Virtue

Introduction:

"Virtue" took on fresh meaning with the belief in humanity's innate goodness. With the overthrow of the "sour view of the total depravity of man" came belief in natural moral excellence--virtue (Bredvold 8). Louis Bredvold traces the evolution to the Anglican divines: "Virtue, they believed, is the health of the soul, its natural state of well-being" (Bredvold 9-10).

Consequently, Clarissa's virtue is not acquired through religious instruction entirely but evident in her "from the cradle." The virtuous woman radiates this moral excellence, and her virtue often corresponds with her beauty. The word retained the meaning of "the power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural or divine being" in the eighteenth century, a reminder of the godly qualities implicit in the virtuous being (OED). It is no surprise that the virtuous Clarissa is often called divine.

Yet writers of sensibility love to put this beloved virtue under siege. Clarissa, that paragon of virtue, is raped and dies; Saint-Pierre's Virginia drowns clutching her petticoats; Laclos' Tourvel eventually succumbs to Valmont--and, naturally, dies. The trials of virtue suggest the undercurrent of pessimism in sensibility. "The sentimental tribute of a tear exacted by the spectacle of virtue in distress was an acknowledgement at once of man's inherent goodness and of the impossibility of his ever being able to demonstrate his goodness effectively," writes R.F. Brissenden (29).

Notably, virtue is gendered. The phrase "easy virtue," applied to unchaste women since at least "Much Ado About Nothing," suggests the unequivocal relation made between women's sexuality and their virtue, still going strong in the eighteenth century; men's virtuous qualities ranged more freely over the moral spectrum.

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