It seems that Lovelace enjoys testing the limits of his power by putting Clarissa into more and more intolerable situations. The party demonstrates that his wickedness knows no bounds, even among other depraved characters like his rakish comrades. Although very bad men themselves, Belford, Belton, Tourville, and Mowbray know that Lovelace’s treatment of Clarissa exceeds their limits of bad behavior and Clarissa’s grace, sense, and beauty shine through even in the middle of a whorehouse, and are perceptible even to hardened rakes. Their response is indicative of both her exemplarity and his inhumanity. Lovelace’s motivation for exposing Clarissa to his libertine friends is not quite clear, but it could be another of his tests: he says that he wants to show her off to them, but their vulgarity would threaten any hope that she’d be won over. This might also explain his choice of the whorehouse for lodgings, as the whores are jealous and resentful of Clarissa. Women’s cruelty, Lovelace remarks, has no boundaries, while men’s stops somewhere. Where Lovelace’s boundary lies remains to be seen, but it is well beyond even the rake’s pale.
Although Clarissa’s innocence and virtue continue to hurt her, she does have some kind of instinct for evil. She cannot content herself with the idea of marrying Lovelace, and she intuitively dislikes the whores even though they appear to be genteel ladies, due to Lovelace’s arrangements of books and instructions for proper behavior. But, naturally, Clarissa feels bad about her dislike and attempts to quell her suspicions. Because Clarissa refuses to be obligated, she also rejects Anna’s money, which might have made escape possible. Her unshakeable codes of behavior once again help to place her in great danger.
The actions of the Harlowes also align with Lovelace’s plots. Their remarkable implacability keeps Clarissa from returning home and their refusal to send money gives her no way to go anywhere else. Mr. Harlowe’s curse throws Clarissa into despair and into deeper dependence on Lovelace. James’s scheme to have Captain Singleton carry Clarissa off is quickly dropped, but it gives Lovelace endless excuses to stay near her and to forbid her from going out.
Sally and Polly act as examples of what could happen to Clarissa and also represent Richardson’s overarching theme of the innocent woman’s subjection to the mischievous rake. Although some of the books Clarissa finds in her room are put there to deceive her, Sally and Polly are characterized by Lovelace as great readers. They give evidence of their cultural literacy by occasionally bursting out into poetic quotation. Gentility, in the case of Sally and Polly, is only a screen over wantonness and cruelty. The fault for their fall is placed in their upbringing, rather than their characters, reminding the reader of Richardson’s characterization of the book as a warning to parents as well as daughters. The mention of Lovelace’s victim Miss Betterton, while her whole story is not yet known, provides another example of the dangers posed by rakes to young women, and Lovelace’s careless treatment of the threat of prosecution shows that little recrimination is likely to come to offenders of the law.