Clarissa

by: Samuel Richardson

Letters 471–537, Conclusion, Postscript

In explicit contrast to Clarissa’s angelic transcendence, Mrs. Sinclair’s death finds her howling and looking like a beast. Her death is about the body, while Clarissa’s is about the soul, and surrounding Mrs. Sinclair are not loving admirers but disgusting whores and careless doctors. She is tortured by pain, which is increased by an unnecessary amputation, as well as by terror of hell and her inability to obtain forgiveness for her treatment of Clarissa. Where Clarissa had plenty of time to prepare for death, Mrs. Sinclair has far too little, although she lingers in horrible pain for a long time. Her sins are too extreme, and although she wants to repent and beg forgiveness of God, she finds herself unable. Tomlinson’s death is a minor event in the text, but it amplifies the lesson: he, too, dies friendless, in pain and ignominy, wishing for Clarissa’s forgiveness.

Lovelace’s death provides another example of poetic justice, but beyond this it encodes several main themes of the text. Formally, the duel between Lovelace and Morden mirrors the duel between Lovelace and James that began the novel. In this case, Lovelace goes abroad, not knowing that his friends have encouraged this to get him out of harm’s way. His death therefore occurs on foreign soil, representing his position as a wanderer cast out of his home. He meets Morden there as a result of a series of accidents: Morden did not go abroad to seek Lovelace, but rather to escape England in the wake of Clarissa’s death; however, he is there, indirectly, because of Lovelace’s actions. As Belford points out, it is fitting that Lovelace’s instrument, Leman, should be the one who brings about his death; Lovelace is caught in his own web.

A duel is an act of honor and chivalry, rather than one of violence or brutality. While much of the novel has revolved around tropes of civil law (the idea of the trial, the threats of litigation), this scene shifts into the older code of chivalry. Duels were illegal in England at this time (perhaps another reason this one takes place on the Continent), but this extralegal system of justice has resonances of gallantry and romance that are absent from the court system. Lovelace and Morden speak in French, the language of chivalry; they treat each other with manly respect. Lovelace accepts his death as a just vengeance, and Morden agrees with him but is nevertheless sorrowful and expects that he will regret the action.

Lovelace’s last words parallel Clarissa’s: they both speak the word blessed, neither specifying what is blessed. Clarissa, it is implied, is referring to divinity; she might mean “blessed God” or “blessed mercy.” Lovelace, delirious up to this point, gives us less context, but he is more likely referring to Clarissa herself. Clarissa’s final word is Jesus, implying that she sees him and is ascending to heaven. Lovelace says “let this expiate.” The “this” might apply to his death itself, but it might also refer to his descent to hell. It is perhaps Lovelace’s eternal suffering that will expiate his sins against Clarissa.

One of the more gratifying instances of poetic justice is in the case of Belford, who during the course of the novel undergoes a transformation from rake to gentleman—the plan Clarissa had intended for Lovelace. In the end, it is Belford who learns all the intended lessons of the story: he has renounced the immoral lifestyle of rakes and has become Clarissa’s closest and most helpful confidante. In turn, he marries Charlotte Montague, Lovelace’s well-heeled and respected cousin, and has a son who eventually inherits Lord M.’s estate. As a result of Belford’s reform and good character, he has reaped the riches formerly promised to Lovelace, including his uncle’s inheritance and the admiration of Clarissa. The final excerpt of the novel is not an epistle but Belford’s direct narration: he has surpassed Lovelace even in the written word.

In the Postscript, Richardson directly responds to criticisms of Clarissa’s tragic conclusion, in particular the perceived lack of justice for the story’s characters. Readers wished for their beloved Clarissa to achieve her due reward while still alive, and for the villains to be appropriately punished on earth for their sins. However, Richardson offers his own interpretation of Clarissa’s purpose, which is “to inculcate upon the human mind, under the guise of an amusement, the great lessons of Christianity.” He believes that Lovelace’s fate is determined by a series of ironies that are perhaps more brutal than any physical punishment. Lovelace achieves an end that is unintentionally set into motion by his own cohorts: Mrs. Sinclair, who helped drug Clarissa before the rape; Sinclair’s whores, who had Clarissa arrested; and Joseph Leman, who provoked Lovelace’s fatal duel with Morden. And a true Christian will agree, Richardson suggests, that Clarissa’s redemption in heaven makes a better ending than any kind of earthly happiness could. Richardson’s definition of poetic justice is therefore directly linked with the principles of Christianity, as opposed to superficial, earthly retribution.

Richardson also discusses the moral superiority of tragedy. He quotes an extensive passage from a Joseph Addison essay in the Spectator explaining that “the principal design of tragedy is to raise commiseration and terror in the minds of the audience,” thus inspiring them to be modest, merciful, and fearful of earthly misfortunes. He notes how well Clarissa performs its moral purpose, giving each character the life he or she deserves, including Lovelace, with whom many readers tended to sympathize. In response to their sympathies for his great antagonist, he quotes Rene Rapin, who argues that while tragedy provokes fear and compassion for the good characters who suffer misfortune, it calls for a different moral response when a despicable character reaches a tragic end: “there is an injustice in being moved at the afflictions of those who deserve to be miserable.” Therefore, any readers who sympathize with Lovelace, the irrefutable villain of Clarissa, are misinterpreting Richardson’s intention.