Clarissa’s Anger

Carrie’s post about emotional responses to literature has made me reflect a little about why I value Richardson’s depiction of the passions, and it brought home to me one of Richardson’s peculiar gifts: portraying moral indignation, which in Clarissa’s case never devolves into an inarticulate rage, but instead focuses itself into a merciless and clear-eyed view of her opposition, in all its weakness and selfishness.

Here’s a passage that caught my eye while preparing my first Clarissa class this past week. I don’t think I ever noticed it before, but it seemed this week like a remarkable record of C’s discovery of her own resolve to defy her family. It happens in Letter 20, just after Mamma Harlowe begs her to obey her and her father, and to follow their direction by marrying Solmes straightaway, to prove the freeness of her heart from Lovelace.

Affected by my mamma’s goodness to me . . . I could not but wish it were possible for me to obey. I therefore paused, hesitated, considered, and was silent for a considerable space. I could see that my mamma hoped that the result of this hesitation would be favorable to her arguments. But then, recollecting that all was owing to the instigations of a brother and a sister, wholly actuated by selfish and envious views; that I had not deserved the treatment I had of late met with; that my disgrace was already become the public talk; that my aversion to their man was too generally known to make my compliance either creditable to myself or to them, as it would demonstrate less of duty than of a slavish, and even a sordid mind, seeking to preserve its worldly fortunes by the sacrifice of its future happiness; that it would give my brother and sister a triumph over me, and over Mr Lovelace, which they would not fail to glory in; and which, although it concerned me but little to matter on his account, yet might be attended with fatal mischiefs–And then Mr. Solmes’s disagreeable person, his still more disagreeable manners, his low understanding . . . . And as Mr. Solmes’s inferiority in this respectable faculty of the human mind . . . would proclaim to all future, as well as present observers, what must have been my mean inducement–All these reflections, which are ever present with me, crowding upon my remembrance: I would, madam, said I folding my hands with an earnestness that my whole heart was engaged in, bear the greatest tortures, bear loss of limb, and even of life, to give you peace. But this man, every moment I would at your command think of him with favor, is the more my aversion. You cannot, indeed you cannot, think how my whole soul resists him!–And to talk of contracts concluded upon; of patterns; of a short day!–save me, save, oh my dearest mamma, save your child, from this heavy, from this insupportable evil!– (p. 111, Penguin edn.)

For me, the remarkable thing about this passage is the slow burn that builds just after the silence (or stalemate) shared by mother and daughter, a silence immediately followed by the daughter’s increasingly resentful memories of her previous unjust treatment. Most intriguing is C’s awareness of the public nature of their fight, which convinces her that she would lose face if she capitulated to her brother and sister. C’s exemplarity is her counterpart to Lovelace’s notions of honor: it is a form of social obligation, obliging her to behave a particular way to preserve her own reputation. It is this secure knowledge of her exemplarity that encourages her to defy openly her mother’s wishes, even as she begs like a child for her mamma’s protection. From the very beginning of this remarkable paragraph, the scene tracks both characters through an extraordinarily varied set of moods.

This is what I was talking about when I said that emotional responses in scenes such as these inevitably entangle us in ethical questions: how is Clarissa to act, if she is not to behave in a sordid, slavish manner? Could you even begin to distinguish between the emotional and critical in writing about such a scene?

What do you (meaning all you odd ducks out there) think?



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