'How does this damn love unman me!' (Lovelace, Clarissa). How does the Rake figure illuminate the contradictions of masculine desire in Samuel Richardson's 'Clarissa'?

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Clarissa emphasises how, in Richardson’s time, a woman’s morality was defined by sex, and her virginity was constantly under siege from more experienced and stronger men. Masculine and feminine qualities were put in distinct contrast. The masculine figure was to be virile and powerful with dominant control. ‘Desire’ is an emotion directed towards attaining or possessing an object from which pleasure or satisfaction is expected. Therefore ‘masculine desire’ can be seen as an instinctive, impulsive craving to possess. The ‘Rake figure’ is the symbol and embodiment of masculine desire, having self-indulgent behaviour, unconstricted by moral law. He follows his inclinations to triumph over the female sex, but keeps control over them. However, the impulsions created by lust and appetite can lead to a loss of control, to weakness and vulnerability, contradicting the firm image of ‘masculinity.’ Love, as an emotion, can cause weakness and the ‘unmanning’ of a Rake. However, Rakes are not meant to be capable of this true affection, or of ‘understanding’ or connecting with women’s minds.

Masculine desire can be seen as purely physical, and Rakes maintain their control through this physicality. A Rake may have emotions but he must hide them due to pride, developing an inner struggle of anxiety and insecurity. This private inner struggle is represented through Richardson’s use of the epistolary form and his use of language in Clarissa, especially with the Rake Lovelace. The letter form is a unique way of exposing the seemingly realistic thoughts and conflicts of character. Lovelace needs control and manipulates and orchestrates the events that lead to the rape of Clarissa Harlowe. However, we are given insight into Lovelace’s inner conflict, and this shows he has contradictions with his masculinity. The representation of real human emotion challenges the idea of an aloof ‘Rake figure’. A Rake is not supposed to love.

Lovelace is sexually aggressive, has power over other characters and uses disguises to manipulate. He has a rakish attitude, and quotes from a poem by Edmund Waller; “Women are born to be controlled” (p.670). He wants absolute power over a woman, pursuing and ‘hunting’ her down in an unbalanced contest. Lovelace says rakes “seldom meet with the stand of virtue in the women whom they attempt” (p.426), which is why Clarissa is such a challenge. He is arrogant, saying to his companion Belford, “Has it not been a constant maxim with us that the greater the merit on the woman’s side, the nobler the victory on the man’s?” (p.559). He is intrigued by Clarissa’s “inflexible heart”, seeing her as “this charming frost piece” (p.145). He sees the “rewarding end” of controlling Clarissa as “a triumph over the whole sex” (p.147). Samia Ishak recognises that, ‘He believes once a woman is subdued, she will always be subdued,’ and this is why he tests whether Clarissa’s virtue is strong enough to prevent him. Their characters are so different, with Lovelace’s representation being ‘a complementary portrait to that of Clarissa… Clarissa stands for spirituality, but Lovelace stands for sensuality.’ To him, she appears to have a pure mentality and her innocence is an attraction for lechery.

At first, he appears not to care for Clarissa’s feelings. When he has first succeeded in tricking her to run away with him, he says “The sex! The sex is all over! … Ha, ha, ha, ha! I must here – I must here lay down my pen to hold my sides” (p.400). This is a realistic image, expressing Lovelace’s maliciousness and the pride he has in his trickery. He has a love of plots and disguises, being a perverse kind of artist figure and egotist. In response to his manipulation of Clarissa, Lovelace declares, “How unequal is a modest woman to the adventure when she throws herself into the power of a rake!” (p.465). However, she has not ‘thrown herself’ into his power, he has tricked her. He has spoken disapprovingly of Clarissa’s family but won her back by showing letters from his aunt and cousin. He then tricks her into going to London, and gets his friend Mr Doleman to write to them about lodgings. Clarissa picks what seems to be the best, Mrs Sinclair’s house on Dover Street, but Lovelace reveals to Belford the house is not owned by Mrs Sinclair, or on Dover Street. He has control of the situation, being the manipulator. He goes to great lengths to win back her affection and sympathy, at one point even feigning illness by using pig’s blood.

To control Clarissa, he pretends to be virtuous, but does not actually reform, wearing “the guise of a merit-doubting hypocrisy” (p.145). ‘Play-acting’ is at the heart of his deception. When he finds Clarissa in Mrs Morden’s house, after she has become suspicious of his trickery and fled from Mrs Sinclair’s, they row in front of Mrs Moore, Miss Rawlins and Widow Bevis. She says “Am I not my own mistress! - Am I not -”and he interrupts her, raising “his voice to drown hers.” He describes his appearance; “I lowered my voice on her silence. All gentle, all entreative, my accent; my head bowed; one hand held out; the other on my honest heart… (How considerable this made me look to the women!)” (p.777). He has manipulated the women into believing his lies, gaining control over them and therefore over Clarissa.

He enjoys manipulating Clarissa but at the same time he admires her. He tests her virtue, but he is also tested as he allows himself to respect her. Lovelace writes to Belford, “The moment I beheld her, my heart was dastardized, damped, and reverenced-over. Surely this is an angel, Jack!” (p.642). His personality is beginning to show a fracture, as he is entranced by the very purity he loathes. The Rake figure is meant to be careless, having a casual approach, but there is a ‘paradoxical prudence’ to the Rake’s career. His manipulation is too full of thought, suggesting its object, Clarissa, is meaningful. Lovelace says he is to be “inevitably manacled” in his own “web”, even in the first part of the novel (p.517). Clarissa’s illness at the news of her father’s curse frightened Lovelace into a genuine proposal. As he prepares for London, he describes a battle with his roguish heart, questioning himself when contemplating marriage; “What makes my heart beat so strong?” (p.520). He sees himself as his “own enemy” as he appears to warm to marriage, but continues to discuss his plots. He knows James Harlowe and his friend Captain Singleton have given up their plot to kidnap Clarissa, but he will continue to pretend it is a threat, because “the greater her disappointment, from them, the greater must be her dependence on [him]” (p.520). He manipulates Clarissa’s attachment to her family, one of her most admirable qualities, to gain even more power over her. Later, when he is talking of reuniting her with her family, he “audibly sobbed” in response to her gratitude, being genuinely affected by this “odd sensation” (p.695). We do start to see Lovelace’s confusion over his uncontrollable emotions, but he remains a manipulator. He always has a loophole, exposing his lack of ‘real love’ for her.

Clarissa later recognises his complexities, saying, “he is so much of the actor that he seems able to enter into any character; and his muscles and features appear entirely under obedience to his wicked will” (p.1003). His flamboyant use of language and false words signify his rakish nature, reflecting his complex psychological portrait. Richardson’s use of the epistolary form gives insight into how Lovelace thinks and feels, as Terry Eagleton says ‘writing shares the fluidity of the soul.’ However, the letter is also ‘alienable, flushed with the desire of the subject yet always ripe for distortion and dishonour.’ This ‘distortion’ reflects Lovelace’s character. We see the ‘duplicity’ of Lovelace the person and Lovelace the rake, and his momentary fear that he is not as consistent a rake as he would like to be. There are conflicts in how he represents himself to others, and how he understands himself and his own motives. This confusion leads to his ‘unmanning’. Ishak has written a stylistic study of the language of Clarissa. She says some letters are punctuated with ‘sufferings and distresses of their writer’ and ‘are highly revelatory of their originator’s feelings, thoughts and intense emotional tension.’ When writing to Belford, Lovelace poses many questions to him. Ishak says some of these are ‘ruminative questions’ containing the questioner’s own thoughts, and at times communicate a sense of ‘self-examination or self-reproach’. This undermines the confidence and arrogance Lovelace is meant to have, exposing some of his anxiety. He uses direct, ‘self-justificatory questions’ aimed at Belford, in attempt to soothe his conscience and justify his actions. For example, early in the novel Lovelace tries to get Belford to agree with his reasons for his plots; “Why, why will the dear creature take such pains to appear all ice to me? [...] Hast thou not seen, in the above, how contemptibly she treats me?” (p.413). He also asks himself ‘self-directed questions’, when writing to Belford, where he reveals his puzzlement and suspicious nature; “Is not this the hour of her trial? [...] Whether her frost be frost indeed? Whether her virtue be principle?” (p.878-9). The repetition of “whether” reflects the debate inside his head - should he put Clarissa to the test or not. These ruminations contain ‘their writer’s thoughts, fears and tension,’ and Lovelace is portrayed as hesitant rather than controlling.

The novel emphasises the battle between the opposed forces of masculinity and femininity. But there are ‘cross-gender identifications’ that show they are not actually as separate as they seem. Clarissa begins to gain some control, and Lovelace loses it. At Mrs Sinclair’s whorehouse, after the fire, Clarissa thinks Lovelace is going to rape her as he comforts her. Lovelace is intrigued by her defiance, saying, “I never before encountered a resistance so much in earnest [...] What a triumph has her sex obtained in my thoughts by this trial, and this resistance!” (p.727). He then exclaims, ‘un-rakishly’, “Now is my reformation secured; for I never shall love any other woman! – Oh she is all variety! She must be ever new to me!” (p.722). He is being controlled by her. Clarissa declares she will not see him for a week as she thinks the fire was a trick. She escapes to the house owned by Mrs Moore. She has control and their roles reverse momentarily. Lovelace immediately switches his tone to anger, seeing her sex as “plaguy”, with “every individual a plotter by nature” (p.737). He sees her as having the stance of a “plotter” now, instead of himself.

After her escape in this part of the novel, Lovelace’s contradictory thoughts become more apparent. He argues with himself, angry that she has conversed with Dorcas to give her food so she did not have to eat with him: “She is odious in my eyes; I hate her mortally! – But oh! Lovelace, thou liest! – She is all that is lovely! All that is excellent! – But is she, can she be gone!” (p.738). The short sentences emphasise his contradictions in thought. He appears to miss her, “sighing over the bed and every piece of furniture in it”. After finding a letter in her room addressed to him, he “trembled” as if overcome. This is when he says “How does this damn love unman me! – But nobody ever loved as I love! [...] Ungrateful creature, to fly from a passion thus ardently flaming!” (p.742). He only loves his control of her, his passion of lust, and sees her negatively, as “ungrateful”. Upon reading the contents of the letter he admits she has control over him, then saying, “I can subscribe with too much truth to those lines of another poet [Nathaniel Lee, 1679]:She reigns more fully in the soul than ever;She garrisons my breast, and mans against meEv’n my own rebel thoughts, with thousand graces,Ten thousand charms, and new-discover’d beauties!”There are masculine images of triumph and control here. The word ‘garrison’ is associated with the military, suggesting she controls his heart, and is stationed there. She “mans against” him his “own rebel thoughts”, which suggests her virtue is affecting him. In contrast however, when he then reads Anna Howe’s letter to Clarissa, he is infuriated, marking the words that require “vengeance” as they urge him to “punish them” (p.752). Lovelace wavers between his affections for Clarissa and his inherent ‘Libertine ways’, exposing his intimate feelings. He reveals his emotions to Belford, yet he is still controlled by his will for manipulation, through revenge. His ‘masculine’ qualities are still present, and he is not completely ‘unmanned’.

Towards the end of the novel, the inversion of control between Clarissa and Lovelace is made even more apparent. Just before her death, Belford says to Lovelace, “you will find the sense surprisingly entire, her weakness considered” (p.1349). Clarissa exerts the fullest possible ‘control over her meanings, sustaining an enviable coherence of sense even through her worst trials’, and this envy belongs to Lovelace; he contrastingly ‘lives on the interior of his prose… luxuriating in multiple modes of being.’ Lovelace may have physical strength but Clarissa has growing mental strength, controlling the narrative as she contemplates her death. He becomes ambiguous and complex, whilst Clarissa remains pure and becomes less ambiguous. She asserts power through her suffering ‘moral authority,’ he, through callousness.

In the rape, she is a passive victim of male power. However, it is a shallow victory, with him humiliatingly having to drug her to rape her. Richardson does not give the rape a description; it is left out, an anticlimax that undermines the sexual act. Nobody experiences the rape. The rape, his moment of ‘victory’, actually initiates her slow death and the utter disintegration of Lovelace himself. Lovelace is portrayed as pathetic, and his ‘rakishness’, for all its virile flamboyance, is nothing less than ‘a crippling incapacity for adult sexual relationship. His misogyny and infantile sadism achieve their appropriate expression in the virulently anti-sexual act of rape.’ Lovelace’s sexual anxiety stems from his dread of losing the very ideal he desires. He cannot contemplate that ‘Clarissa is not to be possessed’ and so ‘his precarious self enters upon steady dissolution.’Ironically, Lovelace lacks the strength power to deal with contradictory impulses. Before Clarissa dies he says, “I am not the savage which you and my worst enemies think me. My soul is too much penetrated…” (p.1339). He is also talks of “excruciating pangs the condemned soul feels” (p.1340). He later chastises himself for letting his rakishness cause her death; “Marry and repair, at any time; this (wretch that I was!) was my plea to myself… yet [she], from step to step, from distress to distress, to maintain her superiority… No power left in me to repair her wrongs! - No alleviation to my self-reproach!” (p.1344). He now calls her, “my Clarissa Lovelace” (p.1385). He is tormented by his actions, saying, “These reflections sharpened, rather than their edge by time abated, accompany me in whatever I do, and wherever I go,” (p.1483). He regrets his rakish behaviour, using strong language such as, “I feel the torments of the damned, in the remorse that wrings my heart on looking back upon my past actions by her” (p.1333). His rakish principles do not seem to drive him any more and Lovelace deteriorates as a symbol of masculine desire. His is restless and in agony, declaring in a letter to Belford, “O my dearest, and ever-dear Clarissa, keep me no longer in this cruel suspense; in which I suffer a thousand times more than ever I made thee suffer” (p.1335). He becomes passive and disempowered, changing from being the oppressor to the oppressed, becoming a ‘victim’ himself. He still tries to resist ‘reforming’, by saying he will reform once he returns from France. However, his death in the duel with Morden out in France, emphasises the loss of his masculine identity, as well as his masculine power. At the end he is no longer at the centre of the plot, with his death narrated by a French valet, a stranger.

In Clarissa, ironically, the threat of male sexuality is tested by virtue. Clarissa challenges Lovelace’s right to superior status, refusing to accept a hierarchy based on gender, having moral basis for actions instead. Clarissa who appears vulnerable has more control, through her death, than the male protagonist. When Clarissa questions the Rakish framework, by refusing to accept her role of sexual sinner, Lovelace’s ‘pose falters and we find that the defiance of convention has its own conventional limits.’ The manipulative power he had at the start has disintegrated. Lovelace is never consistent in being the tyrannical rake. Cohan says ‘when she rejects him after the rape Clarissa forces Lovelace to acknowledge the many inconsistencies in his character which the rake type cannot include.’ His feelings for her continue even after sexual conquest and so Lovelace moves away from being a purely sexual figure. He does not know how to love; ‘Clarissa stands for love; Lovelace stands for malevolence; he is ‘Loveless’.’ Yet his inner struggle illuminates the contradictions of this ‘pure’ masculine desire. He feels guilt and regret as he realises his moral faults and their consequences after Clarissa’s death, accepting and acknowledging his ‘love’ for her, horrified by his rakish behaviour. He is a realistic character and his masculine desire led to the loss of his masculine identity. Masculine desire does have a limit, as not everything can be possessed.

Primary text used:•Richardson, Samuel, Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady, ed. Angus Ross, (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2004).

Secondary Criticism:•Batsaki, Yota. ‘Clarissa; or, Rake versus Usurer’ CALIBER, 93 (2006), 22-48.

•Biggs, Penelope, ‘Hunt, Conquest, Trial: Lovelace and the Metaphors of the Rake’, Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, 22 (1982), 51-64.

•Cohan, Steve, ‘Clarissa and the Individuation of Character’ ELH, 43 (1976), 163-183.

•Eagleton, Terry, The Rape of Clarissa (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1982).

•Gwilliam, Tassie, Samuel Richardson’s Fictions of Gender (California: Stanford University Press, 1993).

•Ishak, Samia Fahmy, A stylistic study of the language of Richardson’s Clarissa, Thesis (Ph.D.) University of Leeds (Department of Linguistics and Phonetics), 1980.