This article proposes that a primary concern for Samuel Richardson in composing Clarissa (1747–48) was to represent women’s personhood as entirely constituted by sexual relations, with penetrative rape standing only as the most violent manifestation of a systematic instrumentalization of women’s bodies upon which eighteenth-century social institutions depended. Contrary to much critical commentary, I argue that the rape is widely detailed in a model of narrative dispersal: building narrative accounts of self-estrangement into other scenes of imposition against Clarissa’s body, Richardson continually shows readers the atomization of his heroine’s personhood that results from the pressures of heterosexual coupling. Richardson calls on readers to identify as sexual violation, and therefore as an act that devalues personhood, the sum total of incursions made on women, since courtship, marriage, property, seduction, and rape sort women into finite and rigid social positions based on their sex. Richardson’s feminist commitments are made apparent by his revelation that full personhood is only ever aspirational, and is in fact tragically unavailable, to women within a coercive heterosexual order that operationalizes their bodies.


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pp. 151-178
Launched on MUSE
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