Clarissa and Caleb

I had this crazy idea last night.

In light of my GRE scores I have been compulsively rewriting every other part of my application, however, last night I had done it so many times my brain just decided it wanted to stop.

I was proofreading/rewriting my statement of purpose for the umpteenth time and in the middle of everything I started thinking about Clarissa. Yes, *that* Clarissa.

It went something like this:

blah blah blah Chaucer… blah… medieval studies… blah… manuscripts… hrm.. Clarissa and Caleb?

No, I did not include the latter in my statement. I am not presenting a stream of conscience piece. Unlike everything else in my life that pretty much emulates my blog posts, this is not one such thing. I am actually trying to impress people with this thing.

Since this was a totally random thought, I have not researched it, and have no academic proof that I am onto anything, or that I am on to anything new. I might be right, and fifty other people may have already written about this.

However, this is not pressing, so it will go into my “should I have some time” pile to be looked into at a later date.

In the meantime, here is the most basic outline for my connection:

Clarissa and Caleb Williams appear to have a similar compulsion to remain true to themselves at their own detriment. She harbors an unfaltering conviction to preserve her chastity and virtue while his actions are dictated by what he believes to be his moral compass. Even once they are respectively compromised, and abandoning their their quests would be in their best interests, they set out to vindicate their names while continuously getting trapped by their oppressors. He is returned to jail as many times as she is returned to the brothel – against their will, but significantly through their own doing.

As the “theater of [their] calamity” unfolds, each fixate on the dominant figure in their lives, pursuing him out of stubborn, and for lack of a better term, stupid curiosity, unable to leave well enough alone when told to do so. Each begets an unfavorable end (with Caleb it depends on which ending you use).

As I write this I realize this very pattern could also be applied to Howard Roark with slight variations (and probably many other characters along the way). But something specifically about Clarissa and Caleb elicits a connection to be made. I like to think of Clarissa as the female version of Caleb, and in a sense she is, except Clarissa was written some fifty years before Caleb, so if anything, the relationship between them is inverted.

Yet unlike Roark, or other characters who share the same plot and fate, these two were written under similar conditions, sharing the sentiments and conventions of their time.

And having absolutely nothing to base this on except that in an almost delirious state of exhaustion I had a hunch, I shall put this aside and not mention it again until I have something better to go on.


  1. Steps up on soapbox…

    Hmm…I remember the rather protracted experience of reading *Clarissa* (and occasionally praying for my own death during the process), and though I did not want her to be raped (really, what reader does?), by about page 900 or so, I no longer gave a damn what happened to anyone or anything in that interminable novel. There is nothing like the prospect of having to suffer over a thousand pages of Samuel Richardson’s epistolary bludgeoning to bring out the moral relativist in anyone. With Caleb Williams, though Falkland is certainly at great pains to dominate/manipulate/intimidate Caleb into keeping Falkland’s secret, I don’t recall feeling that rape was ever really at issue. And the Randian demi-hero Roark is never in danger of having his mucous membranes so much as explored, much less violated (if my memory of that novel serves). Though each character might be seen through the lens of a kind of Polonian “to thine own self be true” dictum, it seems that the stakes are rather higher for Clarissa than for Howard Roark, and rather different–at least–for Clarissa Harlowe and Caleb Williams (though perhaps the female and male agencies are being violated through invasion and incarceration respectively–“inserting” the male [Lovelace] into Clarissa, and “inserting” the male [Caleb] into prison?). I do see the point you make about the two C’s pursuing their respective bete noirs, however (and it has to be the manuscript ending for Caleb Williams–really, the published one has all the earmarks of modern-day “audience testing.” Ugh).

    Steps down off soapbox…

  2. Roark is, as you say, rather different from the other two, and doesn’t quite fit the equation properly. And yes, Clarissa and Caleb, while moving through their respective cycles of freedom-imprisonment-freedom again (and so forth) mirror each other superficially, but as I was rereading this post I began focusing on the non physical aspects of their existence. I didn’t alter the original post (and maybe I should have), but last night I began looking at them from a Foucauldian perspective – all of their moves are constantly watched, and they don’t necessarily know from where. As Foucault states “vision is a trap,” and this type of mentality breeds paranoia. I want to look at the psychological implications and how they interfere with their respective progresses throughout. I believe there is a definite sense of voyeurism pervasive in both books, and it definitely effects how each behave, especially when either begins to feel secure in their freedom only to find out otherwise – a rather terrifying perspective.

    Also, I may just be stubborn since I have had to read both of these (for the first or second times more or less recently for school), and having had to endure them I am compelled to find *something* useful to do about it. I had a professor in college who made me do tedious (and I cannot explain enough just how tedious) summaries of Caleb Williams, spanning close to 60 pages between several assignments, and even more recently I was meeting with a professor at a college I am applying to for my grad program, who adores Clarissa, and has spent his life dedicated to her (and who, should I get into this college, I will be most likely working very closely with), so I thought I should have something to say about Clarissa other than “um…. yes, very long book. Would you like some tea?”

    And even though I seem to have a better idea, as I said in my post, I still don’t actually know what (if anything) I want to do about this.

  3. “I believe there is a definite sense of voyeurism pervasive in both books, and it definitely effects how each behave, especially when either begins to feel secure in their freedom only to find out otherwise – a rather terrifying perspective.”

    This sounds like Kafka, especially from *The Trial* (one of Foucault’s numerous borrowings).

    He’s spent his life dedicated to Clarissa Harlowe? Poor man needs some tea…and cake, definitely cake.

  4. I think everyone needs cake!

    Yes, he has been writing predominantly about her since the late 70’s (according to his CV). And he is the Medievalist on staff, so it will definitely be interesting to see how that will all work itself out. However, I have the disconcerting image of students writing on Jane Austen, under the header of medieval studies.

  5. He’s the Medievalist. Yes, of course he is. How could I be surprised by something so obvious as a Medievalist obsessed with a 19th-century heroine? The Wife of Bath is probably rather too much for the man, and Alison would simply laugh at him.

    He’s going to need a lot more cake.

  6. Your comment on the Wife of Bath and Alison (I am not entirely sure if you meant Alison from the Miller’s Tale, or the WIfe herself, who also happens to be named Alison, even though both would apply nicely), along with your other comment on those who need cake (seriously everyone, including myself), reminded me of this other experience of the grad school application process where I believe a lot of cake was needed. (unfortunately this blog does not allow me to link properly in the comments section).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.