In both Clarissa and Evelina, the narratives are clearly structured around the dominance of a male patriarchy, according to which the role of the woman is clearly defined by the hegemony exerted by the male. In other words, the female heroines of both stories, are forced to conform to the normativities established by this patriarchy, and this creates the main tension of both narratives. What both stories emphasize, however, is the way in which the marriage contract becomes a fundamental tool for the exercising of male patriarchal power. In other words, the control of the freedom to marry who one wants is itself a statement of individual freedom: power in these societies on the level of gender in a certain sense is concentrated in the marriage contract.
Certainly, it can be conceded that Clarissa and Evelina both explain this power of the marriage contract in different ways. Yet the crucial role of the contract in preserving male hegemony is nevertheless clear in both stories. For example, in the case of Clarissa, the plot and the tragedy of the narrative explicitly emerges from the issue of marriage: Clarissa is implored by her family to marry a nobleman, who she finds repulsive, so that the family may become socially mobile, eventually joining the aristocracy. The marriage contract thus operates here on two levels, although they are fundamentally inter-related: firstly, marriage aids in determining the normativities of class. Secondly, marriage is, in the case of Clarissa, not the result of an autonomous choice, but rather the female gender role is merely used in submission to the desires of social mobility: in so far as this entire social structure is patriarchal in character, there is a close relation to maintaining class difference and maintaining patriarchy. What Clarissa shows is how the female gender role in this social discourse is one that is entirely constructed so as to support the existing male hierarchy: this social structure does not recognize the autonomous woman’s choice, and marriage becomes a way by which to maintain the status quo of subjugated women roles in society.
Evelina approaches the centrality of the marriage contract from another perspective, but one that still emphasizes its centrality to the male patriarchy. Namely, Evelina, of questionable social status, is ultimately redeemed in the story through her marriage to a nobleman. In this sense, Evelina endorses the marriage contract and the woman’s need to attach herself to a “distinguished” gentleman of society as the only means to female happiness. But here such happiness is entirely controlled by the norms of this same patriarchal society. Although not critical of the marriage contract, a critical reading of Evelina shows that the marriage contract is ultimately the highest objective of the woman in this society; but this objective is entirely not the woman’s own, but rather the place conferred to the female gender subject in the dominant male society. Both stories thus provide us views into how male hegemony functions through social rituals such as marriage.
My colleague makes some astute points about virtue and what is expected from a woman in the two novels Evelina and Clarissa. As my colleague notes, these are expectations that emerge entirely from the male perspective: hence, beauty and fidelity are claimed to be the highest virtues of women. What is lacking here is the autonomy of the woman to assert her own identity and her own values. The pressure of the male hegemony is too strong for these women to assert this autonomy and in both stories the female protagonists are essentially slaves to a system that is not only of their own making, but one that degrades their respective subjectivities, reducing them to the “expected” female gender roles.