Clarissa’s Political Theology and the Alternative Modernity of God, Death, and Writing
Abstract

The following essay begins with the contention that the prolonged conclusion of Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-8) has yet to be understood. From Brian Downs, to Vivasvan Soni, to Richardson himself, critics have long overlooked the significance of Clarissa’s monastic final weeks because they have interpreted them according to a false dichotomy between divine transcendence and mortal particularity. Refusing this opposition, I frame Clarissa’s final days in the worldly terms of political theology and hail the protracted end of Richardson’s novel as the period in which he simultaneously perfects and undoes the novel tradition. Drawing from Martin Luther’s A Treatise on Christian Liberty (1520) as well as Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), I read Clarissa as a lesson in the overlooked potential for mainstream Protestantism to make modern novelistic subjects that stand against, and not merely for, the rising spirit of capitalism. While indebted to the critiques of secularism articulated by theorists such as Giorgio Agamben and Jacques Derrida, I argue that Clarissa takes the conversation a step further. By opposing “the light of [her] own judgment” against the authority of her male attackers, Clarissa not only articulates the theological foundation of her novelistic self, but also dramatizes the separatist politics that it makes possible. Building upon Nancy Armstrong and Leonard Tennenhouse’s model of the domestic novel as captivity tale, I celebrate Clarissa as the captive heroine who brings her morally exemplary and supremely discursive self to its extreme limit of perfection.


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