The book’s full title is Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady. While this is definitely Clarissa’s story, it is also the story of a generalized “young lady.” Clarissa is a fable designed to show, as stated on the title page, “the distresses that may attend the misconduct both of parents and children, in relation to marriage.” In some ways, the character of Clarissa occupies a figurative position, rather than a literal one: she symbolizes an idealized, absolutely pure and moral heroine struggling to maintain her virtue amid the wicked pressures of society. Her story, as Richardson makes explicit in the introduction and within the novel itself, is one that could happen to any young girl.
Yet Clarissa is not Everywoman; she is the feminine ideal. All who come into her presence are immediately overwhelmed with admiration. Much of the credit for this goes to Clarissa’s physical beauty, which transparently reveals the true beauty of her soul. But, as Belford tells Lovelace, it is her conversation that wins all hearts. In addition to being widely read, Clarissa is exceptionally and precociously intelligent; even the learned minister benefits from talking with her. She is devoted to the service of the poor, and, instead of giving handouts to all and sundry, she constructs intelligent systems through which the hardworking and honest are given the means to improve their situation. Especially toward the end of the book, Clarissa’s exemplarity is shown in her religious devotion; she spends the better part of her days praying, and her attainment of true virtue is encoded in her willingness to meet death.
Clarissa is brought to tragedy in part by her social environment: as an unmarried woman, Clarissa has little power to resist either her autocratic family or Lovelace’s wicked plots. Her fate can also be blamed on her very perfection; it is what makes her such an appealing target for Lovelace, what generates her siblings’ jealousy, what prevents her from compromising her way out of a bad situation. The combination of these two factors suggests that perfection cannot exist in an imperfect world; amid the jealousy and lust of humanity, an angelic creature can fulfill her nature only by dying.
Anna is Clarissa’s truest friend, the only person who is consistently on her side through all of her troubles. Before the book begins, Anna and Clarissa had made an agreement to act as each other’s moral guardians, providing reprimands and guidance where necessary, and never taking offense at honest criticism. In this manner, Clarissa had saved Anna from falling into the hands of a rake with whom, without knowing his real character, she had fallen in love. As a result of this episode Anna has a knowledge of love and frailty that Clarissa does not and sees through Clarissa’s denials that she is attracted to Lovelace. Anna is worldlier than Clarissa: in the end, she can be part of a happy marriage and family, whereas Clarissa is only at home in heaven.
Unlike Clarissa, Anna has flaws and sometimes makes mistakes. She is vivacious and finds much humor in the world. Sometimes this characteristic leads to censurable behavior, such as speaking disrespectfully to her mother. It also causes her to tease Hickman cruelly, as she finds him ridiculous even while acknowledging his decency and respectability. Anna worries that she will not be a good wife because she is so attached to her independence and does not find obedience easy. In the end, however, Anna and Hickman’s happy marriage shows that an independent spirit can be directed to good purposes within the domestic sphere.
Insofar as he fulfills a type, Lovelace is the novel’s villain. He also represents the dark underside of the aristocracy, which allows amoral young men to run riot over the country, ruining women as they go. Lovelace blames his wickedness on his mother’s overpermissiveness; neither as a child nor in adulthood has anything stood between Lovelace and his desires. He also cites a past heartbreak as the source of his malice toward women and, although at times he seems capable of truly loving Clarissa, it is this anger and distrust that encourages his vicious behavior.
Lovelace’s admirable qualities are representative of the aristocracy. He is a generous landlord. He is exceptionally brave, with a code of honor that is more chivalrous than civil; he operates in the arena of the duel rather than of the courtroom. He is a wonderful writer, learned in classics as well as European literature. He enjoys constructing elegant arguments for ridiculous or wicked things. Like his contrivances, these exercises show the great skill and talent that Lovelace directs toward his bad purposes. As a representative of the aristocracy, Lovelace shows how exceptional talent is wasted and becomes dangerous when not channeled in a useful way. Just before he dies, Lovelace imagines that he could have been happy if he had let Clarissa reform him, but throughout the novel he remains attached to his life of intrigue.