelace fortifies himself against Clarissa’s distressful pleas: “I forgot at the instant all my vows of revenge” and proceeded to beg for her pardon “honourably and justly” (914). In an equally self-contradictory remark, however, Lovelace states that Clarissa’s papers “have amply revenged her,” although he fails to specify the crimes for which she is revenged, and the final paragraph of his letter suggests that Clarissa’s possible guilt, for unspecified crimes, will be implied by any relation of Lovelace’s own misdeeds: “LET THIS EXPIATE!” (1488).

    It is important here to recognize both the implications and the indeterminacy of the justification. It suggests that Clarissa, on her escape from Lovelace, could be suspected of some “guilt” by her parents and neighbors—a possibility which could only be forestalled by the prosecution of her rapist in court for public opinion. Such an action, however, would only entail certain guilt of another sort for it is unquestionably a sign of criminal ingratitude for Clarissa to flee deliberately from her family and seek the protection of a renowned rake. Such a “version of events” and action, in the eyes of the gentry neighborhood, would mean forfeiture of innocence by a different means. Lovelace has, in effect, rendered it impossible for Clarissa to flee from Lovelace’s imprisonment without suffering some damage to her “innocence,” in terms of either public opinion or her “version” of truth and virtue.

    Clarissa’s allegorical “father’s house” letter, then, explains why she writes as though the letter both accomplishes and informs her of her own rape of discursive imaginative power; informs her, that is, of the necessary forfeiture of her “innocence” should she return home to the Harlowe Place. We may read her letters as proof that she has made an escape from Lovelace only to be more a prisoner of public opinion. This also explains why Clarissa originally resolves, most uncharacteristically, to deceive Lovelace and seek spiritual freedom in the afterlife. Clarissa’s confessions of having experienced sexual attraction and personal pride, and her refusal to prosecute Lovelace for his crime seriously call into question her complete innocence during her earlier imprisonment and later seclusion until her death. In conclusion, this reading provides an inevitable motive for Clarissa to seek comfort in the afterlife where her version of truth and virtue is unquestionable.

    Clarissa’s refusal to marry and prosecute Lovelace, however, does not put an end to all of her figurative trials and pleadings; rather it increases them ten-fold. For now Clarissa, still ignorant of the charges which may be brought against her and of the conditions which could determine her innocence or guilt, must either continue to “plead” to both Lovelace and the impromptu “jury” of the neighboring gentry or completely relinquish all ties with her previous life—that is, surrender her version of virtue and any possible discursive imaginative empowerment.

    Consequently Clarissa, far from winning the battle “to define the meaning of these categories and to enforce acceptance of . . . terms upon the other,” ultimately loses even the capacity to assert her own innocence with certainty because that capacity resides in the legal powers of Lovelace—either through marriage or prosecution. Such a reading would further indicate that Clarissa’s “discursive imaginative empowerment” is not “fitfully acknowledged on the plane of discourse,” but rather steadily contradicted on the plane of discourse. Clarissa becomes, as she herself points out, “nobody’s,” which on the one hand, is a triumphant, radical refusal of any place within the “symbolic order” but, on the other hand, as Eagleton points out, a reduction of “the dying Clarissa” as “nothing, errant, schizoid, a mere empty place and non-person” whose version of events cannot exist within her secular world.

    In other words, Clarissa’s position as defendant standing in trial before Lovelace defines and upholds his position as judge of Clarissa’s innocence in this novel. Far from being merely a passive reader of Clarissa’s writings, Lovelace acts as a relentless and powerful interpreter, capable of constructing letters that can simultaneously accomplish and inform Clarissa of her own rape—forcing her conversion and ultimate defeat of attaining “discursive and imaginative empowerment.” Thus, Lovelace eventually stands in for some of the most powerful figures associated with the novel—the figures of the reader, the interpreter, the judge, and the editor. Perhaps, in fact, the figure which most closely approximates Lovelace is essentially McKeon’s discursive and imaginative empowerment, which discriminates, conflates, and categorizes “Questions of Truth” and “Questions of Virtue” at will.

    1See Michael McKeon’s “Part III: The Dialectical Constitution of The Novel,” in The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1987), 273-409.  2For a critical reading of McKeon’s analysis of Pamela, see Ewha Chung’s “The Test of Virtue in Samuel Richardson’s Andrews,” in Inmunkwahak: The Journal of the Humanities Vol. LXXIV Dec (1995): 367-84.  3All citations for Samuel Richardson’s novels are from the following edition: Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady, ed. Angus Ross (NY: Penguin, 1985).  4For detailed research concerning Richardson’s new epistolary narrative technique, see Paul Goring’s “Chapter 5. Polite reading: sentimental fiction and the performance of response” in The Rhetoric of Sensibility in Eighteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005), 142-81.  5Terry Eagleton in The Rape of Clarissa: Writing, Sexuality and Class Struggle in Samuel Richardson (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982) discusses the ideology of writing and examines how in Richardson’s fiction ‘experience’ can be conveyed in all its living immediacy by language. Eagleton states that the technique of “writing to the moment” reinforces the faith that writing and reality may be at one (40-53). For more extensive literature on Richardson’s technique of “writing to the moment,” see T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel in Samuel Richardson: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971), 98, 100, 213-31, 242, 597.  6All references to Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela (1740), will refer to the Signet Classic edition of Pamela-Shamela (NY: New American Library Inc., 1980).  7For McKeon’s most recent analysis of the patriarchy in Pamela, see “Chapter 14. Secret History as Novel: Family Politics,” in The Secret of History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2005), 640-46.  8For further study on how McKeon develops his theoretical paradigm of the novel, see John Richetti’s chapter, “The Legacy of Ian Watt,” in The Profession of Eighteenth-Century Literature: Reflections on an Institution (Madison, Wisconsin: U of Wisconsin P, 1992), 95-112.  9See deconstructionists William Beatty Warner’s Reading “Clarissa”: Struggles of Interpretation (New Haven: Yale UP, 1979); and, Terry Castle’s Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s “Clarissa” (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982). Warner (pro-Lovelace) and Castle (pro-Clarissa) have thoroughly demonstrated Lovelace’s and Clarissa’s control, lack of control, and complete manipulation of meaning. In both arguments, whether pro-Clarissa or pro-Lovelace, the analyses focus on struggle, which essentially evolve around the power to control and manipulate one another’s meaning.  10See “Preface” of Clarissa, p. 36.  11For further research on Clarissa’s allegorical letter concerning her “father’s house,” see Florian Stuber’s “On Fathers and Authority in Clarissa,” Studies in English Literature, 25 (1985), 574; Edward Copeland’s “Allegory and Analogy in Clarissa: The ‘Plan’ and the ‘No-Plan,’” ELH 39 (1972), 259-60; and, Allan Wendt’s “Clarissa’s Coffin,” Philological Quarterly, vol. XXXIX (October 1960), 483-97.  12See Eaves and Kimpel, “Chapter X. The Composition of Clarissa; Lady Bradshaigh,” and “Chapter XII. The Reception of Clarissa; Richardson and Fielding, 1748-1750,” pp. 205-34; pp. 285-321.  13John Bender in Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987) analyzes the concept of crime and punishment in the eighteenth century and further examines various forms of penitentiaries prevalent throughout the period.

  • 1. Bender John 1987 Imagining the Penitentiary: Fiction and the Architecture of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England google
  • 2. Castle Terry 1982 Clarissa’s Cyphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s “Clarissa.” google
  • 3. Chung Ewha (1995) “The Test of Virtue in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela Andrews.” [Inmunkwahak: The Journal of the Humanities] Vol.LXXIV P.367-84 google
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  • 10. McKeon Michael 2005 The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge. google
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