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Samuel Richardson and the Rise of the Novel

Updated on October 17, 2013


The eighteenth century remains mostly renowned for the development and the rise of the novel form. This innovation in literature was mainly pioneered by three great writers; Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. The novels produced by these authors are characterised by common narrative techniques, particularly the element of ‘realism.’ This presence of Realism in novels like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, is described by Richardson himself as ‘a new species of writing.’[1]

Indeed, Richardson’s epistolary novels, Pamela, Clarissa and The History of Sir Charles Grandison, incorporate a new writing form which introduces a deeper psychological insight into the characters and their personal relationships. The plot is made up of letters and correspondences, enabling the reader to fully comprehend the characters’ different viewpoints.

[1] Andrew Sanders, ‘Eighteenth-Century Literature’ in The Short Oxford History of English Literature, 3rd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.311.


The psychological element in the novel

In the novel’s Postscript, Richardson describes Clarissa as a ‘dramatic narrative’[1] as the characters are able to put across their feelings and motives through letters. In Clarissa, the majority of letters are written by the novel’s main characters which include Clarissa Harlowe, her friend Anna Howe, the malicious Lovelace and his friend and later enemy, Belford. This epistolary form also brings to light the personal relationships between the characters and highlights their feelings towards each other. In the volumes preceding the climax of the novel, that is Clarissa’s rape, the prominent correspondence is between Clarissa and her friend Anna Howe. When Lovelace takes over Clarissa’s life, the correspondence becomes mainly between the males, which foreshadows the violent situation that Clarissa would soon encounter.

By paying particular attention to Clarissa’s writings, the reader will notice that the letters that Clarissa wrote following the rape stand in contrast to her earlier ones. The letters that she writes after being drugged and raped by Lovelace reveal her traumatising experience. Richardson attaches ‘typographical devices’[2] to Clarissa’s letters, such as dashes and asterisks, which express the lady’s psychological instability and sickness. These devices were not present in her earlier compositions since the letters preceding the rape were conducted in a careful and thoughtful manner. According to the critic Fred Kaplan, Richardson employs diverse narrative devices such as delayed details, flashbacks, reported dialogue, logical discontinuity and footnotes which continue to highlight the author’s originality in the novel.[3] Kaplan suggests that ‘reported dialogue and direct dialogue are artfully combined to suggest the primacy of Clarissa’s consciousness’,[4] meaning that the well-written letters that Clarissa writes prior to the rape define her mental stability.

[1] Ian Watt, ‘Richardson as Novelist: ‘Clarissa’’ in The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 209.

[2] Andrew Sanders, ‘Eighteenth-Century Literature’ in The Short Oxford History of English Literature, 3rd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p.314.

[3] Fred Kaplan, ‘”Our Short Story”: The Narrative Devices of Clarissa’ in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 (Rice University, 1971) p.549 in JSTOR <> [accessed 8 March 2010]

[4] Fred Kaplan, ‘”Our Short Story”: The Narrative Devices of Clarissa’ in Studies in English Literature (see above) p. 556.


Richardson portrays Clarissa as a symbol of feminine virtue. She is a victim of physical and moral abuse by the opposite sex and family conflicts, yet she strongly and patiently tolerates the sufferings that she has to go through. For this reason, Clarissa is considered to be a heroine, even though she partly blames herself for eloping with Lovelace which lead to the assault. By refusing to keep Clarissa alive, Richardson is suggesting that she can only be rewarded for her virtue in the next world.

Dr. Johnson stated that Clarissa is ‘the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.’[2] In my opinion, what makes Richardson a prominent figure in the rise of the novel is not just the epistolary technique, but the author’s ability to depict the characters’ psychological states and emotions through the correspondence of letters. Since the different characters give their own account on the events taking place, the author’s omniscience and control over the characters is not as apparent as in other realist novels. Thus, I think that Richardson’s Clarissa is a remarkable novel for the way that the psychological aspect of the characters is not directly stated by the omniscient narrator, but rather it is reflected in the letters that the characters compose.

[1] Ian Watt, ‘Richardson as Novelist: ‘Clarissa’’ in The Rise of the Novel (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), p. 212.

[2] Ian Watt, ‘Richardson as Novelist: ‘Clarissa’’ in The Rise of the Novel (see above), p. 219.


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