In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Heroine’s Subjection: Clarissa, Sadomasochism, and Natural Law
  • Laura Hinton* (bio)

I love, when I dig a pit, to have my prey tumble in with secure feet and open eyes; then a man can look down upon her, with an O-ho, charmer, how came you there?

—Lovelace to John Belford, Clarissa

Critical analyses of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa ask oedipal questions that are ontological ones. What is the nature of the heroine, they ask, and whose perspective does she represent? Fielded through the sympathetic vector of Richardson’s own sentimental vantage point, answers to these questions confirm Clarissa’s identity as a paragon of virtue, as well as a quintessential victim of male sovereignty, or they view Clarissa as a haughty member of the bourgeoisie, a daddy’s girl. 1 However we view Clarissa, we cannot dispute that at the bottom of Lovelace’s “pit” is a subjugated female body. Given the heroine’s harassment, I do not quibble with the opinion that Clarissa is a victim, either martyr-like saint championing the Christian faith or protofeminist championing women’s consciousness. “Clarissa” may be composed of “ciphers,” a “body” of fragmented writings, as Terry Castle observes; Clarissa’s own body generously, perversely, may accommodate a multiplicity of views. 2 Nevertheless, Clarissa is a figure of subjection, and so I ask: how did she get there, down in the pit, in the first place? [End Page 293]

One answer to this question lies in Clarissa’s experience as a subject. What has been called the “Clarissa ideal” is the autonomous, independent individual, the “Enlightenment self.” 3 In writing about “the autonomous individual” of Richardson’s novels and the early stages of the British novel’s development in general, Ian Watt comments that “[w]ithout allies, Clarissa is the heroic representation of all that is free and positive in the new individualism” of the eighteenth century and the post-Enlightenment era. 4 I suggest, however, that the “autonomous” subject of Clarissa is also subject to the sociopolitical demands of another through natural law, social and philosophical discourses central to the Enlightenment. While natural law puts “strong emphasis on the role of virtue in moral life” for the individual, it also embodies a theory of the civil state enveloped by the law, whose rational subjects maintain individual rights at the expense of the rights of others, like women. 5 I argue that the heroine’s subjection reflects the ironies of natural law, as a system of ethics and social contract. These ironies are symptomatic of Clarissa’s value as a female subject. By corollary, I argue that Clarissa’s faith in the nature of the law creates, through natural law’s hidden authoritarian propensities, intersubjective conditions that recent psychoanalytic theories attribute to sadomasochism. Morris Golden has written in general about the sadistic impulses Richardson inflicts upon female characters. 6 My argument focuses upon the sadomasochistic structure underlying the heroine’s desire for both natural law’s radical autonomy and social submission. As Clarissa acts according to the law’s moral precepts and reason, she illustrates the tug and pull between the dominance and submission of a sadomasochistic dialectic. Clarissa’s autonomous moral position, therefore, is radically compromised by the very foundations of that position.


Perceived as “all that exists beyond mere rationalism,” in Leslie Fiedler’s words, Clarissa is seen as a representation of the sentimental “heart.” 7 Critics writing about Clarissa and its heroine often refer to the “heart.” Linda Kauffman, for example, suggests that the heroine’s “discourse” presents “the supremacy of the heart...antithetical to the logic enforced by men.” 8 Fred Kaplan suggests that “Richardson made his appeal to the heart through the heart,” alluding to the epistolary method itself—in the words of Alexander Pope, “the most impartial Representations of a free heart.” 9 Others view the heroine’s “heart” as a more ideological structure, a “site of ideological contradiction,” as John P. Zomchick comments. 10 Analyzing a contradiction in the heart of the heroine, as well as at the heart of the novel’s structure, William Warner writes that Clarissa’s “heart” is a “locus of virtue...planted with principles that are the laws...

Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 293-308
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.