Dorothy Van Ghent on the Clarissa-myth

Today I’m working off of Allen’s fine post on Clarissa in the classroom, and introducing into discussion one of my favorite pieces of 20th century Richardson criticism, Dorothy Van Ghent’s Clarissa Harlowe chapter in The English Novel: Form and Function (1953). Here we find an interesting contrast with Watt’s discussion, which came out 3 years later, and is probably better known.

What I find so intriguing about this piece, apart from its teachability, is the fact that Van Ghent insists on the centrality of rape for the symbolic structure of this novel, and yet articulates how oddly that “centrality” operates: more like an absence than a presence, more a process around something than a thing or an event in itself:

This slow and hovering [epistolary] form endows the physiological event–the rape–with profound attraction and significance by holding it up slantwise to view in a murk of shadows, turning it mysteriously, allowing it to emerge slightly, withdrawing it, allowing it to emerge again, and so on. It is as tantalizing and evasive as a trout (47).

I must say there is nothing in Watt comparable to this in insight, even if Watt does make similar points about the epistolary form. Part of the reason for Van Ghent’s superiority, I’d argue, is that Watt seems unaware of how centrally this metaphor of rape inflects Richardson’s treatment of “privacy,” one of Watt’s key terms. And Watt has nothing comparable to Van Ghent in her treatment of what she calls the “Clarissa-myth,” her treatment of how the novel’s “imagery and symbols” aggregate into an extraordinary double-structure of myth, through “reiteration and accumulation,” into something immensely powerful. The Clarissa-myth, however, takes its power precisely from the contradictions it holds:

[Clarissa’s] mythical features still appear to us–for it would be a mistake to think that the Clarissa-myth does not still have deep social and psychological roots–in her two chief aspects: they appear on the covers of Vogue magazine, in the woman who is a wraith of clothes, debile and expensive, irrelevant to sense-life or affectional life, to be seen only; and they appear on the covers of True Confessions and True Detective Stories, in the many-breasted woman with torn dishabille and rolling eyeballs, a dagger pointing at her, a Venus as abstract as the Vogue Venus in her appeal to the eye and the idea alone, but differing in that she is to be vicariously ripped and murdered. Clarissa is a powerful symbol because she is both (50).

Unlike Watt, Van Ghent seems to realize how the “realism” of Clarissa does not in any way contradict the novel’s “mythic” or symbolic structure, largely because the details function as part of the process of reiteration and accumulation that alert us to the presence of myth: think about Clarissa’s “silk brocades,” for example, and how they stand for the Harlowes’ persistent misunderstanding of Clarissa’s desires.

And yet even as good a reader as Van Ghent insists that Clarissa’s fear of rape can only represent a fear of sexuality, a “Puritan” hatred of sexuality that can only represent desire in the act of disavowal, can only depict sexual transgression if it is accompanied with the promise of punishment.

So how to teach the novel without simply reiterating its myth of punishment?

DM

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