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The Two Deaths of Samuel Richardson's Clarissa

Updated on September 17, 2012

Samuel Johnson once stated that “if you were to read Richardson for the story, your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself. But you must read him for the sentiment, and consider the story as only giving occasion to the sentiment” (qtd. in Bowers and Rochetti 9). Paying little heed to Richardson’s advice, I encountered the first few hundred pages of Clarissa with all the impatience of an early modernist specializing in drama and accustomed to plots neatly divided in five short acts and requiring no more than a few hours to perform or read. To focus on Richardson’s voluminous tome, I required the complete isolation of a steamy, internet-free bath to concentrate, and as Clarissa and her family tangled over Lovelace and Solmes, rehashing the same arguments time and time again, I did indeed occasionally want to hang myself.

In his postscript, Richardson insists that the length of the slowly-paced first two volumes “chiefly taken up with the altercations between Clarissa and several persons of her family” was necessary as a “foundation” for the rest of the novel (1498-9). Yet as Clarissa the immovable object was repeatedly pressed by the unstoppable force that was her detestable family, I began to desire action. After all, the back cover of my Penguin paperback seemed to promise it. Although it was true that its succinct summary of “How Clarissa, in resisting parental pressure to marry a loathsome man for his money, falls prey to Lovelace, is raped and dies” was in fact “the bare outline of [the] story,” within a hundred pages, I found myself resenting the contrast between its excitement and melodrama and the meticulous detail of the actual book.

Frustrated with Clarissa’s inaction, her refusal to defy her parents in all but the smallest or most necessary things—rebelling through letter writing but consenting to an undignified confinement—I became impatient even with her occasional, comparatively exciting dramatic outbursts. In spite of its unusual morbidity, I charged quickly past Clarissa’s exclamation to her mother that “I had rather be buried alive, indeed I had, than have that man!” (101). When this imagery recurred two-hundred pages later in her declaration that “I will undergo the cruelest death: I will even consent to enter into the awful vault of my ancestors, and to have that bricked up upon me, than consent to be miserable for life” (305), I almost wished that someone would make the attempt. After all these protestations, such an act would certainly move the narrative along, either bringing it to an early close or moving the heroine to the kind of violent opposition that I longed for after so much tension and talk. Little did I know that Clarissa’s remarks actually foreshadowed the fulfillment of this desire, which would be gratified in a little less than fifty pages—albeit only in fantasy.

In a mere two sentences written to Anna Howe, Clarissa recounts a nightmare in which Lovelace, convinced that she has joined with her family in plotting against him, stabs her through the heart and forces her into an unmarked grave to rot with the already decomposing corpses of a few unfortunate strangers (342-3). Although this imagined murder is undeniably horrifying, I was disturbed to find it also intensely satisfying. Not only does Clarissa’s dream inject a bit of much-needed action into the storyline; it also foreshadows events to come. After nearly three hundred and fifty pages of slowly built frustration and sexual tension, I had found myself somewhat complicit with Lovelace in his plotting, impatient to see the fruits of our labors—his plotting and my reading. In Clarissa’s dream, a passage nearly as brief and certainly as shocking as Penguin’s back cover summary, I found that impatience finally accommodated with a glimpse into her future treatment at Lovelace’s hands.

The obvious Freudian interpretation of Clarissa’s dream would make much of Lovelace’s penetration of her heart and his casting her violently into a pit of dirt. In addition to foreshadowing sexual conquest, the penetration of the heart specifically seems to indicate the effect that Lovelace has on Clarissa’s emotions, toying with her feelings and insinuating himself into her affections—perhaps eliciting more “throbs” and “glows” from that organ than Clarissa cares to admit, even to Miss Howe (73). The pit, connoting female genitalia, is befouled with “dirt and earth” and filled with the “carcasses” of what may be taken to be Clarissa’s seduced predecessors, whose presence may be the most obvious indication of the sexual nature of the imagined attack (342-3). While Clarissa has noted repeatedly that no husband could possibly treat her worse than her own family has up to this point, the dream—along with its “ready dug” grave in which to trap her (323)—suggests an at least subconscious awareness of the danger posed by a man like Lovelace. He has the power to play with her emotions, to violate her physically, to sully her body and reputation, and perhaps most importantly, to separate her from the affections of her family.

The nightmare’s unmarked grave in an unspecified churchyard stands in stark contrast to the live burial that Clarissa holds preferable to marrying Solmes. While her dream burial indicates abuse, defilement, and outcast status, her suggestion that she be “bricked up” in her ancestral tomb is the ultimate commitment to her family and to the single life she prefers to marriage. Sealed within her father’s family monument, Clarissa’s body would be honorably interred and her virtue preserved forever. In this preferred fantasy, Clarissa would remain in her father’s house eternally, aligned with the family of her birth rather than a Lovelace, a Solmes, a Wyerley—or an unmarked plot as in the dream, indicating that a defilement has expelled her from her father’s house without providing her another honorable name and family in its stead. The opposition of honorable burial in the family tomb with anonymous disgrace is echoed in Clarissa’s will, in which she requests to be placed in the family vault “at the feet of my dear and honored grandfather,” or if the shame she has brought upon her family forbids this, “in the churchyard belonging to the parish in which I shall die; and that in the most private manner, between the hours of eleven and twelve at night; attended only by Mrs. Lovick and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and their maidservant” (1413).

Although these echoes of her nightmare remain in her will, it is here that Clarissa achieves her ultimate triumph. While the dream does foreshadow Clarissa’s defeat, this defeat is only the first of two deaths, as Clarissa herself acknowledges when she anticipates that Lovelace may “insist upon viewing her dead whom he ONCE before saw in a manner dead” (1413). This first death, commemorated by the inscription of the day she left her father’s house on her coffin, was predicted in her dream. The second death, however, finally gives her agency. In Belford, Clarissa finds the champion she never had among her family or Lovelace, and reading her will, we encounter the first time she has ever been permitted to have a will in any sense of the word, with her instructions carried out in spite of attempted interference by her brother and by Lovelace. In the end, Lovelace’s schemes, seductive as they are even to the reader, utterly fail. In a reversal of her nightmare, Clarissa is interred in the family monument, an acknowledged and beloved Harlowe. As for the heart pierced by Lovelace in the dream, and “in which once [he] had so large a share,” it remains her own both literally and figuratively—in spite of his best efforts to the contrary on both counts.

Works Cited

Richardson, Samuel, and Angus Ross.Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1985. Print.

Richardson, Samuel, John J. Richetti, and Toni Bowers. "Introduction." Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2011. 9-20. Print.


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