In this section, we summarize our response to a set of related issues, including, self, identity, and agency.
Letter 36 in Volume I contains Clarissa’s story of meeting Lovelace in the garden. Tony pointed to “one of the real satisfactions of encountering this letter—the chance to see Clarissa and Lovelace face-to-face, and to see them ‘trade’ language so vividly. She asserts herself against Lovelace as strongly as against her family, but with more of a belief that she has a receptive audience here—even to her criticisms. And of course, so early in the novel, we can still have some hopeful expectations about Lovelace, despite his reputation.”
Responding also to Letter 36, Jessica, however, became nervous, particularly about how Lovelace frames Clarissa’s options and how “masterful he is at rhetorically framing himself as a hurt party whose pain could be alleviated if only the object of his desire would just go along with what he wants. And Clarissa is so good at seeing and articulating the underlying bias of Lovelace’s construction of reality, even though she’s persuaded on some level that he is ‘suffering.’” Rachel agreed that “Clarissa has a weakness for Lovelace—is it her Puritan optimism that there is redemption for every rake? I’m not sure. Because I also think that Clarissa likes Lovelace with her mind and reasoning just as much as her soul and hope for redemption.”
Keri agreed, though pointed to the way “Clarissa is aware of her vulnerability to him. She tries to maintain an agency and approach Lovelace with authority, but she also shows concern that she has let her correspondence with him go on for too long.. . . All that to say, I think I am as confused as Clarissa is. I still can’t quite get a handle on her agency here. She seems very aware of Lovelace’s powerful mind and appreciates his ability to reason, and she also stands up to him at times letting him know that she wishes to marry no one. But she also submits to him because she feels a bit threatened and also sympathetic to him due to the hardships he has endured in trying to maintain correspondence with her.” Kendra too noted Clarissa’s ambivalence: “If she knows his postulations of devotion and love are suspect why does she let herself be drawn to him? . . . What is curious is that Clarissa is suspicious of him but, despite herself and her attraction to his mind, asks Anna ‘do you really think Mr. Lovelace can have a very bad heart?’”
Letter 37 continued to raise questions about Clarissa’s self-knowledge. Steve began by asking “I read this after the scene in the woodhouse thinking ‘is everybody crazy to trust Clarissa’s judgment?’” To which Rachel responded “I asked the same question, also wondering, though, how much Anna actually does trust it. Is their call for detail—always tell me everything, leave nothing out—really just a cry for empirical evidence so they can make their own judgments?” Jessica wondered the same: “Anna writes, ‘Let me add, that if you would clearly and explicitly tell me, how far Lovelace has, or has not, a hold in your affections, I could better advise you what to do, than at present I can.’ I don’t understand this. Clarissa has been so clear. Perhaps we’re supposed to be baffled that no matter how strongly Clarissa insists, she can’t persuade her family and friends that she isn’t in love with Lovelace—another way that Clarissa’s agency is gradually stifled. But the fact that Clarissa’s closest friend has doubts about Clarissa’s feelings for Lovelace makes me wonder what can’t be known through letters alone. We’ve watched how Clarissa’s discourse has its limits (her parents refuse to read her letters; and no matter how clear she is about her dislike for Lovelace, everybody thinks she’s deploying fancy rhetoric to distract from her true feelings). Is there a context we’re missing that is understood outside these letters? Or are Clarissa’s family and friends really this profoundly wrong?” To which Megan responded “The deep intimacy between the two friends has already been established. I wonder if Anna has a better understanding of Clarissa’s feelings and what she could be hiding in her letters. Despite the instructions to leave nothing out, these letters are a construction. Clarissa is purposely giving specific details at certain times. And perhaps some of her words let slip certain ideas that those who do not know her as well would not understand. Surely, her feelings for Lovelace are at least a bit more complicated than we can gather from her letters? Think about this statement from Letter 36—‘I fancy, my dear, however, that there would hardly be a guilty person in the world, were each suspected or accused person to tell his or her own story, and be allowed any degree of credit.’” This sense of the rhetorical constructed-ness of both writing and reading a letter is becoming a major theme for us.
In Letter 42, we also began to see more examples of Clarissa as an agentive self. Kendra saw Clarissa as a “growing character here, because for the first time she seems to delight somewhat in being vindictive and fighting back,’ whereas before she lamented and threw herself upon the floor.” And Meghan concluded by saying that “’Meow!’ is right, Steve. I love finally being able to see Clarissa get angry with someone! Previous to this, I’m reminded of Letter 29 when Clarissa tries writing to her sister from the confines of her room, since she has been ordered to stay there by her family. . . . imploring Arabella to ‘pity’ her. . . . Now, not only does Clarissa abandon the tactic she used before to appeal to Arabella’s love for her as a sister, she deliberately attacks Arabella using something that seems to cause her great pain (her unrequited love for Lovelace). Clarissa seems to have some remorse in retrospect (when she repeatedly asks Miss Howe whether she was justified in her actions and when she refers to Arabella as her “poor sister”), but the fact that she did something like this at all (for me) signals a turning point for her character in finally gaining some nerve instead of only feeling sorry for herself.”
Volume II began some interesting conversations about culture and identity. In response to Letter 58, Megan thought that the novel was setting up both Clarissa and Anna in their desire for individuation against the understandings of their respective families of acceptable roles for daughters. Debra observed that Clarissa is stuck “between a rock and a hard place”—the rock being her father’s patriarchal values, and the hard place being the burgeoning role of “love” and the relatively new idea of freedom in choosing who one will marry. There was also a productive conversation about culture and identity in response to Letters 59 and 60. Tony observed that as the novel progresses, Clarissa’s “untroubled” notion that she has the responsibility and the power to shape her own identity becomes more and more troubled as the novel progresses.
In response to Letter 136 in Volume III, Debra noted that Anna believes that their identities are set: “You can no more go out of your road, than I can go out of mine. It would be a pain to either to do so: What then is it in either’s approving of her own natural bias, but making a virtue of necessity.” Nevertheless, they each insist on trying to get the other to change. Anna’s refrain: “Marry Lovelace”: Clarissa’s “Obey your Mother.” These are the canonical narratives of female identity which the novel both endorses and challenges. Rachel agreed that Anna and Clarissa “do play out these cultural female roles, arguing (though politely) for each to listen to the other, to see reason.” She also noted how stubborn each of them is, suggesting that despite their circumstances they see themselves, at some level, as “individual agents.”
We also get some sense of Clarissa and Lovelace’s attempts to understand the “self” of the other, particularly by looking at each other’s eyes. In Letter 125, Clarissa says that “We are both great watchers of each other’s eyes; and, indeed, seem to be more than half afraid of each other.” This is a rather remarkable insight so early in the book. Keri noted us that this is only one of many references to non-verbal communication. But, Steve reminded us that Lovelace deceives with his looks too, and that he is a better reader of Clarissa than she is of him.
In Volume IV, Clarissa’s self, identity, and agency become compromised by Lovelace’s intrusion and interception of the letters (which, of course, also ties closely to “Writing”). As Jessica noted in regard to Letter 207, “Clarissa used to write to Anna to forward her purpose of constructing an even better self. Now that Lovelace reads and analyzes their correspondence, we’re reminded that he has appropriated Clarissa’s project of self-discovery.” Throughout the volume as a whole, we are continuously reminded of Lovelace’s intrusion, as he constantly tries to steal or gain access to Clarissa’s letters, thus interfering with Clarissa’s own “self-discovery.” (See also Letter 175, Letter 176, Letter 198, and Letter 202.)
Furthermore, in this volume, Clarissa continues to struggle with achieving and understanding the “essential self” that she believes she possesses, but cannot quite attain. In Letter 200, for example, Steve and Debra both commented on Clarissa’s wavering and uncertainty as she attempts to discover her true self. Steve noted that “Thinking about an essential self which even she didn’t know is both very different and very close to thinking about identity as unstable. In other words, she posits an essential self, but admits that even she doesn’t know it fully.” In this letter, Clarissa notes that her self “misleads” her, and she must continue to waver between alternative paths in order to understand her essential self.
Lovelace undergoes shifts in his identity in this volume, as well. In the post titled Letter 209, Debra and Rachel referenced the Bakhtinian dialogic aspects that shed light on how Lovelace constructs his own identity through constructing his audience and dialogue with that audience. For instance, Debra wrote, “Lovelace constructs himself through a dialogue with the Belford he has also constructed. I think we really feel the rhetorical resonance of Lovelace’s writing. He is always in dialogue, either with himself or Clarissa or Belford or the Belford he has invented.” To that point, Rachel added, “This comes back to the issue of reputation for Lovelace, and, in his letters to Belford, he constantly references the others in the group of rakes: what they’re doing, what they think of this plan (indicating he’s been corresponding with them as well?), how they would or do react to him, casting them always in relation to Belford (whether through alignment or divergence).”
Volume V presents a change in Clarissa’s self, as she realizes that Lovelace is a villain and that he has been controlling and orchestrating the events around her. She then escapes from him using cunning and Lovelace-like techniques. In Letter 230, Clarissa shows great awareness of her plight and is aware that Lovelace sees her as nothing more than property. Debra commented that Clarissa is moving “beyond her personal sense of her situation and the social perception of her plight,” and Rachel wondered if Clarissa is “writing herself into vilifying him to authorize her to have these feelings.” Both Debra and Rachel noted a change in Clarissa’s diction, using words such as vile, fiend, specious, and so on to describe Lovelace. In Letter 218, we are reminded of Clarissa’s identity as a physical body when Lovelace divulges the terms of the settlement, which speaks of children borne upon the body of Clarissa Harlowe. We also see that Lovelace rather enjoys thinking of begetting children upon Clarissa. He talks about her as a piece of property for him to use as he sees fit should he become her husband. Rachel also commented on the juxtaposition of legality and morality, and wrote that this letter “seems to suggest that lawyers—not rakes—are the source of such immoral thoughts.” In addition, Debra found a Bakhtinian moment and parody in this letter pertaining to Lovelace’s use of verbal play regarding unlawful children and the difference between law and gospel.
The most destructive rupture in the novel is, of course, Lovelace’s rape of the drugged Clarissa, a physical and psychological violation which leads, eventually, to her death. It fractures Clarissa’s sense of self and of the meaning of her life, as is made clear in her first letter (Letter 295) to Anna after she has escaped for good from Sinclair’s brothel. The phrases directly quoted from the novel in postings about that letter reveal the depth of the trauma: “this vile, this hated self”; “But no more of myself! My lost self”; “I, my best self, have not escaped”; “Self, then, be banished from self.” Many of the comments reflect the depth of these reactions in their own language: “we see here a kind of incoherence of self we seldom witness in Clarissa” (Debra); “Anna is whole whereas Clarissa is broken” (Kendra); “she tries to divorce one ‘vile’ or ‘lost’ self from the other” (Keri); “at one point, she seems to have the two selves talking to each other, inventing a kind of faux dialogue” (Meghan); “Heart-breaking” (Rachel).
In the last letter he writes before the rape (Letter 256), Lovelace sneers at what he terms Clarissa’s “pride of being corporally inviolate” and assumes that when he has taken her “that modesty . . . will lock up her speech”—revealing that even he grasps that her virginity is of central importance to her identity. And so, in Rachel’s fine phrase, the rape “utterly destroys Clarissa.” And yet, as Keri notes, Lovelace’s one-line letter on the rape (Letter 257) ends with the sentence “Clarissa lives.” Keri commented on this and explained that “This short sentence demonstrates something of a resurrection of the strong-willed Clarissa we have seen throughout the novel.”
First, though, Clarissa must endure the immediate psychological damage done by the drugs and embodied in the “mad letters” (Letter 261). Delirious and fragmented as they are, even here Clarissa begins the work of repairing the physical and psychological ruptures of her self. She writes to reconnect with Anna (“I am no what I was in any one thing.”); with her father (“though I am an unworthy child—yet I am your child”); with Arabella (“my sister, my friend . . . pity the humbled creature”); with her very self (“How art thou now humbled in the dust, thou proud Clarissa Harlowe!”). She writes to indict Lovelace. She quotes half a dozen literary texts that allow her to find expressive language that echoes her fragmented self while groping toward her lost wholeness. And in commenting on Letter 295, Debra isolates the one reality that will ground all of her recovery: the knowledge “that her will was never violated.”
Within days of recovery from her delirium, Clarissa begins to wrest back control of her identity from Lovelace—and from the once-terrifying Sinclair. She confronts Lovelace directly, asserting that because of his actions she is “ruined in my own eyes, and that is the same to me, as if all the world knew it”—and announcing her absolute renunciation of him: “I never, never will be yours!” (Letter 266). Shortly after the rape, Lovelace cavalierly writes Belford that “Miss Clarissa Harlowe has but run the fate of a thousand others of her sex—only that they did not set such romantic value upon what they call they honour; that’s all” (Letter 259). But Clarissa will not accept such a reduction of her identity. Four days after this encounter, she confronts both Lovelace and Sinclair with amazing steadiness of mind, cowing them with force of argument and personality, as well as the double threat of her own suicide and the eventual retributions of the Law (Letter 281). Our blog posts reflect how convincingly Clarissa has restored crucial strands of her identity, Debra noting that her power now lies “in her absolute trust in herself,” and Keri that “Clarissa’s agency has reached its absolute highest peak.” Kendra describes her as “once again a paragon” and Jessica reports that even as mere witness to the scene “I felt a bit awed . . . This is what Clarissa looks like when she has power.”
Eventually, Clarissa finds the power to heal every rupture that defines Volume VI—of her own self-narrative, her textualities, her body and mind. She refuses to let herself be broken as Lovelace and Sinclair intended. In our class discussion, Rachel observed that “Clarissa never turns away from what has happened to her.” We are, therefore, never allowed to turn away from it either.” It is the ground of her tragedy—and of her tragic triumph.
Clarissa faces further complications in Volume VII; see in particular Letter 333. Despite these troubles, Clarissa’s identity remains unchanged in many ways. In the discussion of Letter 359, Keri pointed to how Clarissa has continued to desire the single life, though she found it striking that “a distinct change” appears in the reasons she wants that life. Tony wrote that Clarissa’s identity is “deepening in ways consistent with her earlier self.” This volume doesn’t show a changed Clarissa, as much as an “evolved” Clarissa. Tony’s idea that her character is “deepening” seems consistent with her sense of self throughout the novel. The novel’s events do not necessarily change Clarissa’s deepest beliefs or sense of self, but do allow her to grow into these beliefs and into a stronger sense of who she is. Because of this growth, Clarissa asserts agency for herself more and more. In Letter 389, we begin to see Clarissa assert agency over her own death. She decides for herself the way she wants to die, and she begins this process by appointing Belford to be the executor of her will.
In comparison, we see several versions of Lovelace’s “self” throughout this volume. He swings between being in control and enjoying dramatic games (Letter 323) to begging for forgiveness from Anna (Letter 367) and from Belford (Letter 370). In Letter 323, Kendra referred to Lovelace as “a performer” who has a “role to keep up,” and Tony suggested that he remains “unchanged…the performer, provoker, manipulator he has always been.” Yet, we do see a somewhat different side of him in the later letters where he expresses regret and demands forgiveness. Though he is in some ways owning up to what he has done, most saw these expressions of regret as being yet another act, just another side of Lovelace’s constructed “self.” In Letter 367, Jessica noted that Lovelace’s “only goal is to make sure he’s done everything to reconcile with Clarissa,” and Kendra pointed out that “Lovelace’s words of grief and regret” were for show. Debra mentioned that it “takes brass” for Lovelace to compare himself to historical figures who suffered extensively, and Tony noted that Lovelace desires forgiveness as “a kind of token…which grants validation to his own picture of his behavior—that his ‘sins’ are not sins at all, the mere natural behavior of any man with the means and the power to take what the wants.” What we see in this volume are still just various sides of the self that Lovelace creates. The consensus amongst the group seems to be that even when Lovelace is expressing regret and asking for forgiveness, he is playing a part.
In Volume VIII, Clarissa’s gradual death allows us to see and interact with overarching parts of her identity in her final moments. Several of us commented on how Clarissa’s values—virtue, religion, truth—are reinscribed by the choices she makes at the end of her life. Tony and Kendra were not surprised by Clarissa’s admission in Letter 440 that she “lied” to Lovelace by suggesting that she would soon be in her “father’s house” (with God in Heaven). Though the remark implies to Lovelace that she would be returning to the house in which her family lives, Clarissa does not see this subtle dishonesty as being in conflict with her values because she privileges a different kind of truth, one that enables her to protect herself from Lovelace. Clarissa’s heavily symbolic letters, Kendra reminded, bring her religiousness to the foreground.
We also noticed and admired how Clarissa, even in death, insists on doing as much as she can on her own. She intends to die in the way that she desperately wanted to live her life: independently and without too much burden on others. In Letter 451, Belford records Clarissa saying, “I love to do everything for myself that I can do. I ever did.” Some of us read these later actions—ordering her coffin, preparing her will, writing letters to be sent after her death—as Clarissa’s desire not to be a burden, even in death. Others noticed how these actions reinscribe her as self-sustaining. Debra made a similar point in response to Letter 413: despite severe constraints on her life, Clarissa actively valued her own autonomy.
In Volume IX, we debated over how Richardson ended the novel in terms of characterization, particularly about each of the main characters. In death, Clarissa seemed to be elevated to an even more archetypal pedestal as an angel once bound to earth and now released to heaven. And yet, we debated, based on some of her posthumous letters (Letters 488 through 492) delivered to her family, we wondered whether or not Clarissa had, in death, assumed a kind of dual positioning as angel and judge. Tony conjectured that she seemed to be engaging in a kind of “balance of genuine forgiveness and unavoidable judgement,” a position that was reflective of her larger Judeo-Christian philosophy. “After all,” Tony reminded us, “the God Clarissa worships is both merciful and just.”
In addition to seeing Clarissa judging her family in her letters, we also discussed how she seemed, as in most things, almost perfect in her vengefulness. Debra and Keri also questioned whether or not we should read Clarissa in these letters as prideful of her own standing in relation to others, her family included. (While Clarissa did exercise agency in writing and in behavior, she did so largely in service of the closure of her narrative—therefore, we have included much discussion of her agentive identity in “Narrative”.)
Meanwhile, we also see the “end” of Lovelace in Volume IX. After Clarissa’s death, Kendra suggested that we began to see Lovelace unravel, in a sense, beginning with his ranting madness in Letter 497. One of his most shocking “demands” to Belford in this letter was a particular flashpoint for us in conversation, both on the blog and in class: “But her heart, to which I have such unquestionable pretensions, in which once I had so large a share, and which I will prize above my own, I will have. I will keep it in spirits. It shall never be out of my sight.” Debra noted that Lovelace was likely “(literally) out of his mind at this point. He later only vaguely remembers writing it, and he doesn’t pursue any of this,” including demanding her body for burial in his own family plot, and so forth.
In this particular letter (Letter 497), Megan also noted that Lovelace seemed to have departed from the usual “self” we had come to expect. She argued “It seems like a very different style of writing,” noting the absence of his usual “command of language” and “ability to persuade and convince.” This letter suggests, Megan continued, that he has made a “complete departure from the smooth, suave writer we came to know” in previous volumes. Meghan agreed, noting in the same letter that Lovelace seemed artlessly straightforward, lacking the same kind of rhetorical prowess or any of the usual contrivance we had come to expect from him.
Although we had often discussed whether or not Lovelace had a “self” that we could locate, or that he himself could lay claim to—it was most interesting how this language of “self” kept coming up in our comments on his last letters throughout Volume IX. Even when we think a character may have no central “self,” do we end up returning to this language anyway—because we have no choice? Because we cannot imagine such a character or person through our own 21st century lenses? In Letter 511, we noted that Lovelace did not seem “himself.” As he wrote, “But it won’t do!—I must again lay down my pen.—O Belford! Belford! I am still, I am still most miserably absent from myself!—Shall never, never more be what I was!”
Picking up on this “absence” of self—which he had not previously claimed—Meghan noted that he seemed like a changed man, a call that Debra took up again in Lovelace’s next to last letter, Letter 535, which he opens by declaring, “Indeed, indeed, Belford, I am, and shall be, to my latest hour, the most miserable of beings.” We agreed that this was the closest to repentance that we saw Lovelace, painfully absent from himself, until his last words in Letter 537, “LET THIS EXPIATE!” In the blog, Tony brought in his own conversation with Debra on Lovelace’s loss of his own will to live, which Jessica supported as well based on his lack of performance in the duel with Colonel Morden. In class, we also discussed who Lovelace seemed to be speaking “to” in this letter, in his last words—and we settled on Clarissa.
In this way, each of their “last words” (his spoken words to her after her death; her written words to him before her death) is uttered to the other in a way that brings so much of the novel full-circle. But rather than opening up the initial possibilities of their relationship through correspondence, they each close their “correspondence” by directing themselves to a version of the other that is (still) not present and is (again, still) largely imagined, called into being by their own responses yet silent due to the impossibility of any reply.