Site under construction. Because I have so little time in which to discuss Clarissa, 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.



As readers realized or even suspected that Clarissa might die rather than marry Lovelace, Richardson was beset with letters from readers urging a happy ending for Clarissa, and even Fielding wrote urging that Clarissa be spared. This response might have deterred a writer or publisher with an eye only or mainly on profits, but Richardson was determined that his purpose–and Clarissa's nature–required her to die. Her death proved deeply moving to many readers. I count myself among their number and cry every time I read the dying/death scenes. After finishing the novel, Diderot felt as if hewere suddenly "left alone"; he was so harrowed by reading the novel that friends asked whether someone close to him had died.

Is Clarissa escaping into death? If so, what motivates her? Consider these possibilities (not the only ones, but reasonable suggestions to start your thinking):

  • Clarissa has always had a death wish, as shown by her references to preferring to die when presented with difficult situations like the prospect of marrying Solmes; the rape justifies this death wish and strengthens its hold over her.
  • She cannot face the fact that she bears some responsibility (blame?) for the rape.
  • Her self-image and sense of identity require her to be the "flower of the world" (as she is called several times), and dying will re-establish her credentials as the virtuous, admirable, impeccable Clarissa.
  • Dying will prove that she is right, that her family is wrong, and that she still is and was a dutiful daughter.
  • She revenges herself on Lovelace and/or her family by dying.
  • Death is her only escape from Lovelace, whom she is determined not to see again, let alone marry.
  • By choosing to die and planning every detail of her death and funeral, she assumes total control over her life–however paradoxical this may sound. She has always preferred, she says, to do everything for herself.
  • Clarissa would rather die than acknowledge the power of sex and the fact of her own sexuality. Could she be pregant?
  • Clarissa dies alone, surrounded by strangers whom she has made into a family, a family she can control since they have no no authority over her and are her social inferiors. Is she alone because of the force of circumstances, because she chooses to be alone in order to control her life and orchestrate her death, or has Richardson manipulated the novel to keep her alone (he sends Anna Howe to the Isle of Wright to visit a sick relatives, prevents Mrs. Norton from visiting, first because of her son's illness and then the Harlowes' prohibition, and makes Hannah still too ill to join her)?

  • Is Clarissa's death an implicit criticism of society? Is there a place for the raped-yet-still-single Clarissa in society? Is Clarissa's only possible reward, as Anna Howe says, in heaven?

  • What does Clarissa die of? Does she starve herself to death or become anorexic (the two are not necessarily the same)? Does she just will herself to die? Or does she die because of her father's curse, of being arrested, of complications of pregnancy, or of just plain pique? Does her rage at being violated and generally abused turn inward into depression and self-destructiveness? Or is her death imposed by Richardson, to make her a Protestant saint?

  • In dying, is her major concern still punctilio? Or has her need for decorum been replaced by some other motive(s) or combined with some other motive(s), like living and dying with dignity, a yearning to be reunited with God, or the revengeful desire to make Lovelace and her family wrong by behaving nobly? Colonel Morden rejects the idea of revenge after bringing it up, "How wounding a thing, Mr. Belford, is a generous and well-distinguished forgiveness! What regenge can be more effectual... But my dear cousin's motives were all duty and love" (p. 495). But were they?

  • Richardson's minute description of Clarissa's funeral might not seem strange to an age which held elaborate funerals.
         Also, the detailed description of Clarissa's edifying death can be fit into the genre of funeral literature, to which Edward Young's Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742-45) and James Hervey's Meditations among the Tombs (1746-7) belonged, both of which Richardson printed.
         Theological works about death were also popular, and it has been suggested that Richardson intended Clarissa's death to serve as a model of a holy death. (Terry Eagleton cites the case of a dying reader who found comfort and peace in Clarissa's example.) She prepares for death–selling her clothes and buying the coffin, for instance–by renouncing her body and the world, a spiritual process called "dressing the soul."  Her concern with her coffin, which strikes many modern readers as morbid or worse, might have seemed natural in an age when family members died at home and condemned prisoners were forced to kneel around a coffin while a "condemnation" sermon was preached. On the other hand, Belford, Mrs. Lovick, the doctor, and Colonel Morden are all upset at her keeping the coffin in her room.

  • Rita Goldberg explains Clarissa's dying and death as the story "of a passion in the Christian sense, which must be strongly distinguished from mere passivity. Like all moral passions of this kind, her suffering is purposeful, and offers a direct challenge to society.... the source of her spiritual triumph has all along been her insistence on the integrity of the person, body, and spirit." (By passion, Goldberg means "the suffering of pain, specifically the sufferings of Jesus Christ on the Cross or, often, Christ's Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane").

  • Does Clarissa exhibit arrogance, spiritual pride, or both in her dying? Morris Golden implies that she does: "The stronger will, Clarissa's, defeats everything which it meets or can conceive of–Lovelace, the Harlowes, all of society, and, in the assurance of forgiveness for suicide and of salvation, even her God." Is her death merely a continuation of her behavior in the beginning? that is, do her professions of dutifulness and her stance of meek submission to her parents cover an iron will and unbending determination to have her way? In other words, can her end be foreseen in her beginning? Is her death, in a sense, inevitable after her flight? or, if not inevitable, is it predictable? If so, then the symbols on her coffin may take on additional meanings; the snake with its head in its mouth may not only have the traditional meaning of eternity but may also stand for the continuity of Clarissa's life; the urn, a common symbol for the Virgin Mary (along with the lily) may also mean containment, as her end was contained or implicit in her beginning.

  • Does Lovelace's desire to dismember Clarissa's body express his continuing desire to possess her, his madness, the violence toward and the hatred of women that characterize his treatment of Clarissa and, perhaps, all women?


    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