Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Clarissa, Anorexic?

Last week we briefly touched on the contested critical interpretation that Clarissa suffers and eventually dies from anorexia. This is what I had assumed about the novel before signing up for the class, having heard from others that Clarissa, in blunt terms, was about a girl who "is raped, gets anorexia, and dies."

I am interested to see how this diagnosis holds up in the end, and I found a few relevant sources that might help to think about anorexia and Clarissa's lack of appetite and thin wrists as I continue to read.

The OED defines anorexia as a "want of appetite," and specifies anorexia nervosa as "a condition marked by emaciation, etc., in which loss of appetite results from severe emotional disturbance." A few of the early citations seem to use the word to describe extreme religious fasters, and only the citations from the mid-nineteenth century onward specify anorexia as a mental and physical medical condition.

The following pages are excerpted from Peter Shaw's "A New Pracitce of Physic"--a kind of WebMD for 1745, or more likely a manual for other physicians. (There's something I really like about the diction and syntax in some of these sentences, like: "When the thoughts or sight of proper food, create a sickness in the stomach, or a tendency to vomit, 'tis called nausea." It's a sentence you could dance to.)

In this account, anorexia is generally considered a prolonged loss of appetite, and Shaw mentions many different causes from hard drinking to having too much tea. The most interesting causes listed are "passions of the mind, as fear, etc." and "suppression of evacuation, as the menses, etc." Aside from the preceding examples, Shaw refrains from discussing anorexia in gendered terms and characterizes anorexia as a general disorder. This doesn't seem to be the same anorexia that people think of today.

Facsimile Page ImageFacsimile Page ImageFacsimile Page Image
Another interesting source is a critical article by Gillian Brown: "Anorexia, Humanism, and Feminism" in the Yale Journal of Criticism, which can be found here. She ultimately argues, "The anorexic interdiction against food removes the self from social space in order to secure as well as redraw the dominion of selfhood. Thus the ultimate aim of the anorexic critique of humanism is to compose a sturdier model of self-possession by clearing the space of the self's operations." I think that Clarissa's philosophical concern with her own freedom shows that she is negotiating the same sort of questions that the article tries to reckon with, but I'm not too sure if she becomes anorexic in order to redefine her own subjectivity. Brown refers often to the work of Wollstonecraft and Rousseau, both of whom published after Richardson, so I wonder to what extent her article can be used to understand Clarissa's condition.

No comments: