There is a strange moment in Samuel Richardson’s novel when Clarissa deceives someone for the first time in her life. Wanting to escape her abuser, Lovelace, she sends him a note: “I have good news to tell you. I am setting out with all diligence for my father’s house. I am bid to hope that he will receive his poor penitent with a goodness peculiar to himself […] you may in time, possibly, see me at my father’s, at least, if it be not your own fault.”
Lovelace speeds away to Harlowe Place, where he is surprised not to find Clarissa with her family. In fact, Clarissa is still in London, avoiding him. She knows that she’s dying. She has devised for Lovelace to leave the city so that she can prepare for death in peace.
Though Lovelace criticizes her, Clarissa insists that she has not lied. She explains her note to Lovelace’s friend Belford, who has unexpectedly become her confidant. In turn, Belford explains to Lovelace that “a religious meaning is couched under it, and that’s the reason that neither you nor I could find it out. Read but for my father’s house, Heaven, said she.” Clarissa doesn’t say that she’s traveling from London to Berkshire, Belford realizes with equal parts admiration and pity; she says that she’s leaving the mortal plane, and that Lovelace will see her in the afterlife if he’s lucky.
Experiencing Clarissa in lockdown, I became fixated on the idea that Clarissa’s ability to perform this textual sleight of hand is somehow crucial to her psychological recovery (as well as evidence of her spiritual superiority). Lovelace, by contrast, doesn’t know how to read. That is, Lovelace reads literally when he should be reading allegorically. He lacks the ability to find meaning beneath the surface. Strangely, an encrypted expression of the pain Lovelace has always failed to understand gives Clarissa a momentary advantage over him, providing her with breathing room to conduct her ars moriendi. It is as if the allegory and its interpretation––called allegoresis––both represent and save her traumatized self.
Allegory might seem miles away from a modern sensibility, the stuff of the Bible or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). Bunyan’s allegory––which sees an everyman named Christian proceed from the City of Destruction through obstacles such as Vanity Fair and the Slough of Despond to the Celestial City––is no longer a best-seller. But for Clarissa (and, indeed, many people, for many centuries), a quest like Christian’s offers a template for reading her own life allegorically. Besides tricking Lovelace, Clarissa transfigures her slow decline into “preparation for this joyful and long-wished-for journey.” And as she proceeds toward the “thorough Reconciliation” with her heavenly Father, welcoming the “interposition of a dear blessed friend,” Clarissa puts herself in motion. She is no longer trapped by Lovelace, nor by her complete isolation from the social life to which she was accustomed. Clarissa is going somewhere.
This kind of reading not only appealed to me personally in the summer of 2020; it also struck me as a habit of mind from which anyone experiencing trauma could benefit. Allegoresis arranges domestic tragedies (illness, death) as well as national ones (say, a global pandemic) into a narrative, a progression from here to there. Allegoresis is both a guide to consult and a tool to use, a means of looking out at the world and of dwelling deep in introspection.
Like trauma, allegory deals with the interplay of inside and outside, surface and depth. Of course, trauma studies remind us again and again that trauma is un-representable. In Clarissa’s letter as in The Pilgrim’s Progress, we see writers articulating traumatic experience precisely by representing something else.
To read allegorically is to play the sequence of substitutions backward. To put it simply, allegorical reading requires readers to make sense of something difficult. Theorists from Dante to Benjamin describe allegory as consisting of folds; what appears to be small and flat reveals countless secrets if manipulated properly. When Paul tells the Galatians that they will reap what they sow, he is also telling us that if we are kind to others, they will be kind to us (and that if we live virtuous lives, we will be rewarded after death). Allegoresis is the act of unfolding, expanding. Like the proverbial road to recovery (itself an allegory), it is a process that animates and arranges, lending dimension and restoring proportion.
In fact, modern works of literature also support the idea that allegory and trauma have something to do with one another. As I was reading Clarissa, I was reminded of how allegorical quest narratives like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016) represent Black oppression in the United States, as well as how oblique allegories, like J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus (2013), figure refugee experience. I thought of Anna Burns’ Milkman (2018), which follows a Clarissa-like teenager known only as “middle sister” through Belfast during the Troubles. These texts use a symbolic mode to represent flattened individual subjectivities that unfold in the act of reading.
In Milkman, Burns theorizes this affordance of allegory. Middle sister deals with anxiety daily. She keeps away from certain streets, parks, flags lest she invite the camera clicks of loyalists hiding in bushes, which she knows signify her name on a list of enemies of the British state. Her healing begins in a French class of all places. While other students complain about “one thing representing another thing when the represented thing could easily have been itself in the first place,” middle sister accepts their teacher’s injunction that “we must let go the old, open ourselves to symbolism, to the most unexpected of interpretations, that we must too, uncover what we’ve kept hidden, what we think we might have lost.” Thinking “about color, about transformation, about upheavals of inner landscapes,” middle sister performs her first act of resistance, burying the severed head of a cat killed by a bomb. For her, interpretation is tantamount to self-possession. Learning to read allegorically enables her to write her own story.
By way of middle sister, we can return to Clarissa’s note with fresh eyes. Reading allegorically is, most obviously, a way of finding meaning in suffering. Imprisoned, disowned, stalked, drugged, kidnapped, and sexually assaulted, Clarissa is certainly capable of ascribing spiritual value to her tribulations––this is what her letter shows, transfiguring her posttraumatic physical and mental illness into a triumphal procession to heaven.
Yet, the “father’s house” allegory also suggests something more surprising: that reading allegorically can be a lifeline. Richardson alludes to this very idea earlier in the novel, when Clarissa describes Lovelace as a drowning man whom she cannot save without drowning herself. Lovelace reads her account to his cousins, who are inclined to take Clarissa’s side, and exclaims:
Has she not, if her allegory proves what she would have it prove, got out herself and left me floundering still deeper and deeper in?––What she should have done, had she been in earnest to save me, was to join her hand with mine, that so we might by our united strength help one another out––I held out my hand to her, and besought her to give me hers––but no, truly! she was determined to get out herself as fast as she could, let me sink or swim…
Again, Lovelace reads incorrectly, but instead of failing to find a hidden meaning, he produces the wrong one. In Richardson’s moral framework, this is a sign of Lovelace’s ultimate doom. It is also a way of reinforcing what has happened to Clarissa and celebrating how, precisely, she has overcome it. The way in which Lovelace twists Clarissa’s allegory parallels his abuse, the very cause of her trauma. And by performing the reading that Lovelace contests, Clarissa demonstrates her reclaimed selfhood. By making her life a narrative and determining its meaning, Clarissa regains the control that trauma disrupted. She takes up space where Lovelace would have her diminished, claims a complexity all her own where he would have her be simply his. As a consequence, Lovelace drowns; Clarissa doesn’t.
Allegory reflects traumatic experience and––read rightly––can provide a map: not a way out, but a way of navigating within.
Bailey Sincox is an English PhD candidate at Harvard. She’s working on a dissertation about female revenge in early modern (sixteenth- and seventeenth-century) English drama and contemporary film.