Clarissa’s Silence


This article reconsiders interpretive struggle as a paradigm for Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and, in particular, for understanding the novel’s eighteenth-century readers. Taking Clarissa as an exemplary character implies a reading strategy that understands female silence as modesty, piety, and passive obedience—an obedience to the idea of authority that nonetheless questions its abuse. I compare modern and eighteenth-century responses, using approaches to the rape as a way to identify significant differences in strategies of interpretation. I also find traces of one of these alternate strategies of interpretation in the use and circulation of religious texts. I argue that religious reading, with concurrent forms of silent response, is an influential implied reading strategy even as this alternate framework of interpretation is difficult, if not impossible, to perceive. Suggesting that we might re-evaluate our readings of Clarissa to consider her as a religious example, this essay meditates on the problem of shifting interpretive protocols.