by Kadie Aaron
The societal structure surrounding an individual often has a large impact on the choices one may make. This idea is seen in the novel Clarissa written by Samuel Richardson. The novel is set in 18th century England. This time period is one of change, which is displayed in the novel. The role of women is beginning to change; however, society seems to be against this new concept of an independent woman. Clarissa is not only impacted by society but also by her family. Clarissa’s father, brother, and sister all seem to have a negative effect on Clarissa. On the other hand, Mrs. Howe, Anna Howe’s mother, presents the image of another struggling independent woman. A grave personal force upon Clarissa’s life is Lovelace, a very manipulative figure. Clarissa struggles with pleasing her family but also making choices for herself. These forces are at play throughout the novel and influence the individual Clarissa becomes. Richardson’s character Clarissa is trapped by the oppressive societal gender structures of her own environment.
Gender structures have the ability to determine an individual’s role in society. The role of women during the 18th century has a great influence upon Clarissa Harlowe. The character Richardson portrays is contradictory to the general portrayal of females in literature. According to Paul Schellinger, editor of Sex, Gender and the Novel, many novelists were beginning to stray away from the general portrayal of women in the 18th century. He asserts that women were typically portrayed in “the polite political handbook or the ordered poem” (1). And so as these changes begin to occur, society also begins to see the rise of the female writer. According to Susan Lehr, author of “Feminist Women Writers of the 18th Century: Those Barbarous and Didactic Women,” women writers were trying to assert themselves in the literary world. These female writers were trying to contradict the idea that women were inferior to men and that women were only useful in the domestic marriage. They confronted the lack of women’s rights within society (5). Schellinger and Lehr both confront women in relation to literature whether it be as women writers or women as the subject of literature. The change of women within literature is related to their role within the family and the law. Cheryl Nixon, author of “Maternal Guardianship by “Nature” and “Nurture”: Eighteenth-Century Chancery Court Records and Clarissa,” looks at the maternal guardian as one example of women having greater rights with the law. However, she points out that only widows are able to gain this position (1-3). While women are beginning to see more opportunities, they are not easily accessible and are not looked upon favorably by society. These opportunities do not fit a patriarchal society’s idea of the dutiful woman.
Duty and submissiveness in a wife was the most important aspect of womanhood in the 18th century. 18th-century society still heavily focused on women in relation to marriage. According to Lehr, the idea of an unwed woman was intimidating. She points out that women are best seen in “the safe confinement of the female in the home” (4). Regardless of marital status, women have few rights. Clarissa’s estate shows the lack of rights women have within a marriage. According to Nixon, “it is not until the late nineteenth century that women had the power to gain custody of their children” (8). Unmarried women did not even have rights over their own families and married women were expected to submit to their husbands. Both Lehr and Nixon point out the oppression of women within and outside of marriage. For both cases, there are certain expectations of women’s actions. According to Dianne Osland, author of “Complaisance and Complacence, and the Perils of Pleasing in Clarissa,” women were expected to happily submit to patriarchal authority. In fact, “in the women’s behavior a willingness to oblige, but in both ‘complacency’ refers more in which the women obliges – with graciousness” (3). This idea from Osland points out that even within marriage there are expectations of female behavior. Osland also relates this to Clarissa because Clarissa wants to satisfy other people, such as her family (3). In the beginning of the novel, Clarissa reasons with her family so she does not have to marry Solmes. Clarissa promises obedience in all other aspects but her unwillingness to marry Solmes is still seen as a disgrace by her family (Richardson 322). Clarissa’s desire to please is made evident, as she truly wants her family to accept her despite her choice on Solmes. Osland, Lehr, Richardson and Nixon utilize the common idea that unless a woman is fully submitting herself to male authority, she will not be accepted by the patriarchal 18th-century society.
Independent women have an impact on Clarissa’s environment. There are often oppressive forces weighing upon Clarissa; however, characters like Mrs. Howe provide a positive influence. According to Nixon, Mrs. Howe represents the class of women who have gained power over themselves and their families by being a “maternal-guardian” (5). She is one of the most independent women in the novel because she has the ability to dictate her own life. Laura Fasick the author of Sentiment, Authority, and the Female Body in the Novels of Samuel Richardson, argues that female bodies are typically seen negatively but Richardson also utilizes the body to promote his “heroine” (1). Since the female body is viewed in a negative way, Fasick states that “the female body is untrustworthy and suspect, and female authority is thereby jeopardized” (6). Females are not viewed positively in the world in which Clarissa resides. They face great oppressive forces. Mrs. Howe is able to salvage some independence within this world. Mrs. Howe even rejects a marriage proposal in order to avoid losing the independence she gained by being a widow (Richardson 70). This independent force has a positive and encouraging impact on Clarissa. Nixon writes, “Mrs. Howe exerts this power over Clarissa not in manipulating the events of Clarissa’s life but in effecting the recording of that life…. And the first to encourage Clarissa” (6). This concept helps the reader envision the impact that Mrs. Howe had on Clarissa. She was not only an independent role model but she also encouraged Clarissa during her personal struggles. It is clear that it is difficult to be independent in this world but it is possible. Fasick and Nixon point out the oppressive social forces that Mrs. Howe had to overcome. Other people see this poor treatment of Clarissa as well. Nixon discusses how Mrs. Howe struggles in taking a stance in the Harlowe family’s treatment of Clarissa. Mrs. Howe eventually “condemns their treatment of Clarissa” (13). Howe can be seen as a maternal figure encouraging Clarissa rather than confining her.
Clarissa’s familial environment oppresses her personal desires. Clarissa’s family is a large negative influence because of the way that they treat her in regards to her refusal to marry Solmes. Her father writes, “And when Mr. Solmes can introduce you to us, in the temper in which we wish to behold you in, we may perhaps forgive his wife, although we can never, in any other character, our perverse daughter” (190). This is a very negative comment to make to his daughter because Clarissa still tries to please her father despite her refusal to marry Solmes. Schellinger even discusses the rising idea of love within a marriage and not just convenience (2). However, Clarissa’s family does not acknowledge this idea. They only see her lack of obedience. Osland says that “For Clarissa’s father, that ‘cheerful duty’, that ‘absolute acquiescence’ is the only legitimate proof of her love and the only satisfactory return for his former indulgence, and he expects it to be bestowed unconditionally” (7). Clarissa’s father will never be satisfied by Clarissa unless she does everything he wants. According to Fasick, the Harlowe family will not “admit that Clarissa’s body can prompt her to morally correct action, refuse to acknowledge the genuineness of the obedience she offers” (4). Her father’s influence also influences the rest of the family. They are unable to see her desire to please. She will never be obedient enough for her family (Fassick 4). It is evident that Clarissa tries to obey her family but she never succeeds. This negativity in Clarissa’s life forces her to rebel and make decisions contrary to what her family wants. Clarissa’s family, just like other community members, are influenced by society and these forces give Clarissa no choice in her decisions.
Clarissa’s independence contradicts the behavior of an ideal female. Clarissa has been making independent decisions throughout the novel such as her resistance to marriage with Solmes (Richardson 190). Lehr discusses the constraint that is placed upon women. This restraint makes it difficult for women to think for themselves. It is clear that during the time period, women lived “tightly constricted lives… in public and private spheres” (5). Others negatively judge Clarissa’s independent actions, but Clarissa no longer seems to care. Lovelace even scorns her actions as he discusses how others would disgrace her for trying to escape him (Richardson 917). Lovelace disagrees with her actions; however, Clarissa has likely gotten to the point that this is irrelevant to her. According to Osland, Clarissa has likely lost the desire to please others. This stems from the fact that Clarissa has put forth great effort to please her family. Osland says, “Clarissa either wants to please or she does not – and in her dealings with both her father and Lovelace the issue reverts always to whose will out to triumph…. Her circumstances make her resignation seem like sheer female willfulness rather than voluntary submission” (8). Clarissa’s desire to please is no longer there because of the lack of acceptance from her father and Lovelace. Fasick reiterates this when she points out that “Clarissa will respond only to the authority of her own bodily and spiritual consciousness” (5). Clarissa’s actions are now driven by her own thought rather than the ideas of others. This shows how those in Clarissa’s life led her to independence.
Lovelace’s manipulation is a defining factor of Clarissa’s internal struggle. Lovelace is a consistent manipulative force in Clarissa’s life. He has a very negative view of the female that translates to his treatment of Clarissa. He is known for consistently testing Clarissa and her morals (Osland 6). Belford even writes to Lovelace saying, “If trial only was thy end, as once was they pretense, enough surely has thou tried this paragon of virtue and vigilance. But I knew thee too well to expect, at the time, that thou wouldst stop there” (Richardson 714). Fasick presents that “Lovelace at times assumes that women control all of their physiological responses, at other times that female nature forces women into self exposure” (4). Lovelace does not seem to believe that Clarissa is as virtuous as she acts. It is evident that Lovelace puts Clarissa through trials just to satisfy his own curiosity about her virtues. He puts Clarissa through this because he has such low standards of women. Lovelace does not even believe that women can seem “innocent” and that she must be putting on a guise (Fasick 4). This thought from Lovelace is likely due to the strict gender norms of the time. Lehr writes that literature from the time contained many rules about how individuals should act within their gender. Works from the period also discussed “heavy-handed learning about heaven and hell and all the severe punishments in between” (8). This impact affects Clarissa’s actions when reacting to Lovelace’s trials. This also has had a large impact on the way that Lovelace views the female gender. This likely causes his many negative and manipulative actions towards Clarissa. This consistent manipulation from Lovelace forces Clarissa’s actions and puts her in unfavorable situations. Clarissa constantly aims to please others despite her fear, and Lovelace utilizes this quality for his own personal gain. Lovelace was able to use Clarissa’s pleasing nature to his advantage (Osland 7). Osland writes that “by depriving her of the social parameters that enable a woman’s actions to be construed as unequivocal expressions of her own free will – and, more particularly, by depriving her of the opportunity to demonstrate that she is not obliged to oblige” (7). Both Osland and Fasick see that Lovelace’s construed view of women is the reason behind his manipulations. Lovelace’s influence had the capability to negatively affect Clarissa and her actions because of the way that he manipulated her.
Clarissa’s actions are often driven by her internal urges to please others. Clarissa is a character full of virtue and her ultimate goal is to make others happy. Women are seen as “vulnerable” and the general public wants this view to continue (Shellinger et al. 2). The individuals in Clarissa’s life often aim to make her a “vulnerable” individual. Despite this, Clarissa consistently aims to please them. She writes to them begging for their acceptance as she feels she has truly done everything to please them (Richardson 125). This inner desire is a part of her character and affects all aspects of her life. Even her physical identity reflects this desire to please others. Fasick writes, “To them, the physical expression of her dutifulness – curtsies, kneelings, and other deferential bodily attitudes – are only proof of a contemptibly transparent dishonesty” (4). Every action taken by is aimed at pleasing others. She truly wants to make her family happy yet she is never truly able to succeed. Osland makes the point that Clarissa continuously tried to please others. She writes that Clarissa “imposes on him, that he forbear even the mention of marriage until she is reconciled with her family” (Osland 7). Osland, Schellinger, and Fasick point to Clarissa’s inherent desire to please. This desire makes her easily manipulated to society’s standards for a female life.
Clarissa’s environment determines her character choices. The individuals in Clarissa’s life drive her to rebellion because they do not accept her obedient nature. As a dutiful daughter, Clarissa inherently has the desire to be submissive to patriarchal influences. Mrs. Howe’s influence is important, as she is Clarissa’s independent role model. Ultimately, Clarissa’s independence is a direct result of her oppression by gender roles accepted by society and her family.
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Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa, Or, The History of a Young Lady. Ed. Angus Ross. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.