Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (1747), p. 172

I fancy, my dear, however, that there would hardly be a guilty person in the world, were each suspected or accused person to tell his or her own story, and be allowed any degree of credit.

Clarissa writes these lines to Anna Howe as she is trying to determine how to interpret some of Lovelace's actions early in the novel. This passage points to the hazards of excessive sensibility: over-sympathizing with the wrong type of person can lead to danger, as it does for Clarissa. The ability to be affected by narrative, in particular by the narration of the suffering and misfortune of others, is a mark of sensibility; but, as this passage indicates, the value of this ability is ambiguous. Women are regarded as more susceptible than are men to the persuasive powers of a good story-- for this reason, novels and romances were thought by many to be corrupting influences and something to be excluded from women's education. Clarissa's words here make for an intriguing comparison between her own narrative and that of the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In both novels, other characters are warned of the persuasive powers of the "suspected" or "accused" persons (Clarissa suspected of dishonor and accused of neglect of filial duty, the monster suspected, accused, and guilty of murder). Clarissa may not have the ear of those who can effect her mortal fate (that is, her family), but the existence of her narrative in novel form guarantees that there will be many who think she is guilty of little: the readers. In the case of Frankenstein's monster, his ugliness and deformity guarantee that no character will sympathize with his story-- they cannot bear to be in his presence, not to mention listen to him speak. For him, too, the readers-- who never come face-to-face with the horror of his physiognomy, who don't have anything to fear from his proximity-- are the only hope.

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography