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“Should I be unable to prevail upon her…”:Trauma, Agency,Power in Clarissa and She's Gotta Have It

It is clear when reading literature on trauma by those in the field of psychology, Judith Herman (Trauma and Recovery) and Bessel van der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score), that sexual abuse is perpetrated when men feel entitled to female bodies under patriarchy. It is also clear bodies which suffer abuse are impacted in their minds no matter how much they attempt to forget what happened to them--even as their brains attempt to fragment their experiences and dissociate them from their lives. Clarissa, then, is a brave and heroic character whose life centers around the act of remembering, though the act of remembering is so painful it kills her. Richardson’s work was pioneering (though I’m reticent to use the word “was” and instead insert “is” due to the continuation of rape culture in present times) in terms of what it taught people about survivors of sexual violence, as we are just now privy to studies which point out “madness” is a normal reaction to extraordinary circumstances--it is protection. We become intersubjective readers in this epistolary novel as we see through the eyes of each character, but especially Clarissa and particularly in the context of power. Michel Foucault, in Madness: The Invention of an Idea suggests this approach when he writes, “Intuition, leaping into the interior of morbid consciousness, tries to see the pathological world with eyes of the patient themself: the truth it seeks is of the order not of objectivity, but of intersubjectivity”(75). The power Clarissa felt secure in, her chastity, has been taken from her; she has been raped. She succumbs to feelings of powerlessness, killing her and the body she feels she has lost control of. Her one remaining controlling action, her agency and empowerment, perhaps psychosomatic rather than deliberate (maybe a bit of both), is to succumb to death and find heaven. At first passing, 1748’s Clarissa is not easily situated with contemporary works such as Spike Lee’s 1986 and 2017 She’s Gotta Have It, yet artists deal with the same issues in Richardson’s Clarissa today.


Roy Porter, in Madness: A Brief History, discusses the historically situated mistreatment of people who do not have secure identity positions in society: chiefly gendered and racialized bodies, but also just dissidents: “All societies judge some people mad...it is part of marking out the different, deviant, and perhaps dangerous”(62). He goes onto write this crucial piece: “It may translate disgust into the disgusting and fears into fearful, first by singling out difference, next by calling it inferiority, and finally by blaming ‘victims’ for their otherness”(62). Applying this to Clarissa: Richardson writes in a way many would be able to discern Clarissa is a victim who is suffering, but also that Lovelace has become a victim of his own selfish desires, eventually succumbing to the duel with his friend. Richardson does not limit these characters by removing agency, instead he shows the agency available, putting onus on society. This is crucial since, as Porter underscores: “More recently, and perhaps as an ironic upshot of, or backlash against, the movement for female emancipation gathering momentum from the mid-nineteenth century, women have come to dominate cultural stereotyping of mental disorder--and they have been disproportionately the recipients of mental treatments, both within and beyond custodial institutions”(87). He points to female characters in fiction who are deemed “hysterical” and doomed to face an early death (Ophelia, Bertha Mason) (88). Clarissa would also collapse into that category, but what’s different about the framing of Clarissa is her self-sacrificing behavior of piety and virtue. Today we might try to intervene with Clarissa’s self-sacrificing behavior (not necessarily, but maybe), though in the letters circulating after the rape of Clarissa it’s as if everyone has given up hope--the social consensus is that yes, she is ruined.

Terry Eagleton, in The Rape of Clarissa, assigns heavy weight to Richardson’s comments on the time through his novels positing, “Richardson’s characters come to assume the ambiguous aura of myth, that symbolic realm so utterly paradigmatic that we can never quite decide whether it is more or less ‘real’ than the empirical world”(6). Not simple morality tales, Richardson’s novels (thinking also of Pamela) question power systems, Eagleton continues, “they entwine with commerce, religion, theatre, ethical debate, the visual arts, public entertainment” explaining how texts have a power to enshrine moral behavior, create society just as they are said to analyze it (6). Clarissa is also a character who recognizes the power of her writing as a foray into the public sphere and act of control.


In the afterward to Sexual/Textual Politics, Toril Moi synthesizes the survey she has done in her book of many feminist works, trying to get to the heart of what feminism is (she declares it was not a survey, though it certainly seems like a survey). In this section, entitled “A Loss of Voice? Women, Subjectivity and Performativity,” there is information applicable to the writing and subjectivity of Clarissa Hawthorne.


...there is always someone who thinks, acts, and writes. That someone does not have to be pictured as a wholly present, non-contradictory intentionality. In Sexual/Textual Politics the subject is split, decentered, fragile, always threatened by disintegration. At the same time, this split and decentered subject has the capacity to act and make choices. Such choices and acts, however, are always overdetermined, that is to say deeply influenced by unconscious ideological allegiances and unconscious emotional investments and fantasies as well as by conscious motivations. (Moi 177)

Clarissa’s myriad of motivations are displayed: taming the rake, maintaining her chastity, mastery over her writing, piety. A few of these motivations would align with Moi’s idea of “unconscious ideological allegiances,” of which I could argue maintaining virginity is a function of the marriage narrative of the society she lives in, yet her agency lies in crafting it as a weapon or protection. She may fantasize about sex with Lovelace, but she instead anchors herself in the written discourse maintaining control over her body and the fantasy. Piety seems to be another understandable defense mechanism over her family’s cruelty, but also brings her rewards of favor for those who would like women to behave with this disposition.

To return to Herman and van der Kolk, they point to domestic violence as a gendered problem and feminist issue and their deep studies of these social problems did not begin, formally, until the mid 1980s. Prior to that, people were not openly writing about these issues in a clinical context, but they were discussing some of the same issues in literary texts. It was not until the 1970s and the women’s movement’s insistence that large studies were done to figure out exactly how many women had been sexually abused which was the reason for their “psychosis.” It’s difficult for me to believe prior to that people did not already figure this out or were insistent this was a social problem. Van der Kolk points out the dissociation effect of trauma disconnects a survivor from their body, which leaves us with Clarissa, eager to leave hers, yet torturously dragged through her death scenes in the book sadistically focusing on the final moments (van der kolk 86-89).


Richardson was insistent on “exalting the sex,” but Eagleton argues this also fetishized them and, I would say, fossilized their gendered position (13). However, this is always tricky because just as discussing women as women reifies their subject position, it also brings justice to their experiences and, as Eagleton would say, “elevates them to the public sphere”(13). In other words,”The ‘exaltation’ of women, while undoubtedly a partial advance in itself, also serves to shore up the very system which oppresses them”(Eagleton 15). Eagleton is also apt to point out we should not reduce the realism in his text to mythology, and for him the realism is in the epistolary format and the records of revision based on feedback, follow-up footnotes and morality instructions, metatexts created up until Richardson’s death (20-21).


Another valuable reading of Clarissa Eagleton offers us, which yields to Toril Moi’s point (Eagleton, after all, mentions Moi as a big influence for The Rape of Clarissa in his forward to the book), is the power offered by writing, since it can be “done in the privacy of the boudoir” where you can “control and recuperate meaning” and stresses the correspondence between Clarissa and Lovelace “is a matter of strategic textual moves, the gaining of a momentary linguistic advantage, the reluctant concession of a meaning”(44-45). To continue, rape is a power gambit, and since there was significant rhetorical play between Clarissa and Lovelace with Clarissa enforcing her own prowess and agency, Lovelace was threatened by this display of agency and wished to dominate her. Instead of “private gratification” and preservation of Clarissa’s “sexual integrity,” Lovelace seeks dominance, just as he would during a duel. The Harlowe family is aware of this power and encourage Clarissa to instead read “to confirm herself to another’s text rather than produce her own meanings”(Eagleton 50). Eagleton stresses the letter enters a woman into public discourse, leaving the designated “female” private sector and the writer exposes themself to “dialogic language”(52). Eagleton also calls Lovelace’s writing feminine and Clarissa’s masculine, another source of contention for Lovelace who, as many men under patriarchy, struggles to prove his masculinity. To generalize (in order to get at something more abstract) it would seem that a woman’s daring to make herself public will result in private violence, vis-à-vis: rape. For women who are consistently public this can also manifest as people “coming for her,” or, public violence: trolling, body shaming, gaslighting, questioning the intellectual positioning of what she is saying (calling her an “angry feminist” comes to mind). Eagleton points to the seemingly banal sentence written by Lovelace:”I must write on, and I cannot help it”(Richardson as cited in Eagleton 54). How analogous this is to women participating in public discourse and being talked over by men. Though as Eagleton sees it, Lovelace is referring to his intention to rape--”such an obsession, as we shall see, can never know an end that its appropriate form is the self-generating letter; but for all their gratuitous aestheticism, such letters are nevertheless weapons in the end-game of rape”(54). The point Eagleton makes about the body of Clarissa is significant to women who are public, “Clarissa’s body is itself the discourse of the text. It is the signifier which distributes others to their positions of power and desire, fixing them in some fraught relation to her own mysteriously inviolable being”(56). Eagleton calls Lovelace, in so many words, a lazy writer, his writing more of an autoerotic exercise, knowing Clarissa is giving everything she has to craft her letters to him--therefore giving him power just by engaging with him (52-57). Therefore Richardson’s epistolary allegory potently explores the struggle for power in female life, but also points to the studies that have only recently been made public in the last few decades to vindicate women’s experiences.


One such author who has moved discussion of feminist ethics into the clinical sphere is Judith Herman, highlighting the rationale: “Rape was the feminist movement’s initial paradigm for violence against women in the sphere of personal life. As understanding deepened, the investigation of sexual exploitation progressed to encompass relationships of increasing complexity in which violence and intimacy commingled”(30). She emphasizes “hysteria is the combat neurosis of the sex war” referring to the new diagnoses circa the 1970s of Post Traumatic Stress and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Herman 31). Herman vividly points out that although the diagnoses PTSD and CPTSD were initially defined as reactions to circumstances outside of normal human experience, “Rape, battery, and other forms of sexual and domestic violence are so common a part of women’s lives that they can hardly be described as outside the range of normal human experience”(35).


Clarissa cannot trust her own family and then finds the same types of distrustful relationships, aside from her friend Anna Howe, out in the world. However, it is not just one woman’s issue, this is what many women experience in their homes and in the world. This may fall into the Freudian “compulsion to repeat” (as cited by van der kolk and others) as when individuals are in formative stages they learn how people operate in private before any interactions with the public. If women are taught in private they must distrust people from learned experience they may find themselves in relationships with low expectations for others’ behavior. I would certainly define the treatment of Clarissa’s family as neglectful and psychologically damaging, though I am to understand by the time period Richardson is writing in that arranged marriage (rape of another kind) and other kinds of debilitation (censorship of her letters for instance) would be normative, which makes these circumstances no less damaging. Van der Kolk breaks down the studies of psychological abuse and emphasizes people will develop chronic problems and distorted analytics for observing the world including “distrust of their own senses and the tendency to find everything unreal”(140). This leads to “self-harm,” which can include entering into relationships with people who they find tough to classify as abusers, or, also likely they have forgiven the abuse of the family and accepted it as normal coming to expect it from others (42).


Various essays in Claudia Card’s resonant compilation Feminist Ethics prove to be crucial companions to Clarissa. When thinking of the virtue in Clarissa and of Clarissa, Alison M. Jagger makes a salient point in “Feminist Ethics: Problems, Projects, and Prospects” when she notes:


While some feminist philosophers addressed the practical and moral issues raised by contemporary social life, others turned their attention to traditional ethical theory. There they discovered numerous examples, as noted already, were denials that women were capable of being full moral agents, a claim made originally by Aristotle but elaborated and refined by modern theorists such as Rousseau, Kant, and Hegel. For theorists such as these, the virtues of which women were capable were of a lesser kind than the virtues proper to men. (80)

To explicate these issues it is clear women were expected to be silent, obedient, and faithful (Card 80). Women’s creativity is often unrecognized because it is considered a private matter, but those who do not take on “traditionally male” (in Western society) roles are creative in their methods of domesticity and survival: preserving relationships, managing a household, raising children. She also points out “this devaluation or neglect has been deleterious to women’s interest in a variety of ways: women’s virtues have been seen as less significant than those associated with men, women’s work has gone unrecognized or its creativity has been unappreciated; the abuse of women and children, especially girls, has been ignored” (Card 85). However, in Clarissa, Richardson also gets to the idea that patriarchy hurts men too, showing how power can impact those who abuse it--leaving them soulless--therefore showing that, as Jagger notes, men and women’s issues are inextricable and are in fact generally society’s issue. As I like to point out: patriarchy hurts men too. In the case of Lovelace we have someone who has lost his soul. Just like any system of oppression, the “oppressor” has to be seen as having humanity as well; if they are not human their actions become almost excusable, as if they are “not one of us.” It is not only men battling women but women battling other women and themselves, and in “Whom Can Women Trust,” Annette C. Baier discusses this complexity: “Males are those accused of tyranny over women in many societies, but the confederacy that supports the tyranny that needs to be broken may not be an exclusively male one, indeed has not been an exclusively male one. Women must distrust not only men who have the bodily force to maintain severe tyrannies but also the women whose insinuation, address, and charms are used to keep in favor with the tyrants, to help maintain rather than to break the confederacy that, in the extreme case, reduces women to slavery…”(Card 233). Richardson deals with this issue by highlighting Clarissa’s abusive sister, Arabella; passive mother; Mrs. Howe’s negligence; Mrs. Sinclair and those under her employ: Sally Martin, Polly Horton, and Dorcas Wykes. Yes, Clarissa is made out to be “the perfect victim” and above reproach because 1) this is a work of fiction, 2) the politics of respectability is an insidious machine which renders many victims of sexual violence retraumatized and silenced with “she was asking for it.” Political lessons we can learn from this in the light of women voting for men who commit sexual assault and abuse their power are numerous.

Clarissa is a study of agency. Toril Moi writes in Sexual/Textual Politics:

But women’s relationship to power is not exclusively one of victimization. Feminism is not simply about rejecting power, but about transforming the existing power structures--and in the process transforming the very concept of power itself. To be ‘against’ power is not to abolish it in a fine, post-1968 libertarian gesture, but to hand it over to somebody else. (Moi 147)

Though I reject the construction of the Freudian “phallic” argument because I find it outdated and reductive, Eagleton, using the psychoanalytic tools of his time, attempts to deconstruct the psychological motivations of a character like Lovelace:

“Daunted by her ‘phallic’ wholeness, shaken by this nameless threat to his own gender, Lovelace must possess Clarissa so that he may reunite himself with the lost phallus, and unmask her as reassuringly ‘castrated.’”(58). He refers to the rape of Clarissa as Lovelace “rupturing her body, dispersing her integrity into so many fragments,” effectively damaging the core of her identity and stealing her power. It did seem through the conclusion of Clarissa that her piety did destroy him enough so he was beaten in a duel, where maybe before his wits and reflexes would have saved him. The rape of Clarissa did seem to trouble his core, even if some of his letters may seem performative. Eagleton claims, “As the ‘phallic’ [powerful] woman, Clarissa is the totem by which Lovelace protects himself from his own terrible lack of being, even as she is the threat which creates that hollowness in the first place”(60). However, Clarissa is “absolutely impenetrable” despite the literal raping of her body (60).


Eagleton is skeptical of the choice to have a rape take place in Clarissa, and, in so many words he explains what I understand as ideological desensitization. This is always a conundrum because: not including violence in fiction doesn’t mean it ceases to exist. That is not the idea Eagleton and myself struggle with. Including a rape in fiction somehow crystallizes it, makes it palpable. Even if we see the ill effects on the characters there is still a critique here. The critique, or perhaps the hope is: why not imagine something better for the characters? It is clear the answer is: then it will not be a realist novel.


The rape of Clarissa called me to remember Spike Lee’s choice of the raping of Nola Darling in 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It. In the film Nola Darling is a non-monogamous artist who is dating three men simultaneously and uninterested in committing to just one man. One of her lovers is not happy with his lack of control over Nola, so, in an impactful scene, he rapes her. In a confusing conclusion, Nola ends up with this particular lover. Just as in Clarissa, the rape scene happens right in the middle of the story. Nola has a different response to her trauma than Clarissa, but both can be looked at as survival adaptations. While Clarissa finds her power in writing and maintaining sexual chastity, Nola finds power in making art and non-monogamous relationships. Both women’s choices are decidedly political--Clarissa not wanting to marry in much of her narrative and refusing marriage partners, Nola seeing monogamy as slavery to women. When viewing them side-by-side they are similar, including the rape from men who they were intimate with and who envied their power. So, are these stories of social edification or reification for men? I suppose it depends on the viewer. In the eyes of someone who is gendered female, me, I see it in a nuanced way. While it is good to bring attention to the societal problem of rape, there is the opportunity for people viewing to say “serves her right” in the case of both Clarissa and She’s Gotta Have It. In Clarissa, readers can say “she should have just married one of the suitors,” “she shouldn’t have been corresponding with Lovelace, she was inviting trouble,” “she did not resist adamantly enough.” In the case of Nola: “she was being a slut so it was bound to happen,” “she made him angry, she got what she deserved,” “that’s what happens when you’re being promiscuous.” In either case, sadly, when I think of the general viewership (though the common sentiment is changing thanks to activism) I do not think they would utter “there is never any excuse for rape,” which is the ethical response. The rape scenes in both Richardson and Lee can retraumatize rape victims, so with this more cynical lens I have to ask, “who is the audience for these texts?” The result of Clarissa’s rape was a slow death, the result of Nola’s was she tried to make it better by briefly conforming to the lifestyle she hated: a monogamous relationship with her rapist. At the end of She’s Gotta Have It, though it’s not explored at length, Nola does seem to be making peace with the offence by her raping lover through her conforming to a relationship as if to explore in her mind “if I had just entered into a monogamous relationship maybe I would not have been raped.” Nola does come around to see this is wrong thinking, but the rape, again, is not explored. Since it is not explored a viewer can assume not only is rape normative behavior, but it’s something dealt with in private, it doesn’t impact victims long term, and it’s easy to forgive the perpetrator. At least in Clarissa it was almost as if the well known offense was called out in the “town square.” People knew how damaging it was. Comparing Lee and Richardson’s depiction of rape renders Lee’s text flat and male-centered. On another note, Eagleton mentions a key consideration, which is a noticeably confusing rape scene: “The ‘real’ of Clarissa--the point around this elaborate two thousand page text pivots--is the rape; yet the rape goes wholly unrepresented, as the hole at the centre of the novel towards which this huge mass of writing is sucked only to sheer off again. Indeed one ingenious commentator has doubted whether the rape has occured at all” (61). The denial of whether someone has been assaulted is psychically damaging to victims. Both Lee and Richardson’s texts, though the reader is supposed to overcome this shortcoming, meanders around what has happened to the female heroines. The unclear narratives simulate the real life confusion surrounding rape--traumatic memory fragments, the anti-climatic, quick undramatic ugliness of one-off sexual assault, though this seems unintentional on the part of the authors.


In 2017 She’s Gotta Have It was re-made and re-released as a ten episode series through Netflix with a new cast and updated plot. It is not surprising: Lee’s wife, Tonya Lewis Lee, helped with this updated version (Tillet). Instead of a rape, the show instead deals with street harassment and does so from a different gaze which does not overlook the behavior of the offender. In fact, the harassment resonates through the whole season and all the characters weigh in on the incident in their own ways. Nola is still the character who values freedom (“a sex positive, polyamorous, pansexual”), but she is not robbed of her power by any of her intimates. It is instead a stranger who violates her. This is not always the case in real life (in fact statistically not the case--women are usually harmed by an intimate partner), but Lee does not reify intimate partner violence or retraumatize viewers who have been through violence of their own. It turns out an author can still deal with these same issues without going to the extreme degree of a rape because after all, rape is ultimately about taking someone’s power.

Comparing Lee’s works with Richardson’s also highlights the surveillance of women’s bodies, something that inextricably ties them to institutionalization. From the monitoring of Clarissa’s letters, to the lovers of Nola needing to know who else she is with, the gossip of Clarissa’s rape, Nola’s public sexuality--when women’s bodies are not fitting into what society sets up for them, they are watched closely. In both Porter and Foucault’s works on madness, the surveillance of institutionalization is the almost-too-perfect condition to police bodies of difference.

In Clarissa and 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It there is more of a helpless and interior dealing with the rape. What is intriguing about the 2017 version of She’s Gotta Have It is the community of support surrounding Nola. After she is verbally harassed and then grabbed on the street while leaving a friend’s house, she runs home. She’s able to call friends and openly tell her three lovers what has happened to her. One friend responds by giving her a pepper spray, one has his friends ask around and go looking for him based on a description. The reactions are varied, but everyone is shown to be affected by what happened. Nola has bruises and characters ask her where she got them. In 1986, Nola deals with the rape in her interior life. Clarissa is a mixture of these as her plight is public yet she does not receive support, not life-saving anyway. Nola, in the television series, emulating the “Don’t tell me to smile” street art campaign by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, becomes a prolific artist/activist. In Clarissa we are led to see a woman’s life as a no-way-out situation, which is certainly how it can feel at times particularly for those who do not have money, time, outlets to creativity, family restrictions--these no-way-out lives still happen and so does abuse.


Richardson seems to conclude agency is relative to the amount of power one has in society, and then what someone does with that agency is a moral quandary. For Clarissa power was her chastity, and that power was forcibly taken from her. Throughout the text she found little else to sustain her than her connection to her sexual purity, and found the only way to take back the agency she lost was to collapse in on herself, to die. Instead of casting the label of “sick” or “ill” on people, labeling them with a diagnoses, it’s important to see the individual struggles and adaptations people remarkably undertake as a result of outside circumstances. Porter pointed out, like everything else in psychology, the lens of “degenerationism” is just an outgrowth of a trend (147). A trend of doctors who were “unashamedly more interested in diseases than in patients,” which continues in some practices and institutions today (147). To see people as agents and survivors is to see them as fully human. When reflecting on his early experiences training as a clinician, van der Kolk thinks about his mentor:

“Semrad did not want our perceptions of reality to become obscured by the pseudocertainties of psychiatric diagnoses. I remember asking him once: ‘What would you call this patient--schizophrenic or schizoaffective?’ He paused and stroked his chin, apparently in deep thought. ‘I think I’d call him Michael McIntyre,’ he replied.”

Richardson, I’d venture, seemed to understand this sentiment. His book is simply called: Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.



Works Cited

Card, Claudia. Feminist Ethics. University of Kansas Press, 1992.

Eagleton, Terry. The Rape of Clarissa. University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Foucault, Michel. Madness: The Invention of an Idea. Harper Perennial Modern

Thought, 1962.

Herman, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic

Abuse to Political Terror. Basic Books, 1997.

Lee, Spike. She’s Gotta Have It. Island Pictures, 1986.

Lee, Spike. She’s Gotta Have It. Netflix, 2017.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics. Routledge, 2002.

Porter, Roy. Madness: A Brief History. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady. Henry Holt and

Company, 1926.

Tillet, Salamishah. “A New ‘She’s Gotta Have It’: Spike Lee’s Feminist Breakthrough.”

The New York Times. 17 Nov 2017.

Van der kolk, Bessel. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of

Trauma. Penguin Books, 2015.

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