Clarissa

by: Samuel Richardson

Letters 397–457

Anna writes that Morden cannot convince the Harlowes to relent. They do not think she is as sick as she is. At Belford’s next visit to Clarissa he finds that she is sitting and writing at her coffin as though it were a desk. A letter from Mrs. Norton relates that Morden had shown the Harlowes letters he’d gotten from Lovelace and from Anna, which convince them both that Lovelace had been willing to marry Clarissa and that she is very sick. Mrs. Harlowe, the uncles, and even Arabella show some signs of softening, but James hardens everybody’s hearts. Morden is infuriated and refuses to stay with them anymore.

Clarissa has made up packets of letters, in order according to date, for Belford to open after she is dead. She has also made an inventory of her possessions and lets him know where her keys are. Her sight is becoming misty, and her breath short. Morden writes another letter, saying he is delaying his visit to her because he hopes to bring blessings from her family, as she’d requested. Against Clarissa’s wishes, Belford writes to Morden to tell him to hurry, and Dr. H. writes to Mr. Harlowe to let him know his daughter’s real condition.

Clarissa speaks of being thankful for her gradual death, which has given her time to prepare herself for heaven. Lovelace is so anxious for news that he cannot wait at home, so he rides out to meet his messenger halfway. Clarissa asks Belford about Lovelace, and he tells her of his affliction. She pities him if his conscience has woken up and says he needs no greater punishment. She admits she could have loved him. Belford and the minister urge her to see Lovelace in hopes of securing his reformation, but she says she has too little time left and is too weak to contend with Lovelace. Lovelace, hearing of this, is remorseful and repentant.

Analysis

While those around her encourage Clarissa to struggle to live, she calmly makes logistical preparations for her death. She is not only calm in the face of death; she actually enjoys the thought of it, so much so that she’s disappointed when the doctor tells her she still has a few weeks to live. Death promises eternal joy, while her life on earth is irredeemably ruined. The decorations she chooses for her coffin show that she is also interested in how her death will wrap up her story. The main image is of “a crowned serpent, with its tail in its mouth, forming a ring, the emblem of eternity.” There are three smaller images: a winged hourglass, to show the shortness of life; an urn; and “the head of a white lily snapped short off, and just falling from the stalk.” This lily symbolizes Clarissa’s life; she has more than once been compared to the flower in her beauty and grace, and the lily is also a Christian symbol of redemption. The lily is broken and in the process of falling, reflecting Clarissa’s experience throughout the story: she too has been frozen in the act of falling from her “stalk.” As she interprets it, her demise was triggered by her illicit correspondence with Lovelace, which happened very near the beginning of the book. Under this trope, for the entirety of the story Clarissa has been very slowly nearing death.

Clarissa is not, however, a book in which the end is prefigured from the beginning. It takes an extraordinarily long time for us to know whether it will follow a comic (in the sense of having a happy ending) or tragic track. The events in the first few volumes could have led to Lovelace’s reform and a happy wedding at the end. Indeed, in Pamela the heroine marries the rakish man who has kidnapped her, after her virtue precipitates his reform—so this may have been what Clarissa’s readers were expecting. The interminable uncertainty of Clarissa’s position and Lovelace’s frequent near-reforms allows the novel to progress without indicating that it will have to end with her death. However, once the rape occurs, this should be certain, as it was the tradition in novels that ruined women could only find happiness in death. Regardless of Lovelace’s genuine remorse and desire to marry her, Clarissa is determined—destined, but also perhaps resolved—to die as soon as she knows what has happened. She insists that she does not bring death upon herself, but she knows that she is now in the position of one who must die and begins to act accordingly.

While she calmly makes her arrangements, those around Clarissa frequently speak of her as an angel. This is not a new character for Clarissa; Lovelace has often referred to her as such, but the angelic imagery becomes more concentrated as the book nears its end. Lovelace’s dream explicitly envisions Clarissa being carried to heaven, while he descends to hell. Beyond imagery, Clarissa is angelic in her ability to forgive the people who have harmed her. She wishes Lovelace well and can freely admit that she might have been able to love him. She excuses the actions of her family and is sorry for what they will suffer after she is gone.