Central Texts We Explore

We grounded our examination of narrative, writing, and the self in two kinds of texts: Samuel Richardson’s (1748) epistolary novel Clarissa3 and a collection of blogs we have read and analyzed.

Clarissa is perhaps the longest novel in English. Presented as a series of letters, primarily between Clarissa Harlowe and her friend Anna Howe and between Robert Lovelace and his friend John Belford, Clarissa tells the five-month long story of a young and virtuous woman who is seduced away from her home and eventually raped, and who dies an extended death. The story is told primarily from the points of view of the two main characters, Clarissa, the victim, and Lovelace, the rake. No summary of the book, however, can do its psychological and textual complexities justice. On the one hand, Clarissa reflects an 18th century understanding of patriarchy, Protestantism, and the contesting ideologies of the middle-class and the aristocracy. But on the other hand, it offers an astonishingly modern psychological realism and a prescient anticipation of the self-reflexivity of postmodernist fiction. In its textual ambition and its psychological acuity, Clarissa raises myriad questions about how narrative, writing, and the self are joined in the authoring, reading of, and responding to, letters.

Of course, Clarissa brings with it a series of complications because the letters are fictional. That is, the letters in Clarissa were written by Samuel Richardson who is both the historical author and, at least for people reading the novel now, the implied author. Nevertheless, within the world of the novel, Clarissa, Lovelace, and other letter writers are themselves represented as authors or as examples of what James Phelan (2004) called the “character-narrator.” In this, Clarissa is no different from many other first-person narrated novels—except that there is an added degree of complexity because the narration is presented as a written epistle (e.g., Eagleton, 1982; Dussinger, 1989). However, the emotional response the novel has engendered throughout its history suggests that there are multiple mimetic conventions within the novel that persuade many readers to accept the homodiegetic narration: that Clarissa, Lovelace, and their friends have written the letters readers encounter. At the same time, Richardson included heterodiagetic elements (such as the unnamed editor who explains why certain letters have been abbreviated) or paratextual devices (such as the title page, Preface and list of Principal Characters) that reinforce the experience that one is reading a novel. Further, there are multiple devices that refer outside the text itself (Barchas, 1996; Keymer, 1989). As authors of this webtext, we were consistently aware of the meta-framework in which Clarissa’s and Lovelace’s letters occur, and in our responses to the letters and our reflections on the text, we attributed authorial agency to Richardson. Nevertheless, as earlier readers did (Eaves & Kimple, 1968; Stuber & Doody, 1999), we also suspended disbelief and invested in the “mimetic function”4 of the characters (Phelan, 1989). Thus, our responses also included more direct interaction with the characters in which we express our agreement or disagreement with particular actions or speak of such embodied responses as weeping or wishing to throw the book.5

We also analyze six contemporary blogs. These blogs were selected by participants because they illustrate theoretical issues relevant to the concerns of the seminar. The primary impetus for reading Clarissa and personal blogs together was Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s (2007) argument that “the personal blog might be in an analogous situation to the early [epistolary] novel.” Fitzpatrick in particular pointed not only to “formal similarities” but also “epistemological concerns,” arguing that both genres transform “a degraded species of domestic scribbling into a new form of literature through the production of a new form of subjectivity, a new understanding of the self as it exists not as individual, but instead as part of a network” (pp. 174-175). We also noted that both Clarissa and blogs exist at points in history where there is instability, and accompanying anxiety, about authenticity and modes of production. Just as Clarissa appears in a moment of transition between manuscript and print culture, and in so doing blurs the relations among the body, self, and the handwritten word (Kvande, 2013), so blogs contribute to contemporary discussions about new forms of digital modes that challenge assumptions of authenticity inherent in print text (e.g., can an anonymous blogger really have an authentic identity?).

These formal, epistemological, and historical parallels between two otherwise unconnected genres provided a useful heuristic. By mapping our reading of Clarissa onto a blog format and by using narrative theory to analyze both the remediated Clarissa and contemporary blogs, we gained a more robust way to approach both the (relatively unfamiliar) genre of the epistolary novel and the (more familiar) genre of the personal blog and, in turn, build our understanding of the relations among narrative, writing, and the self.

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