Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Courting Death: Necrophilia in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Courting Death: Necrophilia in Samuel Richardson's Clarissa

Article excerpt

Though the psychological parallelism between Lovelace and Clarissa has been previously examined, their analogous sexual identifications have received only brief attention. From Clarissa's threats of suicide and Lovelace's anesthetized rape of her, to her drawn-out death and funeral and Lovelace's desire for her exquisite corpse, Richardson continually points us to the however unpleasant realization that the sexual taboo Clarissa and Lovelace share is death-in-sex. Indeed Clarissa can be seen as Richardson's own courtship of death: the novel is riddled with descriptions and imagery equating desire with death, and is ultimately devoted to painting a protracted portrait of Clarissa's beautiful demise. But the powerful theme of desire-in-death goes much beyond the protracted rape and death-bed scenes--it actually marries the notorious antagonists. It is precisely at the point where sex and death are linked that Lovelace and Clarissa themselves conjoin.

To begin rethinking the way in which Lovelace and Clarissa are aligned in their attitudes toward sexuality, we must define the role of the death-in-love theme in eighteenth-century social thought. Thanatos and Eros can be traced to the changing religious, social, and artistic milieus of the eighteenth century. The most important sign of the shifting sensibilities in the period is the emergence of what Philippe Aries calls "the cult of the beautiful dead" or what Terry Castle refers to as a "romantic cult of the dead," a growing subjective fascination with idealized images of the deceased. Beautification was used to hide the physical signs of mortality and decay and to overcome any sense of separation for loss of individuation. By 1750, an attitude toward death which Aries calls "the death of the Other" is securely in place, distinguished by a more secularized philosophy of death. While the influence of Puritanism simplified funeral rites and resisted the sentimental, by the middle of the eighteenth century a complete reversal had taken place. According to David Stannard, "the emphasis was now placed heavily on the individual who had been so fortunate as to die, with little said about the community's loss."(1) This leads to a shift away from ecclesiastical rites to a more individualized control over one's own death. The increased secularization of death thereby produces a new fascination with the body and corpses, spawning scientific research into the mysteries of death.

Even as the scientific and philosophic emphasis on rationality tried to combat death by exploration and explanation, a new uncertainty about the status of the body and a return to superstition was equally prevalent. Elisabeth Bronfen notes that "the eighteenth century marks an increase in necrophilia, in an anxiety about premature burial and a fear of the living or reanimated corpse, the vampire."(2) Aries discusses the psychological origins of the age's anxieties, stating, "It was in the depths of the unconscious, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that the disturbing changes occurred. It was in the world of the imagination that love and death came together until their appearances merged."(3) The eroticizing of death is a further testimony to the failure of eighteenth-century rationalism to tackle successfully the problem of death and render it truly a thing of indifference.(4) The emerging sex-death dialectic and its opposition to puritanical notions thereby produced countless motifs in art and literature which associate death with love, thanatos with eros.

Both in funeral practices themselves and, more strongly, in literature, the eroticizing of death flourished from the early eighteenth century onward. The literary manifestations began tentatively with the poetry of the graveyard poets: Parnell's "Night Piece on Death" (1721), Young's "Night Thoughts" (1742), and Blair's "The Grave" (1743). Death-in-love scenes were common in early conduct books such as Mary Davys' The Accomplished Rake (1727). …

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