Study Guide

Clarissa Setting

By Samuel Richardson


Jolly Old England (But Only Indoors)

The setting in Clarissa is kind of like the setting of AMC's Mad Men: it takes place only indoors. (Think about it! It's true!) Okay, if you want to quibble, you can track down a few moments that take place outside (like when Clarissa meets Lovelace in the garden, or when Betty shakes her picnic trash all over the park). But for the most part, there's definitely something to be said for the way it's all about indoor spaces.

Clarissa's Confinement

Oh yeah, you knew we were going there. Clarissa is basically locked up for the whole novel, despite her many attempts to escape. (And let's not even talk about how nasty her room at the Harlowe's must have seemed after she lived there for a while.) She seems pretty depressed about it: "But how long I should be either here, or alive, I cannot say!" (78.1).

And Clarissa's escape options other than Lovelace seem pretty limited, where "perhaps, they have no notion of the back door; as it is seldom opened, and leads to a place so pathless and lonesome" (86.22). Hey-o, that sounds like Clarissa's life! Any options she has of getting away from her fate seem to lead back to more heartache and sadness. It sounds about right that the setting reflects her inability to get away.

Bring it to the Brothel

First of all, who actually believes that Clarissa had no idea she was holing up in a whorehouse? Overall, not Lovelace's brightest idea to bring his new girlfriend to the place all his old girlfriends ended up.

Mrs. Sinclair's whorehouse represents the worst possible situation for Clarissa. Since her virginity is so important to her, it's totes creepy that Lovelace tries to make her feel totally isolated. "To such a place then—and where she cannot fly me—And then to see how my will works, and what can be done by the amorous see-saw…" Lovelace boasts (108.7).

And while we're already totally aware of Lovelace's double standards for women, he makes it extra clear at Mrs. Sinclair's: "Oh, how I cursed the blaspheming wretches! They will make me, as I tell them, hate their house; and never rest till I remove her" (158.7). Did we mention that Lovelace was the one who encouraged Clarissa to go to the brothel? This guy is an expert at playing the blame game.

Not So Jolly

We can't leave this section without telling you a few things about the mid-eighteenth-century England that Clarissa takes place in. The most important thing to know here is that it's not just doors and windows trapping Clarissa; it's her whole society. In eighteenth-century England, women couldn't work or earn money unless they were prostitutes or maids. If you were a well-born girl who wanted to stay that way, you had to marry—and you had to marry well, because once you were married, that was it. Done for life. If you married a guy who beat your or wasted all your money or brought his whores home, too bad.

That's why Clarissa is so dead-set on making her own choice, and we have to understand this situation before we can really sympathize with her. Marriage was the major event of a girl's life, and if Clarissa lets her family mess this up for her, she's going to regret it the rest of her (or Solmes's) life.

Of course, if she messes it up herself…well, let's just say that story doesn't end well either.

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