Clarissa’s Agency

The sources I chose to focus on for the annotated bibliography have to do with the different feminist reads that scholars have applied to Clarissa in the past half century. In a novel as massive and sprawling as Clarissa, it seems to become a sort of touchstone, where many different readings and interpretations can exist in tandem. The two texts I chose to look at examined different, albeit similarly elusive and abstract subjects in Clarissa—one the views on marriage stated throughout (and how they compared to the literal practice of marriage in the novel), and the other the interior lives and general mental capacity of the female characters.

One thing that neither text seemed concerned with examining in any depth that I found myself thinking about quite a bit during this last section was Clarissa’s physical agency throughout the novel. During the first half, this agency seems to vanish before it had a chance to begin, as Clarissa is constantly in positions that more or less amount to captivity and yet refuses to take any reasonable action to free herself from those conditions. 

In this section of the novel though, Clarissa seems to come into her own agency for the first time. For once, Lovelace (or her brother, father, uncles, etc.) isn’t dictating the actions of the plot, but suddenly has to cater to Clarissa’s whims, as she continues to refuse to marry despite everything that has happened. Rather being subject to the actions of the men around her, Clarissa subjects them to her own will in these last 600 pages or so. 

It is interesting (and bears more consideration than I have time to properly do justice to here) that the thing which allows her to make this move from object to subject is the sexual assault. This reminds me of Monique Wittig’s points about “women” (an admittedly impossible to define category) whose line of oppression forces them to exist outside of the typical societal concepts of womanhood. This exclusion allows these people access to forms of resistance that were previously inaccessible. Though Wittig is referring mostly to lesbians, it seems like it also can be applied to the role of “fallen” women in the 18th century. The assault, which ruined any hope Clarissa has to fit into the societal role of “woman” that she has spent her whole life trying to maintain, suddenly allows her an agency that was completely impossible for her to access previously.

What I’m really interested though is not the portion of this reading that has to do with Clarissa giving Lovelace and her family the runaround as she refuses to marry, but rather the portion that deals with her madness. I was a little bit disappointed to see how brief this section of the novel truly is (given the length of the text as a whole) but there’s so many fascinating things here that even with the relatively short page space it leaves an impression. When it comes to the question of female agency, this seems to be the point in the narrative when Clarissa hits her apex. Here, she has shed all societal (and indeed literary expectations) expectations and is moving according to a gravity all her own. Richardson’s knowledge as a printer allows this newfound freedom to manifest itself in the text, as the free floating thoughts and poetic lines appear randomly all over the page, completely unbound by page settings or typical margins. In the world of Feminist literary theory where so often plot/conflict driven narrative is seen as inherently patriarchal, this moment of the text moving beyond that seems to represent the height of Clarissa’s personal agency. 

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