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Clarissa's Ciphers

Clarissa's Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson's Clarissa OPEN ACCESS

Terry Castle
Copyright Date: 1982
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 208
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    Clarissa's Ciphers
    Book Description:

    As Samuel Richardson's 'exemplar to her sex,' Clarissa in the eponymous novel published in 1748 is the paradigmatic female victim. In Clarissa's Ciphers, Terry Castle delineates the ways in which, in a world where only voice carries authority, Clarissa is repeatedly silenced, both metaphorically and literally. A victim of rape, she is first a victim of hermeneutic abuse. Drawing on feminist criticism and hermeneutic theory, Castle examines the question of authority in the novel. By tracing the patterns of abuse and exploitation that occur when meanings are arbitrarily and violently imposed, she explores the sexual politics of reading.

    eISBN: 978-1-5017-0694-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature
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Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 15-31)

    One might imagine the present book as gloss for a single line ofClarissa.“I am but acypher,to givehimsignificance, andmyselfpain.” The words are Clarissa’s, written at Sinclair’s, in the midst of her evil time. And “he” of course is Lovelace—jailer, bogey, courtier—fixer of that intimate, brutal anguish she is made to suffer. Clarissa leaves her remark unexplained, almost a throwaway line. It is subsumed in a plangent cry of grief to Anna Howe, the only friend, it seems, who will not “grudge” her her sadness. Yet Clarissa’s startling image—the body as...

  2. (pp. 32-37)

    Even in death Clarissa Harlowe is broken in upon, ravaged—her story cut in half. Into the midst of Belford’s reverent account of her posthumous affairs, a gross and delirious scenario intrudes—the bloated, kitschy death of her former tormentor, Mrs. Sinclair. The scene of the infamous “Mother’s” demise, one of Richardson’s more tumid Gothic spectacles., fractures Clarissa’s own pious “History.” It shatters the precarious narrative calm, the illusion of closure, marked off by the heroine’s own holy dying. Clarissa’s peace, and the peace of the text, is breached—snapped in two—by this final outrageous interruption. For the reader...

  3. (pp. 38-46)

    The problem of “Story” is always at hand inClarissa.What—where—is Clarissa’s “Story”—the one Anna Howe, in her first letter to the heroine, “longs to hear”? Again, entering Richardson’s lurching, exhausting text, with its mysterious lesions and effusions, its layerings of deceit and disclosure, one is never sure. Is it that “strange melancholy accident” to which all the babbling voices of the text seem to allude—the heroine’s murky passage through abduction, rape, and death? Or is it in some sense the text itself—the “novel in letters,” this artificial collation of disparate utterances, all ostensibly speaking...

  4. (pp. 47-56)

    To speak of the image of reading dramatized inside Richardson’s novel is to speak from the start of a process more complicated and far-reaching than the word “reading” usually connotes. I have been using “reading” interchangeably with “exegesis” and “interpretation”—to suggest an activity: reading as a kind ofwork,or operation.Clarissaenforces such an identification. The active deciphering of texts is the work in which all the characters are engaged. (We will examine the corollary activity—writing—shortly.) Reading is their obsession, their joy and bewilderment. But this primary process of interpretation points immediately to another: the interpretation...

  5. (pp. 57-80)

    Clarissa Harlowe’s “harrowing tale” turns upon a confrontation with the arbitrariness of signs, with the failure of things to yield meaning, simply, absolutely. Her catastrophe is a catastrophe of reading. She does not understand either the complexity or the compromised nature of the process. And hence she is a victim—of her own reading, and the readings of others. She is caught up, one might say, in a pathology of reading.

    In a famous passage early on, Anna Howe writes to Clarissa that “I am fitter forthisworld than you: You for thenextthan me” (1, 63). Part...

  6. (pp. 81-107)

    In the beginning Clarissa is drawn to Lovelace because he lets her speak. He offers her a correspondence, and out of her great and desperate desire-for discourse itself-she falls into it with him. For his part, the strategy is one of slow entrapment. He plays precisely, masterfully, on her desire for language, on her tremendous will toward signification. He acts the part of that “Lithuanian lover” whom he speaks of to Belford in a bizarrely pedantic etymological footnote, as an “auditore”—a “listener” (VII, 16). He is eager to hear the “truth.” When Clarissa agrees to meet secretly with Lovelace...

  7. (pp. 108-135)

    The despicable, endlessly idiotic, endlessly suggestive act upon whichhistoireinClarissaturns—the rape of the heroine-is deeply tied in to the hermeneutic theme. Sexual violation, the “black transaction” at the heart of the fiction, is at once the consequence and emblem of Clarissa’s tragic mis-readings, and of all the “constructions” with which she has been circumscribed. A kind of demented fatality leads Lovelace from hermeneutic violence against her to actual sexual violence: his very literal infiltration of Clarissa’s body is intimately related to that infiltration of sign systems he has already effected in order to control her. Rape...

  8. (pp. 136-147)

    In death, escape is final. Given the distended internal drama of interpretation—the welter of readings and mis-readings, of meanings formed and suspended and deformed—Clarissa’s death scene has its alternately poignant and black-humorish resonances. Death confirms (pathetically? ironically?) Clarissa’s loss of utterance; it is the ultimate form of interruption . Throughout Belford’s description of the scene, the heroine’s growing speechlessness is the primary index to the process of dissolution. At the start she is “moving her lips without uttering a word.” The vocal hesitations increase in frequency: she speaks haltingly to Belford and the rest in a “faint inward...

  9. (pp. 148-180)

    There is another dead author, of course. Samuel Richardson has left behind his own coffin-text, his own intricate fantasia and challenge to readers—the text ofClarissaitself. Like his heroine, he is absent from us, concealed behind the dense, ornate surface of his fiction, silenced by a continuous gabble of imaginary voices, among which that of the “Editor” who shares his name is only one more, albeit pompous addition to the cacophony. Where is Richardson? Can we “penetrate” the tangled mass ofClarissaitself and find him there-an immutable source of meaning, our “authority” ? The questions are setups,...

  10. (pp. 181-188)

    The reader ofClarissais free then—free of Nature, free of an “author.” But what do we choose to do with our freedom? To what end this realization of readerly authority?

    The fiction itself seems at first to hold out two possibilities, both of them tragic. In the process of confronting the text, we discover, like the heroine herself, that it is the activity of interpretation which conditions meaning. The text itself is always fragmentary, mischievous; it never gives up the truth it promises. We thus impose a vision of Nature on it, rather than the other way around,...

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International
This book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.
Funding is provided by National Endowment for the Humanities