Certainly, we cannot expect a blow-by-blow account of the rape in a novel written in the late 18th century, but neither are we entirely prepared to expect rape itself in novels of "sensibility." Although the *threat* of rape is a constant in the 18th century novel, especially as the gothic novel becomes more and more popular, the actual violation of a woman is quite unusual (I'm not sure what to make of the fact that Richardson's _Pamela_ is the only other 18th c. novel I can think of that includes a rape, but I digress). And yet, _Clarissa_,this huge and quintessentially sensibilious novel, this novel claiming to be concerned with virtue, thought, feeling, sympathy, perhaps even benevolence, revolves around the horrific and violent rape of an imprisoned, drugged, and helpless nineteen- year-old girl by a vile, violent, and hypocritical pursuer.
The Critics, of course, have made every attempt to fill in the blanks that Richardson so carefully leaves in the text. Some have done it by asserting that Clarissa is neither helpless nor blameless, and that Lovelace is not nearly as diabolical as we might think. In _Reading Clarissa: The Struggles of Interpretation_, William B. Warner offers a deconstructionist reading of the novel that characterizes Lovelace as a "playful" man with a "surprising degree of directness, honesty, and attachment," and Clarissa as, among other things, "irreducibly self-centered"(_Reading Clarissa_, p.38, 39). Warner posits that such seemingly inconsistent characterizations are sanctioned by the novel because of its "comic strain":
It is the comic strain in _Clarissa_ that makes us expect the contradictory and accept the inconsistent...Lovelace's shortcomings are not held against him by the readers of comedy. Spurred on by their own desire for a happy reconciliation, they generously make up the difference between the Lovelace they know, and the man who would be worthy of Clarissa. (80)
Whether or not one agrees with Warner's characterization of Lovelace, his interpretations do raise some interesting questions regarding what we as readers (of comedy or otherwise) "hold against" Lovelace. How much do we privilege the role Clarissa plays in her own violation? She leaves her father's house and throws herself in Lovelace's protection. She is at best naive, and at worst arrogant, in her assumption that she can "reform" Lovelace. And she is dangerously self-deluding in her denial of her attraction to him, for which Anna chides her a number of times. Warner's argument takes full advantage of this slippage in Clarissa's charcter, using it to wedge open her "self-complacency: a conscious superiorty born of the harmony between appearance and truth, social role and personal identity" (32).
In _Clarissa's Ciphers_, Terry Castle spends a good deal of time refuting Warner's reading of _Clarissa_, and specifically his attempt to show that "Clarissa's narrative, even at its most 'objective' moments, is a powerful rhetorical system evolved to meet the exigencies of the struggle her life has become" (Warner, p.268). Castle argues that in fact, Clarissa has little to no power, in rhetorical systems or otherwise, given her powerless place in the patriarchal hierarchy that _Clarissa_ constructs:
that a rhetorical system is *not* powerful unless grounded in political power. Clarissa's "Story" everywhere lacks underlying authority. it is without social and material force. Hence it remains a fragmentary, futile utterance subject to the radical incursions of a more potent collective rhetoric--the patriarchal discourse of the Harlowes and Lovelace. (24-5)
Castle defends Clarissa by asserting that she is a "hermeneutic casualty," a victim of Lovelace's rhetorical manipulations and of the false interpretations her family constructs of her ("ungrateful child," "disobedient daughter"). More, Castle recognizes the limited ability that Clarissa has to sufficiently represent herself, to give herself meaning. Because of her powerless position as Female in a system that privileges Male, Clarissa is ultimately unable to defend herself against both physical and hermeneutic violation:
...Lovelace's ultimate gesture of "force" (as he calls it) exposes a truth about meaning itself. The power to determine the significance of events, to articulate one's reading of experience and impose it on others, is a function of political advantage alone, and identified finally with physical force.
Using Castle's model, Clarissa's state of madness after the rape is located in her disenchantment with articulation, her "new suspicion of the signifying medium of the letter itself" (119). Certainly, the famous "Mad Papers" signify nothing less than an unhinging of Clarissa's heretofore unified mind, a fragmentation that mirrors the newly-sundered state of her body. Most telling is the physical state of each Paper that Lovelace finds: Paper I is "torn in two pieces"; Paper II is "Scratched through, and thrown under the table"; Paper X is dizzying and disorienting with its sideways and upside-down passages (890-93). Clarissa herself has been torn, scratched, dizzied and disoriented, and Castle's reading of the novel is quite powerful in this conflation of body with text, of physical violence with hermeneutic violation, of Clarissa the Woman with _Clarissa_ the Word.
And yet...is there danger is such a conflation? Warner seems to think so; in his review of Castle's book and Terry Eagleton's _The Rape of Clarissa_ (in which Eagleton is even more spirited in his condemnation of Warner's reading than Castle is), Warner insists on differentiating the textualized rape of Clarissa from the rape of a "real" woman in the "real" world, and criticizes Castle for "dramatizing this aspect of the novel as literally and vividly as she does...[making] it like imagining the last moments of the life of a loved one who falls victim to a brutal crime" (Warner, "Reading Rape," p.20). Warner's directive, not to take Clarissa's rape "literally", ironically reveals just how much is at stake here regarding the reading of not just the rape but the entire text. To follow Warner's advice is to recognize the multifacetedness of the novel, and the possibility of negating layers of meaning by privileging one signifier over the rest. But how, in a novel where the only truth we have comes expressly through the written word, words written "to the moment," can we separate the "literal" from the "true?" And given Richardson's propensity for providing an "example" of virtue for the youth of England, should we even try?
I hope this hasn't been too rambling. All comments, questions, and complaints are welcome.