The topic of writing in Clarissa is a complex one, involving Richardson's intention and his use of letters in writing the novel, the consciousness of Clarissa and Lovelace in writing their letters, the role letters play, the way they affect the action, and the way they influence, perhaps sometimes control, the responses of others.



Richardson knew that his "way of writing, to the moment" was new. One reason why he used letters was his conviction that often meaning lay in and plot grew out of the gradual buildup of the small details that make up everyday life: "in the minutiae lie often the unfoldings of the Story, as well as of the heart." He wanted to trace the wavering his characters experienced as opposing desires, responsibilities, and pressures tore at them as they formed judgments, made decisions, or had decisions forced upon them; adding to the complexity of this process is the effect on his characters of experience and new information . He wanted to counter the general tendency to judge hastily "of an action undecided, as if it were absolutely decided" and the tendency to cling tenaciously to the first impression arising from premature judgment.

Richardson's technique of following the characters through their ambivalence and indecision has advantages and disadvantages. Allowing the reader to follow a character's feelings and thoughts as they evolve diminishes the distance between the reader and the characters by encouraging identification and even empathy with them. Characters with whom the reader cannot identify come alive, seem real. To achieve these effects, the writer must "disappear" into the characters and become the character writing the letter and also, at times, any characters being written about, e.g., Arabella in Clarissa's description of their quarrel. Richardson's ability to "disappear" into his characters inspired Mark Kinkead-Weekes to call Richardson a "dramatic" writer.

The drawbacks of this technique are being unintentionally ambiguous, being misunderstood, and being wordy, repetitious, and dull. Richardson knew that he was running risks in using it: "It is impossible that Readers the most attentive, can always enter into the Views of the Writer of a Piece written, as hoped, to Nature and the Moment. A Species of Writing too, that may be called New; and every one putting him and herself into the Character they read, and judging of it by their own Sensations." In the fact, Richardson was unable to live up to this understanding. Distressed by the admiration and preference many readers had for Lovelace, he resorted to instructing them in the prefaces, footnotes, and text that he added to revisions.



  • The letters between Clarissa and Anna and those between Lovelace and Belford reveal the different social roles, values, attitudes, responses, and lifestyles of women and men. Is there an inherent conflict between men and women in this novel, what later generations have called the War of the Sexes?

  • If you think of letters as the eighteenth-century equivalent of phone calls, is it likely that the correspondents would share their deepest feelings and most intimate experiences with trusted, close friends? In other words, are letters an appropriate vehicle for such communications?

  • The correspondence in itself furthers the actions. Would Lovelace have had access to Clarissa, been able to arrange a meeting, and trick her into fleeing without their secret correspondence? Does the existence of Lovelace's letters–and the reformed Belton's letting her have them–allow Clarissa to clear her reputation after her death? Do Lovelace's own letters condemn his behavior and establish her as violated innocence and virtue itself?

  • The way letters are used or written contributes to characterization. The fact that Lovelace and Belford write in code suggests early in the novel that Lovelace is untrustworthy and has much to hide. Lovelace's forging or misdirecting letters expresses his manipulativeness. Is Lovelace's desire to gain possession of Clarissa's letters an expression of his desire to possess her? The Harlowes forbid Clarissa to write to them, because they fear her ability to move–or manipulate?–the emotions of others. Is Clarissa a master of emotional manipulation, as they charge? Is Clarissa manipulating public opinion by arranging for the publication of her and Lovelace's letters?

  • By writing down the details of her life, she is able to review her life and look for spiritual patterns and hidden sins. The letters would, thus, serve the same purpose as the journal which Puritans were enjoined to keep. Would she see herself as a saint? Would readers see her as one? For the Puritans, sainthood did not require perfection; how could it, in view of their belief in natural depravity or, among the more moderate, man's fallen nature? Rather, the saint was someone who led a busy, useful life and fulfilled family, social, and religious duties.

  • Writing may be related to identity and to self-knowledge. Does writing help Clarissa maintain her identity, as with the torn notes she writes after the rape? Writing may be a way of learning and discovery.

  • Writing is an emotional release. Lovelace cries out, "I must write on. Nothing else can divert me" (p. 313). At another crisis he claims that writing keeps him from madness (p. 272).

  • Writing, with rewriting and revision, allows more control over content and the self which the writer presents to the world than conversation does. Do Clarissa and Lovelace write frankly and spontaneously, or do they consciously or unconsciously use their letters to present a desired self-image or a desired interpretation of events and others? Lovelace correctly says of Clarissa's letter, "the whole letter so written as to make herself more admired, me more detested" (p. 415); does this judgment arise out of the situation itself, or has Clarissa written the letter to move the reader to such a judgment?

  • Richardson's original title was The Lady's Legacy, a reference to her inheriting The Dairy from her grandfather. But can another meaning to read into it? Are the letters themselves also her legacy?



    Recently, critics have shown an interest in the act of Richardson's writing the novel and the experience of writing for Lovelace and Clarissa. William Beatty Warner and Terry Castle focus on how Richardson tends to give final responsibility for determining meaning to the reader, whom Richardson called ""Carvers." By carver, Richardson means someone "that chooses for himself" (Johnson's Dictionary). Lovelace has been called a deconstructionist for his using words with the meaning he chooses; often neither Belford nor the reader is sure what Lovelace means, whether what he describes is the truth or a ruse. Also, just as Lovelace and Belford must decode each other's letters, so the reader must decode the letters, which contain forgeries, deliberate misdirection, evasions, and covert desires and meanings.

    • Tom Keymer explores the characters' efforts to describe and understand events and their world by writing: "They are preoccupied by the inevitability of slippage between world and world, and in particular by the deformations that arise from rhetorical or performative tendencies of first-person discourse."

      For Keymer, a second story in many ways outgrows the first: "a story of characters at writing-desks, struggling to fix their experiences adequately in prose and so define and assert their own conflicting senses, psychologically, epistemologically, and above all morally, of what is happening in their world."

    • John Preston carries Keymer's idea further; letters "replace the narrated events; it is the act of writing them that forms the action of the novel."

    • Terry Eagleton assumes that writing produces meaning, and "What is worrying about Lovelace in the early part of the novel is not so much that he preys upon women but that for a man he spends too much time writing." His writing is dangerous; Lovelace, in her view, initially exploits Clarissa's passion for scribbling rather than her sexual affections, though the two impulses are connected. She connects them with the rape: "bodily resistance must be dissolved into the free play of the letter, so that Lovelace may finally come to inscribe Clarissa with his penis rather than his pen."



      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