Editor: University of Delaware Press
File Format: Pdf
Clarissa's Plots by , Summary
This book, which won the University of Delaware Press's 1992 competition in eighteenth-century studies, argues that Samuel Richardson's Clarissa is constructed from three different plot structures. The Tested Woman plot, whose archetypes are found in the biblical stories of Eve and Job and whose best known literary expressions occur in Renaissance drama, is a social plot examining the patriarchal conflicts of Clarissa's world by means of a test of her obedience to familial authority, followed by a trial that publicly judges the choices she has made. The novel's other two plots represent the opposed life trajectories of the central characters. The Don Juan plot, a literary artifact of the Enlightenment, carries Lovelace through the existential traumas of the rake's unassuageable desire to his obligatory encounter with the figure of Death. The Prudence plot, a narrative voicing the tradition of Christianized classical virtue ethics, organizes Clarissa's living and dying in terms of her pursuit of excellence and presents her completed self to the judgment of God. In discussing how the Tested Woman plot controls the novel's structure, Lois E. Bueler demonstrates the sophistication with which Richardson exploits the stereotypical character functions of temptation, accusation, defense, and judgment brought to bear upon the tested woman, and shows how the novel's most radical permutation of this plot, its undermining of the paternal authority of Mr. Harlowe, gives structural expression to the subordination of human to divine judgment which represents Richardson's didactic intention. This study also examines the connections among the plots: how Clarissa's self-scrutinizing response to the pressures of test and trial, and her refusal to achieve respectability at the expense of her integrity, is explained by her pursuit of Christian prudence; and how Lovelace's inability to fathom the disappearance of his tempter function after the rape, as well as his inability to respond as does Belford to Clarissa's exemplary influence, is an expression of his nature as protagonist in the Don Juan plot. Richardson conducts all three plots concurrently, Bueler demonstrates, by exploiting the psychologically and dramatistically rich resources of simultaneous dialogue and soliloquy inherent in the epistolary genre. And she suggests that the participatory nature of the trial phase of the Tested Woman plot, which lures readers to adopt the functions of accusation, defense, and judgment brought to bear upon the woman at its center, helps account for the intensely partisan, judgmental reactions that readers have always had to Richardson's great novel.