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.



Clarissa's flight set off the train of events that led to her rape. Richardson wrote a correspondent, "Going off with a Man, is the thing I wanted most to make inexcusable." What is Clarissa's offense, exactly, and from whose point of view?
  • She prefers a lover over her family.
  • She chooses personal happiness over family ambitions for social and economic advancement.
  • She is an undutiful daughter in rebelling against her father's authority.
  • She unwittingly places herself in Lovelace's power.
  • Her unconscious, unacknowledged love for Lovelace spurs her flight with him; with more self-honesty, she might not have fled with him. She later admits that she would not have met him in the garden if she knew herself or him (p. 134).
  • She is motivated by passion; Cynthia Griffin Wolff argues that for Puritans, who believed that the body was the origin of sin and passion, failure to control the body and passion ended in sin.
Most readers see Clarissa as a love story and her fleeing with Lovelace as romantically motivated. Robert Sale, Jr. disagrees; Clarissa gives up her world not for love, but for a chance to live life more completely in conformity with an ideal of conduct. Clarissa, for him, represents humanity desperately if futilely seeking freedom in a world where duty and responsibility are constant limitations upon that search.

Is Sale correct that Clarissa is not motivated by love? Or, alternately, that she is not motivated solely  by love?  Clarissa repeatedly asserts that her motive for resisting her family and marriage to Solmes is the desire for personal happiness; a marriage not based on love and mutual respect cannot lead to happiness. As Clarissa comes to see how dissimilar Lovelace's mind and her mind are, she realizes that they cannot make each other happy, a point she makes over and over to Lovelace. She couches her refusal to marry Lovelace after the rape, despite her fear of him, in these terms, "My heart and my hand shall never be separated" (p. 323); this was the principle, she continues, for which she opposed her family.



Rape was a capital offense in England, a fact which earlier readers would have been aware of and which Clarissa alludes to in trying to persuade Mrs. Sinclair to let her leave, "...must himself, if prosecuted for it, either fly or be hanged" (p. 334). The law was changed in 1841.

  • Why does Richardson present her rape as he does? Lovelace briefly announces it, with no details. Then several hundred pages later Clarissa tells us her side. What is gained by the delay?

  • The rape is generally seen as the turning point for Clarissa. Does the rape destroy or severely damage Clarissa's identity? Is she forced to reinvent herself after the rape? Are her efforts to collect all relevant documents and to confirm facts motivated by a desire to know the truth and to share it after her death? Or is she rewriting history to present herself as outraged innocence and Lovelace as her vile destroyer? After the rape, Lovelace can no longer deceive her, but can she really see him? Is he only her destroyer, which is how she sees him?

    Dorothy Van Ghent has a different take on the rape, "The central event of the novel... is... the deflowering of a young lady–and one which scarcely seems to deserve the universal uproar which it provokes in the book." She seems to place some responsibility for the rape on Clarissa, because her sexuality, like Lovelace's, is really violent, insatiable in its wish for destruction.

  • Ian Watt implies that the rape humanizes her; Clarissa, almost inhuman in her perfections, comes to life when she refuses to marry Lovelace after he rapes her. The rape itself, he says, "when Clarissa is unconscious from opiates, may be regarded as the ultimate development of the idea of the feminine sexual role as one of passive suffering: it suggests that the animality of the male can only achieve its purpose when the woman's spirit is absent."

  • Does Clarissa continue to love Lovelace after the rape?

  • Is it significant that after the rape Clarissa wears white? or it is merely an idiosyncracy? perhaps a sign of mental instability?

  • I include William Beatty Warner's frequently-quoted interpretation of Clarissa's rape as a demonstration of personal response distorting critical acumen and, frankly, male insensitivity. Anyway, this is my opinion; you should form your own after reading his interpretation. Warner believes, "Each reader acts out the disturbing and pleasurable desire to penetrate the lady... The Lady is the test; the serpent is the reader." For him–and the reader–raping Clarissa is the moment of completion, for then Clarissa "will be undressed, seen, penetrated and known. These are activities which engage every reader, like Lovelace, who wishes to win authority for his interpretation."


    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