Clarissa’s Ciphers

Cornell University Press, 1982
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(From the Dustjacket)

When Clarissa, in Samuel Richardson’s epistolary masterpiece, writes of Lovelace, ‘I am but a cipher, to give him significance, and myself pain,’ that sentence evokes a startling image that not only epitomizes their relationship but provides a key for our reading of the novel itself. All the letter writers are engaged in a continual process of interpretation, attempting, through the letters, to impose their own constructions of events on others.

As Richardson’s ‘exemplar to her sex,’ Clarissa is the paradigmatic female victim. Terry Castle delineates how in a world where only voice carries authority, Clarissa is repeatedly silenced, both metaphorically and literally. ‘Authority’ in the novel derives from what Lovelace calls ‘force’–a capacity to brutalize. The epistolary text mimics the underlying semantic struggle between Lovelace and Clarissa so that her rape serves as the physical counterpart to the semantic violations she has already suffered. A victim of physical assault, she is first a victim of hermeneutic abuse. Lovelace’s interpretations are legitimized by force; Clarissa’s interpretations carry no weight.

Have readers’ views of Clarissa been conditioned by the novel’s internal dynamics of construction and force? Drawing on feminist criticism and recent hermeneutic theory, Castle examines the question of authority in the novel. By tracing the patterns of abuse and exploitation which occur when meanings are arbitrarily and violently imposed, she explores the sexual politics of reading as it relates to the characters of the novel, and shows its implications for the novel’s readers.