Facing a mercenary marriage about to be imposed upon her by her family, Clarissa flees to the protection of another suitor, Lovelace, despite her reservations about him. Her fears prove justified as Lovelace repeatedly attempts to seduce her and, finally, drugs and rapes her. Clarissa dies, and Lovelace is killed by Clarissa’s cousin, Colonel Morden, in a duel.

While the novel contains sex and violence, these elements are secondary to Richardson’s psychological probing of his characters. Through their letters they reveal their innermost thoughts and mercilessly explore their motives.

In the process they call into question traditional views and values. Richardson’s preface and postscript offer conventional, moralistic observations on codes of behavior and the proper relationships among family members, but the world he depicts in the novel itself belies these pious platitudes. In one sense Clarissa is the pure, Christian heroine betrayed by her money-hungry relatives and a diabolical Restoration rake, but her letters reveal her attraction to Lovelace even as she recognizes how dangerous he is. Nor does Lovelace torment only Clarissa, for he suffers even more than she from his actions, and his death is as much a suicide as hers.

Beneath the glittering, seemingly rational world of eighteenth century bourgeois society so minutely depicted, Clarissa reveals a nightmarish world of sadism and masochism aptly summed up by...

(The entire section is 519 words.)