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  • Lovelace, Ltd.
  • Sandra Macpherson

“What did the man mean!” Arabella Harlowe complains of Lovelace in the opening pages of Clarissa; “a woman should be put out of doubt, early, as to a man’s intentions in such a case as this, from his own mouth.” 1 The “case” she refers to is the question of whether Lovelace intends to ask her to marry him—of what signifies a binding matrimonial obligation—a question that appears to be resolved later in the narrative by her uncle Anthony Harlowe, who implies that Arabella’s confusion is merely the effect of Lovelace’s peculiar brand of obscurantism. “I resolved to write,” he recounts of his own, exemplary, proposal to Mrs. Howe, “that my writing may stand, as upon record, for my upright meaning; being none of your Lovelaces; you’ll mark that, madam; but a downright, true, honest, faithful Englishman” (625).

Harlowe’s confidence in the capacity of written stipulation to make clear and incontrovertible the meaning of various acts or utterances, and the way in which such contractualism is set up as anti-Lovelacian and therefore seemingly representative of the author’s own ideology of representation, has made Clarissa a favorite text for post-structuralist critics interested in the persistence of Arabella’s initial quandary: how does one determine what Lovelace means? In the deconstructive account of the novel, Lovelace’s impenetrability is mapped onto the rape scene, his violation of Clarissa’s unconscious person seen as an objective correlative for the way in which other people’s interpretive agency continually violates Clarissa’s “sense of the meaningful.” 2 Indeed, Terry Eagleton goes so far as to suggest that because language has “a ‘body,’ a material weight of connotations, which outstrips authorial meaning”—because the attempt to signify only one thing by using a given word is undermined by the way in which past meanings accrue to a linguistic object—language itself is stripping and raping Clarissa. 3

While such a suggestion has understandably disturbed many readers of the novel—in particular, feminist critics committed to preserving a distinction between rape and representation—post-structuralism’s primary insight and inescapable legacy in moments such as this is to have foregrounded the problem of intentionality as central to Richardson’s literary project. 4 Having done so, however, critics like Eagleton, Warner, [End Page 99] and Castle go on to mistake what is an epistemological problem in Clarissa (the difficulty of determining what a person means to do or say, or means to be held accountable for doing or saying) for an ontological one (the impossibility of intentional agency and therefore of accountability). The assumption that problematizing intentionality involves problematizing accountability, that because language is “entirely free with regard to referential meaning” an individual cannot be held accountable for the accidental effects of what she does or says, derives from Paul de Man’s claim in “The Purloined Ribbon” that guilt “can always be dismissed as the gratuitous product of a textual grammar or a radical fiction”—that language itself, and not Rousseau, is responsible for the accident of saying “Marion.” 5 (De Man is concerned here with the moment in the Confessions where Rousseau claims responsibility for the consequences of having unintentionally accused a young serving-woman of stealing a ribbon he himself had taken: “Never was deliberate wickedness further from my intention than at that cruel moment,” recounts Rousseau; “The memory tortures me less on account of the crime itself than because of its possible evil consequences . . . [and] it has secured me for the rest of my life against any act that might prove criminal in its results.” 6) What is interesting to me about de Man’s insistence that Rousseau could not be responsible for what he did not intend is the extent to which such a claim remains committed to an intentionalist account of meaning, to judging the meaning of an act with respect to its intentionality or lack of intentionality (no intention, no meaning). 7 And it is interesting precisely because de Man’s argument is the ground for what post-structuralist critics suppose is an anti-intentionalist critique of Clarissa’s, and ultimately Richardson’s own naïve...

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