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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
For women, beauty is associated with goodness, but this does not hold true for men. Clarissa is remarkably beautiful, and it is clear that her beauty reveals her ceaseless inner goodness. Even when she is emaciated and near death, Belford calls her a “beautiful skeleton.” On the contrary, the whores at Mrs. Sinclair’s house look nice enough when they are dressed up to look like dignified members of the aristocracy, but when Belford sees them in dishabille he is disgusted by their ugliness. The whores, unlike Clarissa, are vicious and therefore ugly underneath their finery. Lovelace is an exceptionally attractive man, and his good looks go a long way in helping him seduce women and collect minions to help him carry out his contrivances. Belford, on the other hand, is ugly, as Lovelace points out time and again. But in the end, Belford rises above his rakish ways and proves to be a good man, and arguably one of the only characters in the novel who comes to Clarissa’s aid.
Throughout the novel, Clarissa is referred to and described as an angel. Lovelace calls her “my angel” and other people frequently refer to her as a divine woman. She wears white and has an otherworldly goodness that is frequently equated with heaven and the afterlife. Lovelace is determined to defile Clarissa’s purity and prove that she is indeed a woman and not an unearthly being: “And should not my beloved, for her own sake, descend by degrees from goddess-hood into humanity?” On the other hand, Lovelace and Mrs. Sinclair’s whores are associated with devils and demons. Lovelace frequently calls his servant Will, who assists him in his wicked works, “my devil.” After Lovelace rapes Clarissa, she asserts in a letter that he is “Satan himself.” And Lovelace describes Mrs. Sinclair’s whores as diabolical and calls their establishment a “hellhouse,” which again associates him with Satan or some hellish figure: from his first flight with Clarissa, he is mysteriously drawn to Sinclair’s brothel, the setting of numerous deceits and Clarissa’s ultimate desecration.
References to animals occur throughout the novel and, in contrast to the symbol of the angel, they are always associated with the bestial and with sex. Mrs. Sinclair is most often described as an animal and frequently embodies several at once. Lovelace compares women to chickens, easily tricked into sex, or flies to be trapped in his web. Belford tells Lovelace that to have sex with Clarissa would be a shame, even if he married her first, because it would bring her down to the level of an animal. In the “mad papers” Clarissa writes after her rape, she describes a parable about a lady who attempts to raise and tame a young tiger into a lapdog, only to be savagely shredded to bits once the beast returns to its true nature. This symbolizes her experience with Lovelace, the personification of this vicious, untamable creature.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Clarissa: or, the History of a Young Lady!