Site under construction. Because I have so little time in which to discuss Clarissaľand because it's so long, I have prepared several brief study guides which identify major issues or raise pertinent questions. They take the form of lists and notes, rather than unified essays.



  • Richardson was distressed at what he perceived as the low state of religion during his age, which he saw as "lamentably over-run with Atheism, Deism, and Infidelity." To counter this trend, he set out to instruct his readers about morality and religion: "And if my work must be supposed of the moral kind, I was willing to try if a religious novel would do good." Contemporaries readily perceived this aspect of Clarissa; for the poet Edward Young, the novel set forth "The Whole Duty of WOMAN."

    Characters in the novel repeatedly refer to Clarissa as an exemplar or model for other women, as does Richardson in his prefaces and footnotes. Disregarding what Richardson may have intended, what exactly is she an exemplar of, in your reading of the novel? Do the qualities or virtues she exemplifies and the image she projects remain the same throughout the novel? Is she a convincing human being or merely an exemplar? To carry scepticism a step further, ask yourself whether she is even a convincing or effective exemplar. Joseph Wood Krutch, for one, objects that Richardson gave Clarissa

    no positive or active virtues, not even, indeed, any personalty. She is no more than a slightly idealized portrait of the conventional "nice" girl of the period and the whole course of her life is determined by negative principles. Her dominant desire is the desire to achieve, despite the difficulties which surround her, a completely conventional existence and the Virtue which her contemporaries so much admired is not something which leads to any action but something which shines forth only when it resists the forces permitted to "test" it.
    Because her greatness, according to Krutch, manifests itself under extreme circumstances, readers could believe that they too might possess equal virtue under such circumstances, a fact which caused contemporary readers to enjoy her tale more than "genuine masterpieces of literature."

  • In presenting Clarissa as an angel and Lovelace as a demon, has Richardson drawn an unrealistic, simplistic picture of virtue and vice, as is frequently charged? Has Richardson been carried away by his anxiety to "argue for the right, or against the wrong, with some strictness, in order to settle the boundaries between right and wrong"?

  • Samuel Johnson asserts that "there is always something which she prefers to the truth." Is this an accurate statement? Alternately, to what extent is it accurate? For example, does Clarissa continue her secret correspondence with Lovelace only to prevent his violence, as she repeatedly claims? Does she deliberately misrepresent the truth, or is she mistaken about her own nature and feelings, being unwilling to face unpalatable realities in her situation and actions?

    Are the nature of society and/or her situation factors in any misrepresentations? Does the male code which Lovelace represents force women to misrepresent and to lie in self defense? Or think of Clarissa's family; if Clarissa is to fulfill the child's duty to honor, love, and obey her parents and uncles (her pseudo-parents), would she have to repress some of the harsh truth about them?

    Johnson's statement can be given a larger significance by applying it to other characters. Alan Dugald McKillop succinctly summarizes the discrepancies in the characters' interpretations and reality:

    there are the unavowed or incompletely avowed feelings of Lovelace and Clarissa; there are the intentions and policies which they proclaim and explain in their letters; there are the comments of other characters upon the protagonists, which sometimes clear and sometimes obscure the situation; and beyond all this there is the question how far the novelist himself controls these impulses and motives for his own ends, and how far he should do so.
    To what extent are any of the characters honest, that is, telling the truth to the best of their abilities? Is being honest to the best of their abilities the same thing as being accurate? To what extent are they, whether consciously or unconsciously, justifying themselves, their actions, and the situation by presenting them as favorably as possible? And does Richardson direct his characters, as McKillop suggests? And if he does, are there times when his control is unjustified manipulation?

    My final question on this issue: is Clarissa, as well as the other characters, simply being human? Don't we all misrepresent or misinterpret ourselves and our behavior at some time or other, some of us more than others?

  • Does Clarissa represent passive suffering? Is Clarissa a victim? Mario Praz characterizes Clarissa as the archetypal suffering virgin, whom he identifies as the key figure in the sadistic-masochistic drama that haunts Western literature. Seeing Clarissa's submission to the abuse of her family and of Lovelace as a masochistic-sadistic relationship is, of course, a modern view. (The OED lists the first written use of sadism as occurring in 1888; masochism, in 1883; and sado-masochism, in 1935. It defines sadism as "A form of sexual perversion marked by a love of cruelty. Now understood as cruelty that evidences a subconscious craving and is apparently satisfied, sexually or otherwise, by the infliction of pain on another by means of aggressive or destructive behaviour or the assertion of power over that person; also loosely, deliberate or excessive cruelty morbidly enjoyed"; masochism is "A form of sexual perversion in which a person finds pleasure in abuse and cruelty from his or her associate. Recently applied more generally to a form of perversion in which a sufferer derives or is believed to derive pleasure from pain or humiliation.)

    But is it possible to explain the pattern of Clarissa's being subjected to violence and her submitting to abuse in other ways? For Richardson and his readers, might this pattern express a world view in which human beings are seen as constantly struggling with evil, which exists within them and in the world outside themselves?

    Or is she not a victim at all? Her will cannot be violated, not by her family, by Lovelace, or by public pressure; thus, her integrity as an individual is not violated either physically or spiritually. Also, Richardson clearly intends the ending to be her triumph; must she suffer agonies to triumph in the way that she does at end of this novel? Of course, one possible answer to this question is that Richardson's view of the agony necessary for her triumph (and the pleasure he takes in it?) is itself sado-masochistsic.

  • Cynthia Griffin Wolff identifies an unconscious competition as the source of Clarissa's pride in her virtue: "She is someone, we feel, only so long as she perceived herself better than someone else." Is Clarissa proud of her virtue and modesty, is she proud of her image as virtuous and modest, or is she both? Is Clarissa really virtuous and modest? Is her identity based, wholly or partly, on how other people see her? Is part of Lovelace's attraction that she can feel morally and spiritually superior to him?

  • Is it significant that Clarissa sometimes refers to herself as a woman and sometimes as a child?


Day 15 (M, Oct. 28) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. xix-86
Overview of Richardson and Clarissa
Political Readings of Clarissa
Parent-Child Relationship
Day 16 (W, Oct. 30) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 86-172
Day 17 (M, Nov. 4) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 172-288
Day 18 (W, Nov. 6) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 288-360
Flight and Rape
Day 19 (M, Nov. 11) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 360-433
The End: Clarissa
Day 20 (W, Nov. 13) Richardson, Clarissa, pp. 434-516
Second paper due

November 24, 2002