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.



The political reading of Clarissa is not a modern phenomenon. Eighteenth and early nineteenth century American readers could see a resemblance between Clarissa's resistance and their own revolution. In the words of John Adams, "Democracy is Lovelace and the people are Clarissa... The artful villain will pursue the innocent lovely girl to her ruin and her death" (1804). Both, of course, ultimately triumph, at least from an American point of view. To an English person, any revolutionary implications might be another matter. Writing fifty years earlier, in 1750, David Graham saw Clarissa as a threat to society and social order because the plots against Clarissa threatened "to undermine the foundations of all Laws, divine and human."

Modern political readings of the novel cover a broad spectrum; I list a few to illustrate:

  • Angus Ross: her brother's behavior resembles that of James II.

  • Maud Ellmann: Clarissa is an epic of incarceration; Clarissa's self-starvation parallels the Irish Hunger Strike of 1981, in which ten prisoners died.

  • Terry Eagleton: Richardson's novels are part of the middle class attempt to win some ideological hegemony from the aristocracy (though, she admits, the Harlowes are gentry).

  • Ian Watt: Clarissa represents the free and positive in the individualism encouraged by capitalism and Protestantism, as well as the spiritual independence of Puritanism. Standing alone, she confronts the forces of aristocracy, the patriarchal family, and even economic individualism (seen in Solmes, in her brother and sister, and in the Harlowe family as a unit). The inviolable self finally triumphs over the persecutions of Lovelace and the Harlowes and over the pressure of social institutions and public opinion.

  • Christopher Hill: In the middle ages, marriage among the upper classes was based on political or economic (property) considerations. With the rise of capitalism and Protestantism, a new concept of marriage arose, the companionate marraige based on mutual affection. Clarissa examines the effect of marriage based on property and money, rather than marriage based on love–how individuals react to these concepts and how these concepts affect their relations with others. Property marriage may create contempt for the institution of marriage and stimulate the war of the sexes. He calls the novel "the supreme criticism of property marriage," though it is difficult to determine to what extent the criticism was intended.

  • Arnold Kettle: The tragedy of Clarissa is connected to the social position of women. "Tragedy occurs when a situation arises which men, at the particular point in development that they have reached, are unable to solve. Such a situation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–and the problem is not yet answered–was the growing consciousness of women of the necessity of their emancipation (by which is not meant mere formal emancipation, parliamentary votes, etc.), and the inability of class society to admit such freedom without destroying something essential to itself. Clarissa has to fight her family and Lovelace; they for their part cannot let her win without undermining all that is to them necessary and even sacred..... And it is because Richardson deals with a problem that continues that modern readers find him relevant and can enjoy his masterpiece."

    Kettle's interpretation raises the question of whether Clarissa is in any way a feminist novel. Is, perhaps, Anna Howe a feminist or Richardson himself a feminist? Even if Anna is a feminist, does that necessarily make Richardson is feminist? After all, is she his spokesperson? In order to answer these questions, you must first define what you mean by feminism.



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