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 Lovelace: “There is more of the savage in human nature than we are commonly aware of.” Clarissa is a pessimistic novel not only because Clarissa and Lovelace die, but also because, long before Freud, it exposes the heart of darkness lurking within its characters--and its readers.
Castle, Terry. Clarissa’s Ciphers: Meaning and Disruption in Richardson’s “Clarissa.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982. An influential book, which provides an interpretation from the points of view of feminism and reader-response criticism. On the alleged textual incoherence in Clarissa, Castle asks: How can one expect coherence from a violated woman?
Doody, Margaret Anne. Chapters V through IX in A Natural Passion: A Study of the Novels of Samuel Richardson. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1974. Provides lively, informative, and authoritative discussion of themes and imagery in Clarissa. The source of much sympathetic interpretation of Clarissa and Richardson’s other novels.
Goldberg, Rita. Sex and Enlightenment: Women in Richardson and Diderot. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1984. Highly intelligent discussion of Clarissa as a “mythic” book—a model for young women to follow. Examines the consequences to young women and their society of attempting to adhere to the prescribed model.
Hill, Christopher. “Clarissa Harlowe and Her Times.” In Samuel Richardson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by John Carroll. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1968. The seminal account of the social background of the novel. Includes examination of the economy, Puritanism, and attitudes toward the individual, the family, and marriage.
Warner, William Beatty. Reading Clarissa: The Struggles of Interpretation. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. Uses deconstructionist approach to question any supposed need to establish a single authoritative text to Clarissa. Argues for the aptness of the novel’s conflicting texts. Claims that Lovelace is the hero of the novel.