Judging Clarissa's Heart

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This essay considers literary sentimentalism’s contribution to the modern discourses of autonomy by bringing into focus its under-read motif of judgment. The idea that one should judge for oneself, especially in moral matters, stands at the center of Samuel Richardson’s paradigmatic sentimental novel, Clarissa; or The History of a Young Lady. But Clarissa upholds more than one understanding of judgment, with varying implications for sentimentalism’s place within the larger liberal Enlightenment. On the one hand, Richardson’s heroine represents her judgments as instinctive responses, the work of her judging heart, which mysteriously reveals God’s laws. On the other hand, she understands judgment to entail scrutinizing the heart from a standpoint of relative impartiality. This latter account is sentimentalist because it takes impartiality to be a contingency of Clarissa’s epistolary friendship with Anna Howe, who helps Clarissa gain distance from her heart’s promptings by becoming a co-spectator of them. I suggest that the first, broadly religious, paradigm of judgment identifies Clarissa only ambiguously as an independent moral agent: while she is justified by the highest principles to defy worldly authority, she nonetheless remains God’s obedient servant. By contrast, the second, broadly secular paradigm--one that resonates with a Kantian tradition of aesthetics extending from Kant to Hannah Arendt--mobilizes an at once less transcendental and more compelling understanding of autonomy as moral independence nurtured by friendship and debate.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)85-109
Number of pages25
JournalELH - English Literary History
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Literature and Literary Theory


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