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Clarissa

Samuel Richardson

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. What are Clarissa’s views on marriage? Do they match those of the other characters? What defines the feminine sphere? What the masculine? How do the spheres overlap?

Clarissa has a very strict idea of marriage, which is part of the reason she is unable to bring herself to marry either Solmes or Lovelace. She believes that, once married, a woman must be completely obedient to her husband and put her family’s interest above her own. As a result, it is important to marry a good person, because a wife’s fate is so closely connected to her husband’s that a bad man can keep even his wife from getting to heaven. She remonstrates with Anna for Anna’s flippant treatment of Hickman, warning her that a wife’s reputation is defined by her husband’s, so if others lose respect for Hickman when they see Anna’s mistreatment of him, Anna herself will be the loser. Lovelace takes marriage much less seriously. He believes that it is more often a punishment than a blessing, as indicated in his fear of “shackles,” especially when bad people marry each other. Although Clarissa is the only person Lovelace can even imagine marrying, he expects that if he marries her he will be back to his old tricks within a few months.

As the novel presents it, the key to a successful marriage is the separation of the masculine and the feminine spheres. Anna’s marriage succeeds in the end because she resigns all finances and other masculine matters to Hickman, while she occupies herself with charity work and raising the children. Anna’s parents provide the counterexample; Mrs. Howe has a reputation as an excellent manager, and by asserting her opinions over her husband’s she had contributed to a marriage full of strife and discord.

2. Clarissa twice declines to seek help from the law: she refuses to litigate for her estate, and she will not prosecute Lovelace. Why does she resist the legal system in this way? More generally, what roles do law, legal systems, and legal metaphors play in the text?

Clarissa’s refusals to take legal action are attributed to her delicacy, but they leave room for questions about her motives. In the case of her estate, Clarissa tells Anna that it would be highly improper for her to bring a suit against her father: This would not only violate the principle that a child must always be obedient to her parents, but it would do so publicly and disgrace the whole family. In this instance, Clarissa’s family values trump her self-interest.

The question of prosecuting Lovelace is more ethically complicated. Anna asks her to do so not for revenge but to prevent Lovelace from harming other women. Clarissa shrinks from the idea of revealing her ordeal in public, but as a virtuous person she ought to be able to overcome her squeamishness to protect others. On the other hand, there are practical reasons against the prosecution: Lovelace did an impressive job of lining up the circumstantial evidence in his own favor. To all appearances, Clarissa was willingly cohabitating with Lovelace, so it would be hard to convince a jury that he had raped her.

The idea of prosecution never gets off the ground, and Lovelace meets justice the old-fashioned way, in a duel, while the Harlowes pay for their actions in miserable marriages and guilt. Despite the failure of law courts to play any role in the story, legal metaphors and systems abound. Both the Harlowes and Lovelace put Clarissa on “trial” and she, under Anna’s advice, collects her letters to use as “evidence” of her innocence. In this novel, the arena of law appears to be more in the domestic than in the civil sphere.

3. Clarissa is often associated with the beginnings of realism in literature. To what extent is the novel realistic?

In his Preface and Postscript, Richardson expresses a dedication to portraying real life. He believes that the novel’s form—letters written “to the moment”—is uniquely capable of revealing the way human beings really think and interact. He points out that the letters do not merely progress the novel’s plot, but include digressions and side stories, just as letters would in real life. And like real life, most of the time nothing is happening, so the reader experiences the slow build-up of drama in a way that echoes the characters’ experience. Another example of the novel’s realism is the presence of characters with ambiguous morality, who are neither purely good nor purely evil. Mrs. Harlowe, for example, is a good and loving mother, but she is so afraid of conflict with her husband that she does nothing to help Clarissa. Anna is Clarissa’s best friend and an admirable woman, but she has a tendency to offend people and in some ways hurts Clarissa more than she helps her. On the other hand, Belford and Morden are rakes with shady pasts, but they are Clarissa’s best support in the end.

Nevertheless, there are many ways in which Clarissa seems patently unrealistic. For example, the heroine is an impossibly perfect woman, to the extent that her linens remain snow white even in a dingy prison. But the fact that the linens are commented on at all reveals the novel’s concern with the details that make up real life. Unlike the heroine of a romance—a genre unconcerned with realism—Clarissa has to worry about what she is going to wear, what she is going to write her letters with, what she is going to do with her time when she can’t leave the house.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Clarissa pits an exemplary woman against a vicious libertine. How did Clarissa get to be so exemplary? How did Lovelace get to be such a rake? Who educated them, and how?

2. Clarissa bills itself as a lesson for parents and children. How are parenting and family life portrayed in the text? What kind of familial philosophy does it promote, and what kind does it criticize?

3. Clarissa’s most defining characteristic is unimpeachable virtue. What does virtue mean in her case? Is it the same as morality, or ethics? Are there different standards of virtue for different characters?

4. How are gender divisions marked in Clarissa? Is Clarissa an example for all human beings, or just women?

5. Is Clarissa Harlowe a tragic hero? Why or why not?

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