Monday, February 4, 2008

The relationship between ethics and rhetoric in Clarissa

After reading through this week's assignment, I started to wonder about Richardson's thoughts on the ethics of reading and writing practices in the 18th century. Before writing Pamela, Richardson wrote a letter-writing manual called Familiar Letters, which instructed its readers on how to properly construct letters in different situations. With this in mind, I wonder if Clarissa betrays any of Richardson's original interest in letter-writing manuals. Some observations have led me to believe that aspects of Clarissa are still within this letter-writing manual genre.

I noticed that Clarissa and Lovelace's writing styles fall into classical conceptions of the plain style and the grand style, respectively. In general, Clarissa's use of language is economical. Her descriptions are clear and precise, her arguments are tightly constructed, and every object of analysis--including her own emotions--is rationally dissected in a philosophical manner. Clarity through language is immensely important to Clarissa so that the thought-process of her reader(s) is not directed onto the wrong track. When someone uses her words as a reason for why they are on a different track (i.e. whenever Anna says she believes Clarissa has feelings for Lovelace), Clarissa is quick to isolate those words and break down their meanings to see if they suited her argument or not.

Lovelace, however, is interested in moving and persuading others through the eloquence of his words. For example, in L64.1 (270) Lovelace tries to persuade Clarissa that there are only two alternatives in her situation: marry Solmes or seek refuge in himself. He tries to eliminate the possibility of escape through death and does not dare suggest that she escape to her Cousin Morden or attempt to lay claim to her own estate (both of which she has already considered through her own reasoning of the situation).

He consistently attempts to plead his case to Clarissa through hyperbolic language intended to intensify the purported message behind his words. For example, in the cited letter, he begins "Good God! What is now to become of me!...My feet benumbed with midnight wanderings through the heaviest dews that ever fell: my wig and my linen dripping with the hoar frost dissolving on them!" He then goes on to paint himself as the anguished jilted lover, too despondent to even care about his appearance, let alone adjust his wig. The letter ends with "Your ever-adoring yet almost desponding LOVELACE!" (exclamation marks abound), which stands in stark contrast to Clarissa's consistent use of "Your humble servant." At times, it is difficult for Clarissa to see beyond these words, but as a reader who sees both Lovelace's and Clarissa's letters, it is easy to see that Lovelace uses language disingenuously to move his readers in the direction of his desires.

I think Richardson is actively participating in a historical conversation about ethical writing, which began with Cicero. In his writings on rhetoric, Cicero defined the instructive and rational plain style as most suitable to the ends of philosophers, and he defined the persuasive grand style as most suitable to the ends of politicians. During Cicero's time, the grand style was viewed as the best style because it was more rhetorically demanding and of the most "persuasive stylistic register," according to Peter Auski in "Christian Plain Style: The Evolution of a Spiritual Ideal." However, the Catholic church rejected the grand style because it only appealed to learned and cultured men, not the simple and pious. The Church adopted the plain style as the most direct and effective method of religious instruction, and the plain style came to be equated with moral virtue. According to Auski, this attitude lasted through the 17th century.

It is noteworthy that Auski does not extend this Christian view of the plain style to the 18th century, so I wonder if the 18th century saw some debate between the plain and grand styles. There was definitely a focus on the relationship between ethics and writing, evidenced by the plethora of letter-writing manuals written in both England and France.

In light of these ideas, I wonder: is Clarissa a type of letter-writing manual in defense of the plain style? Why might Richardson feel the impulse to moralize language? And is the tie between ethics and rhetoric an arcane idea to us in the 21st century?

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