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



From the beginning, Lovelace had his admirers, so many that Richardson cried, "Oh, that I could not say, that I have met with more admirers of Lovelace than of Clarissa"; to his chagrin, even "the good and the virtuous" found him attractive, though Fielding wrote, after reading volume five, "his former admirers must lose all Regard for him." Since then readers have been drawn to Lovelace, and critics have seen him as "one of the greatest characters of English fiction" (Martin Price), the superhero of the heroic play, with their lawless egotism (Alan Dugald McKillop), and "a mild and timid man's picture of the ideal rake, of Satan as gentleman, witty, boisterous, adventurous, courageous, ruthless" (David Daichess).

What makes Lovelace so appealing? Is it the sense of danger and living on the edge which he projects, his energy and sense of aliveness, his determination and resourcefulness, or some other qualities? Is the reader blind to or willing to overlook his potential for violence? A commonplace of criticism is how much more appealing and how much more convincing evil characters tend to be than good ones; they frequently cite Iago in Othello and Edmund in King Lear; does this critical commonplace explain at least part of Lovelace's appeal?


  • Lovelace regards himself as a man of honor in relationship to other gentlemen and his tenants. With women, however, he follows what he calls a libertine creed; its basic assumptions are that women are raised to hide their sexual natures under a false code of morality and virtuous behavior and that they seek to entrap men in marriage. Lovelace identifies its basic tenets as he attempts to seduce Clarissa: all women can be seduced; women love cruelty; once subdued, always subdued; and marriage is always in his power.

    Do Clarissa's insistent punctiliousness and her virtuous reputation challenge Lovelace's code, on which he bases his behavior and identity and by which he justifies his behavior and himself? Once Clarissa is in his power, Lovelace undertakes to test her virtue. But each time she resists his advances, or "passes" a test, he makes a more determined, more elaborate attempt on her virtue. Why? Is there any way Clarissa can pass his tests and convince him that she is genuinely virtuous? Are his tests of Clarissa also tests of his values, his code–and of himself? Does her successful resistance imply that his code and values are wrong? Can Lovelace accept that virtue truly exists, i.e., is not merely an artificial construct inculcated by society? If Clarissa is truly virtuous, then what must he be and how must he judge his life? Lovelace repeatedly judges his behavior unfavorably and hers favorably, in his eyes as well as in the eyes of others; ""Innocence so triumphant; villainy so debased, they [Mrs. Sinclair et al.] must mean!" (p. 328).

  • Is Clarissa right that Lovelace lacks a heart? Is it significant that he tends to view her suffering from an aesthetic point of view (she is lovely in tears)?

  • Does Lovelace have a core of identity, or is he protean (i.e.,constantly changing), so that he is only the masks he assumes? Is love of power or control the only constant in him? Would not having a coherent identity affect his ability to form relationships, to accept social responsibilities, and to make commitments to women?

  • Is Lovelace, whose need to dominate and control others is a near-obsession, really independent? Does his sense of identity and of mastery rely on the submission of others and the acknowledgment of his superiority? Or, to phrase the question another way, is he dependent on the people he masters or wants to master?

  • While Lovelace holds Clarissa as a prisoner, would he actually have married her if she accepted any of his proposals, even the ones he means? Lovelace habitually regards marriage with repugnance, e.g., "this cursed aversion to wedlock how has it entangled me!" (p. 269). Only when Clarissa escapes does he insist on marriage. Why?

  • Does the fact that Lovelace misreads Clarissa's virtuous nature and character necessarily mean that all his insights about her are false? Is he mistaken when he angrily sums up her behavior as "All obedience, all resignation–no will but hers" (p. 249), or when he interprets her posthumous statement, "I once respected you with a preference" to mean that she once loved him (p. 498)? Is it as much Lovelace's "misfortune" to have met with Clarissa as it is hers to have known him (he makes this claim on p. 338)?

  • Is Lovelace capable of reform? As he writes, after Clarissa's escape, of his desire to marry, he admits he still has recurrences of his habitual resistance, "But matrimony I do not heartily love–although with a Clarissa–yet I am in earnest to marry her" (p. 384). Do his behavior or his statements after Clarissa's death indicate that he has reformed? He rashly precipitates the duel with Colonel Morden because he cannot bear uncertainty: "that solemn act, were it even to be marriage or hanging, which must be done tomorrow, I had rather should be done today" (p. 508). If his inability to bear uncertainty stems from his need for control, then has he basically changed? He "will not bear to be threatened by any man in the world, however conscious I may be of having deserved blame" (p. 508). Lovelace still cannot admit to being wrong, even knowing that he is, and taking responsibility for his actions. Does his blaming his mother for not disciplining him as a child also reveal an inability to be responsible for his actions?

  • After the rape, Clarissa experiences a moral and spiritual rise while Lovelace experiences a decline. He never sees Clarissa again, nor do any of his demands or actions have the desired result; his only effect on Clarissa is to force her to stay out all day and to write a deceptive allegorical letter to avoid seeing him. He becomes ineffectual and is increasingly pushed aside while attention focuses on Clarissa and her approaching death. One measure of his decline is his being unintentionally manipulated by his former tool, Joseph Leman; ironically, it is Leman's letter that causes him to write Morden and that leads to his death. A victim of his own propensity for violence, he dies offstage, surrounded by strangers in a foreign country, unwilling to die, calling upon Clarissa with his last words. It is hard to imagine a more obvious contrast to Clarissa's death. She dies surrounded by a surrogate family, her cousin, and a rake whom she reformed; she dies willingly, at peace within herself and with others, her last words an assurance of salvation, "come–O come–blessed Lord–Jesus!" (p. 477).

    Does the change in his friendship with Belford after the rape contribute to the sense of Lovelace's diminution? Initially he dominated the relationship.

  • Can Lovelace's end be seen in his beginning? That is, do the same traits that he exhibits from the first contribute to or directly result in his death?

  • Does Lovelace's desire to dismember Clarissa's body express his continuing desire to possess her, his temporary 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