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Written by Timothy Sexton
At one point, Lovelace describes in detail peeking through a keyhole and silently spying upon Clarissa, describing a vision of her down on her knees, head buried into her bed while the room echoes with the sound of sobbing. In that instant, Richardson is creating what might be termed a meta-symbol: a symbol applicable not so much to the story itself as to the experience of reading the story. It is a symbol which situates the reader firmly into the voyeuristic role of Lovelace: reading the intimate letters of his fictional creations is tantamount to peeking through a keyhole at unsuspecting women.
The letters through which the story is told are not just a requirement for the epistolary form which Richardson himself helped to invent. These are not mere correspondence sent from one person to another for the purpose of catching up on gossip and history and the like. They also serves as a form of self-reflection and meditation and a working out of insight into the psyche of the self. This aspect of the letters and the story’s emphasis on examining the nature of virtue transform them into a symbol of Puritan belief. One of the lesser known aspect of Puritanism is that it was a religious order which placed greater emphasis upon diary-keeping, journaling, and letter-writing than any other. In fact, writing as self-examination was something of an obsessive among Puritans and thus the novel needs to be analyzed to some extent through the lens of a Puritanical reference point.
Throughout the text, Clarissa is constantly being compared to an angel. It is, in fact, the controlling metaphor which situates her character. Such is the extent of the connective tissue linking Clarissa to angels that comparison is made more than fifty times over the course of an admittedly long book. Such an excess can only serve to incarnate Clarissa as the essence of virtue and purity. She is even told by one character that he’s much better suited for the “next world” than this world.
In stark contrast to the abstraction of the ethereal myth of angels is the stark primitive reality of animals. As one characters notes, “The wolf, that runs away from a lion, will devour a lamb the next moment” because “it is the nature of the beast.” The beastly nature of man and his uncontrollable lust and inability to contain sexual desires is symbolically portrayed through a litany of imagery associated with animals of all types. The bestial nature of animals is imprinted upon men as a foundation of their character in which the division between the virtuous and the rest can be determined by who is best capable of controlling primitive urges.
The coffin which Clarissa purchases enters the narrative very latte in the story, but still manages to become one of it primary symbols. It would make sense that the coffin enters at a late stage since it is an example of the introduction of a symbol that is dependent upon context to make sense. Even within the context, however, the irony is still fairly harsh: the coffin symbolizes not just Clarissa’s escape from a world which has been too unkind, but in her preparations for death, the coffin essentially becomes the equivalent of her letters. It is a means to inform the narrative of her own story in a way in which life has not allowed.
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