Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos

Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos

Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos

Virtue, Gender, and the Authentic Self in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Rousseau, and Laclos

Synopsis

This book analyzes the ways in which female virtue was tied to a new concept of authenticity in 18th-century sentimental fiction, producing a redefinition of gender relations on the one hand & a re-examination of the value & place of fictional narrative on the other. As the old values on the aristocracy were being overturned & it was no longer possible simply to equate personal worth with rank or title, a new narrative protagonist was born - someone who was authentic, virtuous, & usually female. New questions arose at the same time: What kind of language could represent this authentic self? How far should the virtuous subject be tested, & what is the role of the reader in the process? With in-depth analysis of four important 18th-century epistolary novels - Pamela, Clarissa, La Nouvelle Heloise, & Les Liaisons Dangereuses - the author shows that the female protagonist in these works is forced to protect her body & her writing from violation. She argues that a disturbing equation emerges between revealing the female body & revealing a female sensibility &, therefore, between pleasure - both narrative & visual - & virtue. Concluding with Les Liaisons Dangereuses & the end of the sentimental narrative tradition, the author questions even the possibility of sustaining authentic language. In these four texts, she says, writing becomes an ideological as well as literary tool for the establishment of new cultural values.

Excerpt

In the opening letter of Samuel Richardson Pamela, the heroine is caught by her master in the act of writing a letter. Once he has left the room, Pamela re-creates the scene in a postscript to her parents: "as I was folding up this letter . . . in comes my young master! Good sirs! How I was frightened! I went to hide the letter in my bosom, and he, seeing me tremble, said smiling, 'To whom have you been writing, Pamela?'" In trying to save her text from Mr. B.'s eyes, Pamela draws his gaze toward her body. On the one hand, the body and the text become one, dramatizing an equivalence between the word and the self that forms the core of all sentimental narratives. On the other hand, however, Mr. B. does not yet understand or trust Pamela's writing. Is Pamela's secreting of her letter in her bosom an authentic act of feminine modesty, or is it an act of seduction? What does it imply concerning her writing and her physical self-representation? Over the course of the novel, it will be Mr. B.'s, as well as the reader's, task to interpret Pamela's initial veiling gesture.

This opening scene dramatizes an ambivalence with regard to the question of authenticity, which will be replayed in English and French sentimental narratives over the course of the eighteenth century. The concept of the authentic is interpretable in several ways; in the eighteenth century it was tied to the idea of legal validity, and still encompassed earlier meanings such as "real, actual, genuine." The word "authentic" also implies that which belongs or is proper to the self, and in the nineteenth century it took on the meaning of "authoritative, of being entitled to obedience and respect." All of these meanings come into play in terms of the sentimental narrative, which struggles with the issues of authority and legitimacy in relation to the process of writing and self-representation. Perhaps the greatest paradox for sentimental writing is that the word "authentic" tries to encapsulate a presence -- in terms of the real and the genuine -- that it necessarily precludes. For the authentic to be authentic, it would have to efface itself as a word, and erase its function within the endlessly mediating structure of language.

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