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Israel, June 2001

Lisa Zunshine
Richardson's Clarissa and the Traps of Mind Reading

Several critics have commented on the insistence with which Lovelace and Clarissa, the otherwise preternaturally insightful protagonists of Samuel Richardson’s 1748 novel Clarissa, "misread" each other’s minds. Clarissa seems to have no inkling of Lovelace’s insecurity and fear of cuckoldry and the lengths to which he is ready to go to feed these inner demons. Lovelace, on his part, does not realize, until it is too late, that Clarissa was one woman in whom he could have trusted. Clarissa and Lovelace’s grim commitment to mutual misinterpretation has prompted literary critic William Warner to ask, "Why do our protagonists—who have on many occasions demonstrated themselves to be astute psychologists—experience these lapses in evaluating each other?" (84). Warner’s answer is that Lovelace and Clarissa are so caught up in their "radically different" views of the world and of themselves in this world and so invested in their mode of "struggle for interpretation," that they tend to downplay or ignore any evidence that could make a dent in their protective armor and bring them together. We can turn for an alternative explanation to the reader-response school of contemporary literary criticism or to Bakhtin’s critique of the notion of a transcendent meaning and argue that "misreadings" constitute rather than plague Clarissa and Lovelace’s interpretive efforts and that the hypothetical comedic resolution (marriage) imagined as a logical outcome of the characters’ "correct" interpretation of each other’s thoughts would necessarily ignore rather than resolve these useful misprisions.

The goal of my essay is to propose yet another theoretical framework for considering feats and failures of mind-reading in Clarissa—complementary rather than alternative to the ones outlined above. I put such an emphasis on complementarity because, by the virtue of various disciplinary allegiances and prejudices, the foundational assumptions of the fields on which I am drawing—cognitive evolutionary psychology and anthropology—are often perceived as antagonistic to the foundational assumptions of contemporary literary and cultural studies. I address this perception later in my essay, but only briefly, because I am interested here in testing the possibility of the "cognitive" and "literary-theoretical" approaches working together rather than in rehearsing objections to such a collaboration. My main argument is that in Clarissa, Richardson simultaneously valorizes his characters’ commitment to reading each other’s mind and critiques such a commitment, and that by deploying recent insights into our mindreading processes, provided by cognitive evolutionary scientists, we may begin to understand the foundation of this uneasy valorization. My essay is divided into two parts. In the first part, I discuss our evolved cognitive ability to attribute mental states to other people, as theorized, among others, by cognitive evolutionary psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, and I offer some preliminary observations about the ways in which this ability is crucial for our interaction with the literary text. In the second part, I turn to Richardson’s Clarissa and show that it mobilizes the tension between the "instinctive" treatment of the language of the body (particularly, the language of the eyes) as a privileged source of information about the person’s true feelings and the fallibility of interpretations based on such privileging. In different contexts, such a tension has been explored by contemporary literary critics focusing on the ways in which our body (and body language) is culturally constructed and thus always open to (or consciously posed for) misinterpretation. I suggest that cognitive evolutionary psychology adds an important extra dimension to such arguments by drawing our attention to the fact that we construct our world both "culturally" and "cognitively" and that the "cultural" construction is grounded in, responds to, and struggles with our "cognitive" construction.

Lisa Zunshine
Dept. of English
University of Kentucky
Lexington, KY, 40502-0027






Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles