Her Longing for Death, for Escape, for Nature or God to Take Her

A note is hit in today's letter which will provide the fundamental goal of Clarissa for the rest of the book. She's had enough. She's reached her nadir. She says that she has this much: "I am not now obliged to hide myself in corners for fear of him" but it is not much to build a life upon. No-one, not a soul came through to help her. What seems most curious to me is that not only does no character in the book seem at first to understand what this journey is she begins to speak of, but when they do, they reject it. They cannot accept even this mild form of suicide. I'll call it letting nature take you. Letting her take her course. Of interest her of course is that modern readers don't like Clarissa's choice either.

We might in fact call the last phase of the novel: Death. The opening phase is she won't be sold; the second she won't play games, and the third wherein she discovers that this is the only way to get through life, being absolute for death. Into God's--or Death's arms will she go; in Heaven--or nature's bed lie. Richardson takes us on a journey to bodily and spiritual death. There is peace, there rest. He is wrong of course to present the experience of death itself as without an agony for Clarissa, but as the sentimentalization of death goes on even across our own time, I don't know that we can fault him all that much for that.

I find her letter for July 20, Thursday afternoon (No 343 Ross Penguin pp 1087-8) strangely moving. Clarissa is looking forward to death & is going to die. Her animating if sad idea is clear in the final paragraph: "suppose me gone a great, great way off!--a long journey!--" (Ross Penguin p 1088).

It is interesting to note that Lovelace is the first to see what she's about; he brings it out in his peculiarly erotic allegorical fashion (look ahead to his written on the next day from M Hall, Friday, July 21, No 356, Ross Penguin p 1098). Clarissa seeks death the way some seek a lover--to which I add others a friend. The other characters describe her behavior, but don't seem to understand her intent, the meaning of what she is doing and what they describe so vividly, as in Belford's repeating the scene in which she retells her history in brief to Mrs Smith and Mrs Lovick, ending on the idea "my refuge must be death" (written Friday noon, July 21, No 349, Ross Penguin p 1106).

As now a number of postings have made clear, at this point for all sorts of reasons the novel becomes difficult for the modern reader to read in the way Richardson intended. The ideas motivating the first two-thirds of the book are the same, but their representation in action brings forward aspects of the idea that are distasteful or unacceptable or irritating to many modern readers. One could say that in the first two-thirds the ideas were presented negatively; that is we were looking at these ideas being destroyed, at the vicious behavior they engender, and now instead of someone saying, well, these are bad ideas, here are some better ones, Richardson goes on to present the bad ideas some more; he doesn't reject them, instead he now embodies them in the solution his society had for them--which was: 1) repression of sexuality; 2) prayer to a God who has is to be crouched before in mindless adoration and thanked for all these wonderful lessons, clearly a placating which degrades, in my mind, the person who placates this terrifying force he or she imagines in "out there" in the universe; 3) blind obedience to society's rules (Caroline is right the moral is, girls, "watch it," stay by mamma's side, obey papa). Clarissa's insistence her case was special, her parents especially unreasonable, she was unusual in being tricked, her man unusually devilish, her holding out fantastically good under the circumstances drives all this home the more.

At times too to many readers the book now turns "peculiar," as in the scene between Lovelace and Hickman (Letter 346, Ross Penguin, pp 1091-8). Richardson is obviously trying to show us two young men nearly coming to blows; though in real life no conversation could have gone on in this manner. What is happening is Richardson is shifting from a psychological to a didactic emphasis. It's not the psychologies behind the conversation that he is bringing forth so much as the matter. Lovelace is determined to put forward a view which would say that what happened to Clary happens everyday, that it's trivial, but the man who is supposed to be "on Clary's side," Hickman is altogether too sensitive to the idea that Clarissa did something wrong. That is, he's uncomfortable about her, and is only placated by fantastical remarks "in a fierce tone" by Lovelace that Clarissa is a "more pure than a vestal." All of it very uneasy, something sleazy here somehow. Hickman, the man who is there as the one supporter of Clarissa who has shown up, does not quite trust her? And why? She's lost her hymen. So she must be polluted. Nay, says Lovelace, nay. To this modern reader it is Lovelace who is right. We might see in this dialogue the heart of Richardson's own ambivalence towards his heroine, his need to kill her off.

I might here refer to the story of Thomasine and Belton which we've yet to get to. Poor Belton, thin, decayed, exhausted. We are confronted with this dual view of women: either monster, sexual vulture (Thomasine) or pure without sexual desire (Clarissa). And not just tertium non est but we've got to know Clarissa was drugged, tied down, and not pregnant before we can be sure she enjoyed nothing.

Well, I suppose we shouldn't blame Richardson for not rising above his age, especially when we look about us and find many of the ideas embodied here are still alive and well on this 20th century earth. I also wouldn't want to overinterpret Clary's friendship with Belford; I don't really see her as manipulating him so much as him falling for this image of the high noble virgin to be worshipped.

We should note different things irritate different people on our list. I know there are about 66 of us; I can't stand the notion Clarissa's once again reiterates that precisely because she was so good before, her errors are all the more blameable (Ross Penguin p 1101); this seems to me simply stupid. Others have taken a different tack on this one earlier. I am actually sickened by the placating, and here I will go to a memoir I went to pick out, Se questo e un huomo/em>; in a scene of loathesome horror & abyssmal compliance, the Nazis select out some to die, and others to live, and Primo Levi has afterwards to listen to a man praying to God thanks that he has been spared. Levi asks doesn't he know he can be selected tomorrow? He calls the prayer an "abomination" ("un abominio"). If anyone wants to read his comments they're in the close of the chapter "Ottobre 1944--the heading ought to be the same in a good English translation).

On the other hand many people on our list may take the rape very seriously, find it very grim, look out at our world and see parallels everywhere about women's vulnerability and find sustenance for a feminist viewpoint I hold only with qualifications. But there's a book maybe a lot of us would hold explains the vulture versus goddess world of Richardson and therefore relates to Clarissa: Klaus Theweleit Male Fantasies, again about nazism; it's 1000 pages & he shows how ego formation for a certain kind of male depends on repression of female sexuality, erecting a woman on a pedestal; this kind of male forms the basis of the fascistic warrior state; it has to do with separating the male at a young age from tender emotions, from the mother, at creating awe in children for their parents, keeping the children at a distance, at keeping the children in the family and subject to the family, but mostly, at any rate according to Theweleit, in focussing hatred on sexuality and any kind of so-called debauchery. An interesting section on the 18th century (it's a kind of history of the Germanic nations in Europe leading into the era of Bismarck and what happened then) describes the virginal female beauty that became (and maybe still is) an ideal and which we find in Clarissa: the lady is to be "Not too fat, not to thin, a gracious smile, small ears, tiny narrow feet, delicate skin, unlaid with tiny blue vein, a long alabaster neck (this from a German Ladies Lexicon, 1715); is this not Clarissa? Is it not that grotesque Madonna?

Finally many people on our list will be put off by Clarissa's choice of death--I am not, and not because I believe in God or an afterlife. I don't.

Still we ought to say at least Richardson is still on target about things which are so central to our existence, the formation of a sexuality that twists and destroys lives, the centrality of authority and social codes in society which give individuals only a certain group of choices which will determined many of the hours of an existence which is short, and finally death, the choice Kafka made in his Hunger Artist or Melville in his Bartleby the Scrivener. I like to see in Clary someone who prefers not to. She's not the first in literature. Hamlet beat her to it.


"What a world is this! What is there in it desirable? The good we hope for, so strangely mixed, that one knows not what to wish for! And one half of mankind tormenting the other, and being tormented themselves in tormenting..."
---Samuel Richardson, Clarissa

Other posts under this date in the novel:
             Epistolary Narrative: Strengths and Weaknesses

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