Category Archives: Narrative


In this section, we summarize our responses to blogs posts that deal specifically with narrative or the acts of narrating. In particular, we look at instances in Clarissa where the idea of “stories” or “narrative writing” or related terms appear and where the issue of narrative is itself foregrounded.

Volume I

In Volume ILetter 1 set much in motion. As Tony said, “It’s interesting how much Anna enables Richardson to frame in just a two-page letter: Clarissa’s nature and reputation, the immediate plunge into family disturbances, the violence between her brother and Lovelace, her brother’s unpleasant nature, the threats possible from Lovelace’s own temper, an excuse for Clarissa to write in as full detail as possible&emdash;and finally, a reminder of what the whole novel will be: ‘your account of all things . . . will be your justification.’” Jessica noted Anna’s need to reassure Clarissa that her public character is unaffected by the recent events. Steve pointed to “the circulation of Clarissa’s reputation. . . . More details make a better story. A better story makes for more repetitions, and more repetitions reinforce Clarissa’s good reputation,” and also suggested that this is a place “where the novel reminds us that identity can be as much about the stories people tell about you as it is about the stories you tell about yourself.” This became an important issue for us as we began our reading.

Letter 2 offers Clarissa as a narrator, here one who promises to “recite facts only.” Keri thought her failing to adhere to this promise was consistent with “the changing of her identity and the evolution of her thoughts,” and that these kinds of shifts, in turn, “reinforce the work’s epistolary nature that is episodic and constantly changing.” Megan, however, wondered “can we really trust Clarissa as a factual writer?” While Clarissa’s claims are not necessarily false, Clarissa is, as Megan emphasized “clearly writing from a specific point of view. She only knows her side of the story and what she has witnessed and noticed.” This inevitable consequence of the epistolary novel is something we returned to many times.

Towards the end of the volume, in our response to Letter 42, we returned to the kinds of narratives Clarissa constructs. Steve introduced Letter 42 with the observation that “kitty can scratch,“ referring to Clarissa’s angry and cutting portrayal of her sister, Arabella. Rachel agreed that this letter “shows Clarissa’s acts of supposed transparency in her letters, where they meet with her skewed perceptions of others,” and speculated that here she might “describe a past dislike of her sister to integrate better into her present dislike—in which case, Clarissa is bordering on what Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2007) saw as one of the distinguishing features of memoir (not of blogs): a kind of narrative unity or neatness, which presents the present in as much harmony with the past as possible.”

Volume II

In our discussion of Volume II, Rachel, citing John A. Dussinger (1989), noted that “there are, in practice, three different Clarissas: the proud feminist, the religious martyr, and the ‘sentimental heroine.’ This forces the reader to constantly renegotiate who Clarissa is in one particular letter vs. another&emdash;and forces us to think about, too, how this makes Clarissa human, how we too contain multiple, shifting selves, and how we are all always perceiving ourselves.” But, as Rachel also observed, Clarissa sees herself, and wants others to see her, as “sincere.” We discussed at length in class how/whether Clarissa could form a coherent self-narrative in the face of all the forces in the novel that ask her to be not only feminist/martyr, but also dutiful/disobedient.

Debra noted that “Clarissa is always engaged in a rhetorical action: writing TO someone else, to describe what has already or is about to happen. She is necessarily selecting what to include (and exclude). The narrative is circumscribed by the fact that she MUST choose what to say, not only to keep her reputation but also to keep her sense of what is her own self.” Others noticed the level of “anxiety about language” in Letter 64, Megan in particular thought it ironic that a large part of Lovelace’s argument was to point out the “transience of words” as compared to action, ironic in that “Lovelace, of all the characters we have heard from so far, is the one who most understands the power of words.” Keri thought it was important that we take into account the context of Lovelace’s writing here. Its “erratic punctuation…demonstrates the urgency with which Lovelace was writing.” Though the class noticed previously that “Lovelace is able to use language and rhetoric very successfully even with short notice,” Keri wondered “given Clarissa’s obvious disgust with Lovelace here…was his letter really all that successful after all?”

Volume III

In Volume III, we see Clarissa struggling to hold onto her virtue in the new narrative she has found herself in after she leaves her family’s home with Lovelace. Steve commented that Clarissa keeps trying to come back to what Gergen and Gergen (1983) would call her “stability narrative,” or “a narrative that links incidents, images, or concepts in such a way that the individual remains essentially unchanged” (p. 258). This narrative, for Clarissa, would be one where she is still living at her parent’s house, the issues with those she loves resolved. Tony amplified on Steve’s thoughts, saying that though Clarissa clings to this narrative, it has been lost, though she still remains hopeful. Keri, using Gergen and Gergen’s (1983) terms for “progressive” and “regressive” narratives, added that Clarissa has moments where she wishes she would die because of the social position she now finds herself in. But, Keri also noted she retains hope.

In our blog posts, we also discussed both the actual construction of the narrative, noting the different ways the major characters often characterize the story’s events. In the discussion of Letter 93, Megan mentioned how Anna frequently “has a better view of the world at large than Clarissa does.” Keri added that, instead of “analyzing each individual episode that Clarissa describes in isolation, Anna often references others and tries to track the trajectory of Lovelace’s actions and overall character.” Anna evaluates Lovelace’s character carefully, using all the examples of his recent conduct she can think of to do so.

We also began to notice the role of a fictional “editor” in Letter 103. Meghan wondered what that editor is leaving out of the text. Debra explained that there are at least three levels of mediation in the novel: Richardson, fictional editor, and letter-writer. Steve added that he is skeptical of the fictional editor’s interests, as several accounts of events are taken out of the text seemingly for brevity.

Volume IV

In Volume IV, we see Clarissa and Anna constructing competing narratives—one “regressive” (Clarissa’s) and the other “progressive” (Anna’s), to use Gergen and Gergen’s terms (1983). In her response to Letter 177, Rachel commented that “Clarissa seems to perceive herself as part of a regressive narrative—a fall from the previous grace she once inhabited that, though she holds out small hope for escape now, cannot ultimately be regained. I think Clarissa seems to have positioned herself like Eve, cast out from paradise, never to reenter… But it’s Anna’s job as a good friend to try to ‘write’ Clarissa in a more progressive narrative—even for this micro-narrative moment.” Similarly, Debra added “I think Anna too understands how Clarissa’s life has become circumscribed. But she offers a version, one might say, of the ‘fortunate fall.’ Though Clarissa may suffer, her story will be an excellent example for others, and will have the capacity to relieve further suffering.” Rachel and Debra thus both noted how Anna’s narrative attempts to repair Clarissa’s in a way that allows her “ADVERSITY [to be her] SHINING-TIME”; Clarissa’s and Anna’s narrative are competing views of “fall” from grace Clarissa has experienced.

Also in Volume IV, Lovelace’s narrative becomes tightly tied into Clarissa and Anna’s because of his successful retrieval of the letters between the two women, which then propels his “revenge narrative” forward. As Rachel noted in her response to Letter 198, “Lovelace seems to need the ‘very words’ from Clarissa—which we have established are often her only sense of individual agency or expression in the novel—in order to fuel his own revenge. In essence, he wants the ‘actual’ evidence of her seeming agency in order to heighten his own agency in taking hers away.” This response is very relevant to Lovelace’s revenge narrative as a whole that becomes fueled when he gains access to the “very words” interchanged between Clarissa and Anna.

Volume V

In Volume V, Lovelace tries to tie himself into Clarissa and Anna’s narratives, by imitating and editing their correspondence. He begins to make copies of their letters, even going so far as to put in marginalia to remind him of “the places which call for vengeance upon the vixen writer, or which require animadversion.” In response to Letter 229, Tony pointed out that this particular forgery “allows him just to control the narrative of his situation with Clarissa (pure writerly power) and create new, imagined schemes through which to exercise his ‘real-world’ power over her and others.” Lovelace begins to not only control Anna and Clarissa’s narratives but also to exert a real-world control over them. Debra also commented on Letter 211, in regard to Lovelace’s love of plotting and narrating his devious plans, that the “tragedy is that the joy in the narrative is done at the expense of another person’s life (and the story she would tell of herself).” Most of Volume V is dominated by Lovelace’s voice and his plans for Clarissa. In Letter 214, Lovelace narrates his interactions with Capt. Tomlinson as a play and Debra noted that “embedded [in Lovelace's love of writing] is the pleasure of plotting (a narrative term as well as a word about contriving scenes) as well as the pleasure of of describing it to his best reader, Belford.” Lovelace writes numerous letters to Belford and does not always receive a response. Keri suggested that “because of the frequency with which he writes the letters while receiving very few responses from the addressee, I don’t think Lovelace actually needs/wants a response from Belford. He just needs to write.” Lastly, this volume highlights Lovelace’s need to narrate and confirm all that he plans and experiences.

Volume VI

In the vivid postings about Letter 261—which presents Clarissa’s “mad papers”—Debra observed that Volume VI is “the dark heart of the book.” What makes it so is that this volume is marked by a number of terrible ruptures: physical and psychological, textual and narrative. Their source is Lovelace’s schemes in pursuit of Clarissa. And at their center is the most important rupture of all: Lovelace’s rape of the drugged Clarissa.

At the simplest level, the narrative’s ruptures involve Lovelace’s interference with Clarissa and Anna’s correspondence. Rachel reminded us (responding to Letter 310) that “they assume their letters maintain/contain a unified whole that will be, is, and should be undisturbed.” Lovelace’s direct disturbance of the narrative that Clarissa and Anna construct in writing to each other—both by intercepting letters and by the forgeries he then passes along to each of them—is a deep violation. How deep a one is indicated by Keri’s comment that Clarissa’s most important letters are “a part of her self and body.” It would not be an exaggeration to call Lovelace’s interference with their correspondence a kind of epistolary rape.

When the physical assault of the rape is finally enacted, Clarissa undergoes the central psychological rupture of the book. Now the actual narrative of her life is interrupted; for a period, the narrative of that life is lost to madness, immediately captured in the disjointed “mad letters”—fragmented, scattered, half-destroyed. Yet they also vividly embody, in their textual power, the violation of this awful moment in her life.

And that textual power, which Clarissa never loses, will provide the deepest answer to and the means of dealing with what Lovelace has done to her. Commenting on Letter 295, Debra noted that the rape has plunged Clarissa into an atypical “incoherence of self,” importantly because this act “has not yet been re-narrativized into the new story” she must make of her life. When Clarissa recovers her senses, she begins the task Debra referred to as “documenting her case” (Letter 317), writing to such figures as Lady Betty and Mrs. Moore for their aid in working out “exactly what everyone did.” Only in this way can she make the new narrative that her life now is continuous with the narrative that was her life before the rape. We are returned, in a sense, to the very first letter of the novel, where Anna advises her “your account of all things . . . will be your justification.”

Volume VII

In Volume VII, Letter 333, we see Clarissa unable to tell her own story, thus making it necessary for Belford to construct the narrative of Clarissa’s recent life. Rachel was particularly interested in the way “Richardson seems to push us even farther from the direct experience of Clarissa telling her own story in her letters” by putting the narrative in Belford’s hands and considered how “a narrative web” is created in this section where “everyone is implicated in some way.” This new narrator of Clarissa’s story is important, especially because in the previous volume, we only heard about Clarissa’s life through Lovelace. Belford gives us a far more sympathetic and accurate depiction of the events unfolding in Clarissa’s life. Keri pointed out that Belford is “protecting Clarissa and advocating for her since she cannot do so herself.” Belford does so by relaying her story in a way that is closer to how Clarissa herself would have told the story, a practice not taken up by Lovelace in previous volumes. Although Clarissa still lacks the ability to write her own story, the move from Lovelace to Belford as her storyteller is positive one in that Belford is more faithful to Clarissa’s thoughts and feelings about the events of her life.

Meanwhile, Lovelace is still constructing his own narrative. We see various re-constructions of his situation throughout this volume but particularly in Letter 346, where he presents an altered version of recent events to Mr. Hickman, and Letter 370, where he compares his tragedy to those suffered by Queen Dido and Mary Queen of Scots. In his encounter with Hickman, Rachel noted how Lovelace “establish[es] a counter-narrative” for Clarissa’s rape when he explains to Hickman that Clarissa was asleep (rather than drugged, her actual state at the time), and Kendra focused on Lovelace’s love for himself and for “avenging slights on his character” (real or imagined)” by constructing a different narrative of events. Lovelace rewrites history to make himself appear to be the victim rather than the aggressor, as in Letter 370, where he pictures himself as a tragic hero. As Kendra suggested, he “sees himself as some sort of hero, who through no fault of his own has abducted Clarissa for some greater good and he merely seeks her forgiveness for things outside of his control.”

Volume VIII

In Volume VIII, Clarissa makes necessary arrangements for her death. Our discussions focused on Clarissa’s narrative as it draws to a close. Rachel reminded us of Terry Eagleton’s (1982) comment in The Rape of Clarissa: letters are fetishes, and “now that one of our primary authors is unable to put pen to paper, we realize how much we rely on the letters as narrative artifacts” (p. 59-60).

A part of Clarissa’s arrangements involves allowing Belford and Anna to control her story. In response to Letter 405, Keri remarked that this transfer of power might be liberating for Clarissa, given that she trusts Belford and Anna to ensure that her story, rather than Lovelace’s, will be the authoritative one. Rachel pointed out that Clarissa does not have to be writing in order to narrate her story: orchestrating what happens after her death also constitutes narrative power. Clarissa is aware of her impending death, what Debra reminded us is Frank Kermode’s (2000) notion of a “sense of an ending.” This knowledge is a force for her to carry out the remainder of her narrative.

In response to Letter 413 where Belford narrates Clarissa’s story as a tragedy, our discussions centered on whether our interpretations of Clarissa’s narrative aligned with Belford’s. At this point in the novel, characters reflect back over the past several months and build their own narratives about the events represented in hundreds of letters. Keri pointed out that the narrative Belford writes is intended to persuade Lovelace not to hurt Clarissa; consequently, we cannot know whether Belford’s sincere interpretation is reflected in the one he constructs for Lovelace. Others had varying readings of the letter. Tony shared some of his early reading notes: “Because they encounter each other, Clarissa and Lovelace must struggle against—and to assert—their natures. Both lose. The source of the deepest tragedy.” In Tony’s reading, Clarissa is not the only victim. Similarly, Debra and Megan reminded us that Clarissa’s character resists the role of passive victim. Regardless of Belford’s intentions in the letter, there are implications for representing Clarissa only as a victim of Lovelace’s actions: we are prevented from recognizing that Clarissa was initially uncertain about Lovelace. She briefly entertained the notion that her influence could change him. We all agreed that a representation of Clarissa as solely a victim would have prevented us from engaging with her as an active character in the novel.

Volume IX

In Volume IX, there were some interesting and vital juxtapositions of the narrative construction—and closure—of characters. Clarissa’s “narrative life” may have ended with Belford’s words in Letter 481, “And thus died Miss CLARISSA HARLOWE, in the blossom of her youth and beauty….” As Tony noted, Belford’s “sudden elegiac tone” acts “almost like the end of an obituary”—and yet, in another very important sense for us as readers, her death is not an end but the beginning of narrative closure in the novel. At this important moment, in the same letter, we also discussed why Belford would have asked Lovelace to tell Clarissa’s story as only he can: “A better pen than mine may do her fuller justice. Thine, I mean, O Lovelace! For well dost thou know how much she excelled in the graces of both mind and person…. And thou also can best account for the causes of her immature death….” Keri directed us to an important quote from Morden from a few letters later, where as she wrote, “Colonel Morden describes Lovelace as the ‘sole author of woe’… Lovelace ‘authored’ Clarissa’s fall from grace, so he should finish the tragic narrative because only his narrative will do justice to the horrific acts he has inflicted upon her.”

And yet this is not exactly what we find in the remaining letters of Volume IX. When Anna sees Clarissa’s body, in Letter 502, she laments that her dear friend’s death is “the end” of her “story”: “I am not myself!—I never shall be!” Anna cries, “Repeating, This cannot, surely, be all of my CLARISSA’S story!” Jessica summed it up best in her post: “there’s probably nothing more appropriate at that moment than to call Clarissa’s life a story. It reminds us of the narrative (the story of Clarissa, Lovelace, and the bad things that happen in this novel), but also of the exhaustive exercise that Clarissa joyfully undertook in composing her own narrative (and identity). That’s over with her death.” Yet we discussed the ways in which Clarissa’s story was not over, that much more does occur than mere “wrap-up” in the last 35 letters. As Jessica further suggested, “I wonder if Richardson really wanted to see what happens to the family and acquaintances in the aftermath of a woman’s death…from the standpoint of a storyteller who explores relationships, identity, and letter writing.”

It was precisely this “aftermath” that we see in the final letters of the novel—several of them authored by Clarissa herself, albeit posthumously. Keri also noted within those letters, 488-492, that Clarissa does, in fact, act as the author to her story even after death, from the paratextual features of the black wax (indicating her death to her family even before the letter is opened) to her choice of addressee and language within. Keri also directed us to the fact that this is in contrast with Lovelace’s request later in Letter 497 to have her letters so that he can write her story. Thus, in the end, though both Belford and Lovelace suggest that Lovelace, as the “author” of her woe, should be the author of Clarissa’s story—it is Clarissa herself who continues her own narrative on her terms.

This stands in particular juxtaposition with Lovelace—who we see losing control over his own narrative construction. This is clearest in Letter 497, as Debra argued, where “Lovelace has literally lost the narrative line of his life: he has nothing to move towards and is unable to move back. That he writes a hysterical letter (and is described as mad by his family and friends for the next week) seems inevitable.” Tony closed out the remarks on this letter by reminding us that Lovelace, like Clarissa, revealed much in his moments of “madness” that we had not seen previously—and which we did not see again, once he had gained some distance and was somewhat “recovered” to his previous “self.”

In the end, then, what kinds of narrative closure does Richardson offer us? Although many of the letters in Volume IX addressed the issue of narrative—and we debated about the end of the novel both on the blog and in class discussions—it is interesting to see that much of what we concluded drew our attention to the act of judgment in the narrative closure that Richardson did offer us. In Letter 508, Tony noted that we see some of Richardson’s judgment—and ours—of the Harlowes in Colonel Morden’s responses to them: “The will and Morden’s reflections offer the same thing: the will both bequeaths and judges, and Morden–as Clarissa did in her letter to Lovelace–adds further judgment on her family’s real responsibilities.” In Letter 502, Megan also suggested that Anna was acting as a proxy for us as readers, so that perhaps we could most closely identify with Anna in her grief for Clarissa—and her judgment of Lovelace and the Harlowes, which was consistent from the very first letter. And finally, in Letter 514, Tony wrote that Richardson would’ve been heartened to know that the instructive value of his letters—that his judgment as an author—was still shining through, too, even centuries later.

Ultimately, we can see part of the narrative closure of the novel in Clarissa’s legacy: namely, our judgment of Belford as a truly reformed rake, whom Tony suggested was offered to us as a better balance between good and evil, angel and devil, Clarissa and Lovelace. This kind of balance is perhaps not what we were expecting—but neither was Clarissa’s strength and reclamation of her narrative after her rape, and neither was Lovelace’s loss of his own narrative power after her death. Yet these juxtapositions—of our audience expectations and the complexity of what Richardson really offered us—made our reading of Clarissa most robust and fascinating in the end.