Watching the Detectives

The experience of pandemic and quarantine is, for me, an experience of increased surveillance and monitoring. I now spend far more time seeing and hearing the people I make my life with, I spend far more time being seen and being heard by them, and I even spend far more time seeing my own mirrored face and hearing my own recorded voice. I project myself and the space around me, and I watch the projections of others, peering through, or at least confronting, their little tiled windows. In this fishbowl world, we watch and are watched. What comes from this profusion of observation?

Clarissa Harlowe is watched. She is watched by those to whom she is an example, a paragon and then a warning. She is watched by those who seek to bend her to their will. She is watched by those who capture and imprison her. After she is tricked into leaving the prison of Harlowe Place, Clarissa is placed in her own fishbowl. She is kept in a series of small, close rooms, often under the surveillance of guards in plain clothes. She is watched from keyholes and with askance glances. She is unwittingly placed in situations carefully designed to elicit some gesture or reaction that will belie her thoughts and feelings.

Clarissa is also a detective, reading the signs and situations she is placed in for clues. She notices the “odd winking eye” of the apparently genteel widow who is in fact the madam of a brothel; and she reads inexplicable familiarity in the exchange of two people who claim to have never met. Clarissa watches Lovelace closely, trying to discern his motives, his true feelings, his character, his designs for her. As she writes to Anna Howe, “we are both great watchers of each other’s eyes.”

But Clarissa is a detective in a contrived world, a world limited and constrained by Lovelace’s duplicity. As Alexander Creighton’s essay in this series so wonderfully shows, Clarissa is a fact-checker in a world of misinformation and endless, sensationalizing spin. She can catch a glimpse of disguised emotion by glancing at Lovelace through a mirror as she leaves the room, and she can scrutinize the motives of Captain Tomlinson or any of the other characters Lovelace creates and directs in his elaborate production, but she is deprived of the tools she needs to interpret these clues. Lovelace knows this because he has designed her deprived world. Clarissa’s attempts to discern the true status of their London lodgings are futile: “The dear sly rogue looking upon me, too, with a view to discover some emotion in me: that I can tell her lay deeper than her eye could reach, though it had been a sunbeam.” Clarissa’s “eye-beams,” as they are later called by Tomlinson, may be powerful enough to pierce the conscience of a lesser plotter, but Lovelace’s mind and motives are not laid bare by them.

Clarissa and Lovelace fail to understand one another, in spite of their continuous observation and interpretation, because there can be no trust between them. Suspicion and deception color every gesture and every word. But the tantalizing promise of understanding another is not made at the level of the plot, told from two perspectives and in a series of letters written, improbably, in the moment of experience. The promise of understanding is made at two higher levels. Through their correspondence with others, with Anna Howe and John Belford especially, Clarissa and Lovelace promise to make themselves understood to someone else, whether an intimate friend or a wider audience within the novel. And through his enormous production of letters, offering an intricate and dynamic kaleidoscope of perspectives on one person trapped in a series of rooms, Samuel Richardson promises the reader a comprehensive “History of a Young Lady.”

Most of the novel is comprised of letters written between two close friends, “a double but separate correspondence,” as Richardson describes it in the novel’s preface. Such a form promises extraordinary intimacy and openness. Clarissa and Anna, Lovelace and Belford—these pairs have long histories with one another, they explicitly promise to keep nothing back in their correspondence, and they are willing to be truthful with each other, even when that truth might sting. Each pair has established mutual trust when the novel opens, and so, when we read these private letters sent between friends, we expect to understand the characters involved because of this special access we are granted.

The effects of this special access are interesting. An unassuming reader might be lulled into believing that understanding another is straightforward. So long as that other opens their heart in a letter or direct statement, so long as they give a minute description of their thoughts, feelings, actions, and world, so long as they write in the heat of the moment, hand still trembling from the experience, then you can understand what it was like to be them in that moment. But on another level, this formal mode calls into question the very idea of being able to understand another person, by revealing the artifice of the setup (writing in the moment; discursively relating one’s experience, and so on), and the lengths to which people go to hide themselves from others. What we read over Anna’s shoulders is Clarissa’s open, truthful description of how little she understands Lovelace, of her own reluctant attempts to obfuscate, of her suspicion that she is being tricked at every step. What we read over Jack’s shoulders is Lovelace’s glory in deception and stratagem, his desire to trick and hide and play and control. The window provided by the private correspondence between close friends opens out onto a shifting, unreliable scene.

The promise of understanding offered at the level of the novel is also broken. The reader is provided with an overwhelming wealth of observation, information, and description. The sheer size of the novel is famously overwhelming. But even with this amassed information, it becomes apparent at around the midpoint how much is being left out, by necessity, and that there is an agent choosing what to include and what to omit. The editor begins to insert himself, literally, remarking when he is summarizing or abridging to avoid repetition. Letters are compressed, condensed, and abridged; letters are interpolated and glossed; unseen letters are alluded to but not provided. There is an internal necessity to this editorial work, for having multiple perspectives on the same event, it turns out, does not always aid understanding. Multiple perspectives can be repetitive and boring, and not all information is relevant or interesting. But the necessity of abridgment, insertion, synopsis, and summary also suggest that the reader cannot handle the full quantity of information. The full history of a young lady is incommunicable.

It is easy to cast the observer as a passive figure, watching from the sidelines where the view is better. But this form of observation, while it promises greater impartiality and better epistemic access, blocks engagement. Reading Clarissa, for me, was an experience of mounting frustration and anger. Her plight is described in minute detail, but no one acts to help her, and she is prevented by oppressive structures from fully acting to help herself. She is constrained, deceived, raped, imprisoned, and further deceived. What do the people who surround her do? They observe, describe, and comment. Belford, best positioned to intervene for many reasons, accepts the posts of nagging conscience to Lovelace and chronicler and executor to Clarissa—observational and discursive posts. As a reader, I am powerless to intervene on Clarissa’s story and the structures of power and deception that hobble her. I am left with a lengthy (although not complete) history of a young lady who suffers, dies, and is buried. I can know, with incredible detail, what she thinks and feels, and I can know, as she cannot, what those around her are saying and thinking and feeling, but that knowledge does not give me power to help.

For me, the experience of reading Clarissa raises a surprisingly timely question: Can we imagine, instead of the passive, disengaged observer—the observational form that Richardson presents in the novel and foists on his reader—an active, engaged, understanding observer? Such a figure would not simply “scroll through” the eye-witness accounts of suffering and injustice, and they would not simply re-tweet and hashtag, or “share” content on those topics. But they also would not be confined to the delimited, distorting, and deceptive windows of our online world. The engaged observer would have the ability to act and interact, without losing the epistemic credentials that allow them to act well. Those credentials are crucial, especially, as Creighton’s essay shows so well, in a world awash with misinformation. But they must be supplemented with active engagement, understanding, and feeling with and for others.

Lauren Kopajtic is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University. She specializes in eighteenth-century moral philosophy and literature and her work has appeared in Adam Smith Review, Hume Studies and The Journal of Scottish Philosophy.

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