“Clarissa” and every fourth female reader

It is estimated that one in every four women will experience rape or attempted rape at some point during their four years in college. According to the latest numbers from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, one in six women overall will experience some variety of attempted or completed rape, and 80% of these are women under the age 30. Almost two-thirds of all rapes were committed by non-strangers, and 17% are committed by someone the victim knows intimately.

And the situation for young women attending college parties and dance raves has gotten much, much worse. The most alarming development since the 1990s is the easy availability of what the Drug Enforcement Agency calls “predatory drugs.” These include Rohypnol (commonly known as “roofies” or the “date rape drug”), GHB (“liquid ecstasy” or “grievous bodily harm”), and Ketamine (“special K” or “cat tranquilizers). The most common of these, Rohypnol, is a sedative ten times stronger than valium, and in the year 2000, four million doses were intercepted coming from Mexico alone. Since the effects can last up to eight hours, women at parties who have perhaps accepted drinks containing the tasteless and odorless drug can wake up in a basement or fraternity house with no recollection whatsoever of what has been done to her, by whom, and how many times.

If you typically have twelve women in the classroom when you teach Clarissa, the odds are that three of them has, or will have, an experience with rape or attempted rape. It’s also a safe estimate that at least one of those three will have had that experience connected with a predatory drug. That bears repeating: every time we teach Clarissa, we need to assume that at least one of the women in the room has experienced something similar to, or even worse than, what Clarissa experienced in her rape.

Do we have a responsibility, therefore, to adjust our approach to class discussions of this still-controversial novel? If so, we are forced to juxtapose two dangerously contradictory messages in our common pedagogy of the eighteenth-century novel. On the one hand there are the familiar feminist and Marxist readings that Clarissa’s death, while certainly objectionable, is nevertheless the victory of the spirit over the polluted body, the dominance of an independent will over the oppression of the patriarchy, and the rise of the empowered feminine bourgeoisie against the fall of the corrupt masculine aristocracy. Clarissa is admired, and rightly so, for seizing her right to self-determination in the way that she sees fit. On the other hand, these same feminist readers would surely endorse the counselors, crisis centers, and ministers that give these same students a radically different message about healthy reactions to rape: anorexia and thoughts of suicide are the wrong path; the victim is not to blame; the body has been violated, but not ruined; virginity is a state of mind, not a state of being; and sins need not be atoned for because the victim has done nothing which God needs to forgive.

How can, and should, the rape of Clarissa be taught to today’s students in light of Richardson’s aims to portray her as an ideal Christian martyr and the essence of virtuous femininity?

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