The Power of Words in Richardson’s and Centlivre’s Works

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Words are undeniably a powerful vehicle. In addition to influencing individuals’ mental state, they can also be used to stimulate cognitively enhanced reality to our ordinary life experiences. Traditionally, literary works like plays and novels have been used to exemplify varied fascinating themes (Slagle 79). But a particularly enchanting one is the “power of words.” Indeed, it is the central theme in these two literary works: Samuel Richardson’s novel “Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady” and Susanna Centlivre’s play “A Bold Stroke for a Wife.” By analyzing these two works, it is possible to construe that words can change people’s attitudes, decisions, character, and actions. The main characters in the play and the novel have evidently been transformed, in one way or the other, by words spoken to them (Stuber 558). In literary works, words have great potency as they bring forth motivations, emotions, and authority that change the experiences, interactions, and lives of characters. Building on Centlivre’s play and Richardson’s novel, this essay looks at the effects of authoritative attributes of words on individuals’ actions, on invoking targeted emotions, and activating identity change.

Effects of Authoritative Attributes of Words on Individuals’ Actions

Words rendered by people in higher authority tend to have a more powerful effect in terms of influencing the characters’ attitudes, decisions, character, and actions than those rendered by people in lower positions of authority. In Richardson’s “Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady,” words make it apparent to Clarissa that the erasure of her guilt wholly depends on her redemptive holy spousal union with Solmes. In his review “On Fathers and authority in Clarissa,” Florian Stuber makes some damning exposé of Mr. Harlow, and how his authority put Clarissa in a compromising position (559). He argues that Mr. Harlowe’s words mainly raise concerns regarding authority (Stuber 560). Indeed, anger can be perceived in his utterance as he attempts to impose paternal authority on Clarissa (Richardson 39).

Stuber explains that what can be perceived in Mr. Harlow’s voice is his “hard voice, strong voice, and big voice” (560). It is an authoritative voice that he asserts should be obeyed. He said: “No expostulations! No but’s, girl! No qualifying! I will be obeyed, I tell you; and cheerfully, too! -or you are no child of mine!” (Richardson 40). In some ways, it comes out quite evidently that words spoken by Mr. Harlowe, in his conversation with Clarissa, have a more profound effect on his daughter merely because he enjoys a higher position of authority in society. In this particular interaction, Clarissa’s desires seem to be immaterial to his father. Despite her emotionally worded letter to her father, he still refuses to meet her. In fact, it becomes clear that he refused to read her letters. Just by means of the powerful rendition of words, Clarissa is relegated to the lower levels of society. She is forced to live in the peripherals of the manor where the servants live. Something can be quite clearly made out of this (Richardson 40). Mr. Harlowe, by virtue of his high authority, is privileged with the right to render his daughter to social death. He is more privileged to talk at will, say anything at will, and decide when to listen. In so doing, his utterances may decide the fate of one’s identity.

Similarly, in Centlivre’s play “A Bold Stroke for a Wife,” the sub-theme of male authority under the power of words also manifests. In her review, Slagle (79) observes that Centlivre made sure that she portrayed the passiveness of her character. For instance, Anne found herself in a situation where she had to either yield to the authority of her guardians by pleasing them to keep £30,000, or marry her lover and lose her fortune (Centlivre III.i.415-17). Yet, there is significant evidence in the play indicating that words can render subjects powerless, passive, or vulnerable, particularly when they are expressed by those deemed to be in a position of authority. This goes beyond Slagle’s (80) analysis. For instance, throughout her interaction with her guardians, Anne seems to take a passive position, whereby she may be seen as a commodity that her guardians could exchange or trade for a consideration like money. Additionally, she is like a commodity that Fainwell can admire, buy or dump at will. Overall, evidence from the play and the novel show that the power of words is sometimes dependent on the speaker’s position of authority.

Effects of Words on Expressing Pain to Invoke Emotions

Characters may invoke emotive words to influence a favorable emotional response from other characters that they interact with. In so doing, words stimulate other characters’ sympathy or a mix-up of emotions that lead to distress and confusion. The novel “Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady” relies on the emotive power of words to show the meaning of pain and how people approached it or reacted to it in the eighteenth century. Critically, Mr. Harlow’s voice of authority in the novel seems to have sentenced Clarissa into a state of total anguish and confusion (Richardson 401).

As Stuber clarifies (570), once Clarissa had come to perceive her own authority over time, she found it easy to defy his patriarchal authority yet at the same time became engulfed into a state of anguish and confusion. Stuber (572) attributes this to the guilt of disobeying her father. Her father’s wrath sentences her to physical anguish once it dawns on her that she has received her father’s curse (Richardson 331). Indeed, her very first utterance to Lovelace, who had raped her to dominate her, is that she believes that that is her fate. She said: “My Father’s dreadful curse has already operated upon me in the very letter of it, as to This life; and it seems to me too evident, that it will not be your fault, that it is not entirely completed…” (Richardson 807).

A similar scenario is evident in Centlivre’s play “A Bold Stroke for a Wife.” Anne rejects the idea of giving up her fortune merely to attain sexual freedom and falls into an emotional trauma for going against her guardians’ wishes. In fact, it is a dilemma for her. By attaining sexual freedom, she would lose her financial security (Centlivre I.i.19). Instead, she demonstrates greater resolve to acquire both her financial security and sexual freedom by marrying Colonel Fainwell. In any case, words uttered by her guardians still suggest that, to a considerable extent, she experiences some form of oppression.

Therefore, like Centlivre in her play, Richardson, in “Clarissa: or, History of a Young Lady” diligently circumvents the obvious display of physical pain by the main characters and instead uses words to draw attention to the main character’s physical pain. Richardson seems to have linguistically varied the word pain to draw emphasis on emotional pain instead of physical pain. This is indeed true as, as much as the term “pain” potentially poses as a noun that denotes a sensation, it can also function as a verb that indicates a spirited effort. For instance, Mrs. Harlowe could express discontent about the emotional pain that dwelt within her heart from the pains she had to take to espouse her daughter Clarissa to Mr. Solmes. It should be noted that Clarissa refused to reveal that she herself was experiencing emotional discomfort despite the fact that her situation suggested so (Richardson 335). In this way, Clarissa draws emphasis on the outlying nature of physical pain.

Besides, while the main characters in the novel and the play go through different kinds of pains, both emotional or cognitive and physical pain, those that a reader can directly access from Richardson’s words are emotional pains. Indeed, in the novel, Richardson seems to have avoided making use of the word “pain” to suggest physical pain. In fact, it is plausible to argue that it’s only in a handful of instances where he uses the word to refer to a physical injury. This is apparent when, while referring to her father, Clarissa expresses that he “had the gout upon him” (Richardson 37). Correspondingly, Lord M expresses to Mr. Belford that he has a “gouty paroxysm” (Richardson 37). As it emerges, Mr. Harlowe’s stomach has gout and Lord M’s right hand suffers from gout. Characteristically, however, Richardson utilizes the word “pain” as a noun for suggesting a character’s emotional suffering or anguish (40). This is the case when referring to Clarissa’s strong drive to conform to moral values, or her moral codes, and the difficult state of affairs she has to go through. The power of words, to this extent, helps to draw sympathy on Clarissa.

Similarly, in her play “A Bold Stroke for a Wife,” Centlivre also demonstrates how characters can use words to demonstrate their emotional state of distress or to stimulate sympathy from other characters. For instance, as much as Anne’s initial words in the play could be interpreted as defiant, the words show that she undergoes a state of emotional distress due to undue pressures from her compulsive and unrelenting guardians. She stimulated Betty’s sympathy when she said: “Must I be condemned all my life to the preposterous humor of other people and pointed at by every boy in Town? Oh! I could tear my flesh and curse the hour I was born” (Centlivre I.ii.4-7). From Anne’s statement, what comes out clearly is that she regrets her position, and would rather have died or never become into existence in the first place. Despite the display of her emotional anguish, Betty reveals that Anne is not willing to give up her fortune. This explains why Anne asks Betty, “So you would advise me to give up my own fortune and throw myself upon the colonel’s” (Centlivre I.ii.26-7).

Betty then persuades her to relieve herself of the emotional anguish by taking the easy way out. However, Anne interjects that “that’s not the way, I am sure” (Centlivre I.ii.28-9). In other words, despite her pains, she is unwilling to forego her fortune or freedom. Anne also expresses how she is frustrated with the Prims who demand that she should wear a non-revealing dress and conform to the moral codes of Quakers. For instance, Obadiah Prim demands that she should cover her bosom with a handkerchief. She responds that “I hate handkerchiefs when ’tis not winter, Mr. Prim” (Centlivre II.ii.55-6). She is again asked to conform to Quaker rules. She states: “I wish I were in my grave! Kill me rather than treat me thus” (Centlivre II.ii.79-80). Both scenarios indicate how Anne uses words to demonstrate her emotional anguish and to invoke sympathy.

However, in contrast to Clarissa, Anne gets her man in the end. Indeed, in her review, Slagle (79) draws emphasis on how Centlivre intended to employ varied plot devices where women ultimately get married to those they love, in spite of the pain of guilt and anguish of going against parental authority. Therefore, words are powerful enough to invoke emotions.

Effects of Words on Activation of Identity Change

Words can be coercively used to activate a change of an individual’s identity or decide his or her fate. In reality, words are potent enough to affect individuals’ fate or sense of identity, as well as meanings that they can construct in relation to their place in society. In the context of Richardson’s “Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady” and Centlivre’s “A Bold Stroke for a Wife,” words can be seen to be instrumental in the construction of the identity of the main characters. Clarissa is susceptible to identity change because of the potency of her father’s words. She seems to be quite exposed to identity change by other more seemingly powerful characters depending on the direction of their utterances. A very obvious instance is when words are used to prevail on Clarissa to have a name change – which translates to identity change. This is apparent from her parents’ determination to change her identity through marriage. Afterward, he would become part of the Solmes family.

Owing to fears that the temptations of Lovelace may fatally overwhelm her, Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe persuade their daughter Clarissa to get married to Solmes (Richardson 190). In fact, she is given an ultimatum to do so, showing that words used are more than persuasive, they are coercive. The condition is that in order for her to be re-assimilated into her family members’ high society, she has to accept Solmes’s name, which practically means changing or doing away with her own name. Mr. Harlow stated: “And when Mr. Solmes can introduce you to us, in the temper we wish to behold you in, we may perhaps forgive his wife, although we never can, in any other character, our perverse daughter […]” (Richardson 191).

In principle, Mr. Harlowe’s ultimate condition is that Clarissa must alter her identity to the one that fits his preference. Without this, he would not allow her outlier daughter to be re-granted her privileges by virtue of identifying with the Harlow family. Yet, it is Mr. Harlow’s powerful rendition of words that makes the condition perceptible to Clarissa, and in so doing, it influences her decision-making process.

A comparable scenario can be identified in Susanna Centlivre’s play “A Bold Stroke for a Wife,” as the protagonist is presented with words that grant her sexual freedom. In effect, Colonel Fainwell is the main factor that seems to be capable of granting Anne freedom from sexual oppression, though still facilitating her identity change. However, like in the case with Clarissa, it is clear that women are incapable of constructing their own identity on their own if they succumb to words uttered by their more authoritative male counterparts (Sage 80). Based on the wishes of her father, in case Anne makes the decision to marry someone who her guardian does not approve of, she will be at risk of losing 30,000 pounds. It is on these grounds that Betty, who is her maid, advises her to “give up [her] own fortune and throw [her]self upon the colonel’s” (Centlivre I.ii.26-7).

Therefore, the two scenarios in Richardson’s “Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady” and Centlivre’s “A Bold Stroke for a Wife” evidently show that words are potent enough to affect individuals’ fate or sense of identity, as well as meanings that they can construct in relation to their place in the society.


The play and the novel show that words to indeed have great potency to influence people. Shreds of evidence from some cases in the play show that words can have a significant effect on how people interpret certain dimensions of life, their feelings, as well as other people’s emotions. Words are instrumental in altering or transforming individuals’ destiny of fate. Yet, it also emerges that the power in the words depends on their source. Words that people in higher authority render tend to have a more powerful effect in terms of influencing the characters’ attitudes, decisions, character, and actions. Besides, words also influence emotions and could be used to shape others’ perceptions and emotive reactions. This explains why characters in both works could invoke emotive words to influence a favorable emotional response. They could use words to stimulate other characters’ sympathy or even lead them into distress. At the same time, it is possible to coercively use words to activate a change of an individual’s identity. In reality, words are potent enough to affect individuals’ fate or sense of identity, as well as meanings that they can construct in relation to their place in society.

Works Cited

Centlivre, Susanna. “A Bold Stroke for a Wife.” The Broadview Anthology of Restoration & Early Eighteenth-Century Drama, edited by Douglas Canfieild, Broadview Press, 2001, pp. 903-943.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady. Penguin Publishing Group, 1986

Slagle, Judith. “Performance Review of The Busy Body, by Susanna Centlivre.” Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Theatre Research, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 79-81.

Stuber, Florian. “On Fathers and Authority in Clarissa.” Studies in English Literature, vol. 25, no. 3, 1985, pp. 557-574.