Date of Award
Bachelor of Arts
Dr. Raymond Hilliard
While Samuel Richardson meticulously documents the slow decline of his heroine in the novel Clarissa, other characters in the novel struggle to understand a death that for them has no rational explanation. The novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, also epistolary and published thirty-five years after Clarissa, allows for a similar interpretation. Contemporary French reactions to Madame de Tourvel’s death cannot compare to the English response elicited by Clarissa’s, but, like Richardson, Laclos also introduces certain social forces that seal his heroine’s fate from without while her own psychological experience of virtue works to destroy her from within.
While any number of factors contribute to the two women’s deaths in these lengthy novels, this analysis will focus strictly on those elements that function as commentary against societies that cannot sustain their virtuous members. One problem that Richardson and Laclos develop early on in both of their novels is the difficulty virtuous women experience in trying to find an adequate place in society; the equally unstable natures of Clarissa’s position as a single woman and Tourvel’s position as a married woman—resulting in the rejection of their virtue among their friends and neighbors—provides an early indication that they do not belong in their environments. A second societal problem treated in different ways by the two novelists is the role the family plays in the deaths of the virtuous heroines. Richardson and Laclos indicate that, for very different reasons, Clarissa and Tourvel cannot survive in societies that organize family relationships around wealth and status. Related to flawed family values is the problem of the power of appearances to govern society in the novels, a power that the two heroines fail to understand. Both their inability to see through false appearances in moments that are critical for success in their worlds and others’ reliance on false appearances to form judgments about true character contribute significantly to their shared fate. Richardson and Laclos use these perilous circumstances and the voluntary manner of both deaths to highlight the serious problems present in societies that work to expel virtue.
Nunan, Carmel Rosanna, "The death of the virtuous heroine as social criticism in Clarissa and Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (2008). Honors Theses. 635.