Richardson identifies the moral of his novel as a contradiction of the precept that “a reformed rake makes the best husband.” This misconception, he says, leads young women to prefer libertines to sober, respectable men. The contrast between the dashing and wicked Lovelace and the boring but good Hickman exemplifies the ease with which this mistake can be made. Clarissa blames her pride, in thinking she could reform Lovelace, for leading her into disaster. Her parents are also to blame, as their autocratic measures push her right into Lovelace’s web; the implication is that parents need to shepherd their daughters away from danger, because young girls are unlikely to escape it on their own.
Clarissa’s innocence is continually contrasted with Lovelace’s diabolical talent for manipulation, and several passages discuss the hopeless position of any girl who gives any encouragement to a rake. As a whole, the novel provides a cautionary lesson for young women and their parents and brands rakes as the scourge of society.
Clarissa’s great struggle is for a sense of autonomy in a society that prohibits women from wielding any power whatsoever. The Harlowes intend to use their daughter to heighten their rank in the bourgeois community; by contrast, all Clarissa desires is the right to personal happiness and her parent’s consent. At the start of the novel, Clarissa’s inheritance presents her with an opportunity for independence from both her family and a future husband; however, Clarissa cares more about her family’s acceptance than about the property. In this sense, her struggle for autonomy is also a struggle with herself. If she had accepted the estate, Clarissa would have achieved independence from her family and the oppressive society in which she lives; her inherent loyalty to them and to social mores prevents her from doing so.
Although at first Lovelace seems a reasonable means of escape for Clarissa, it quickly becomes clear to her that his intentions are even more prohibitory to her independence. Lovelace ensnares her in hopes of conquering such an exemplary woman: all of his machinations further his mission to control her and triumph over her sex. Clarissa is trapped by both factions of society: the fledgling and insecure bourgeois family and her already aristocratic suitor. She also spends most of the novel physically confined by others (locked in her parents’ house, in Mrs. Sinclair’s house, in Lovelace’s arms, in jail) and only in planning for death does Clarissa seem to gain complete control over the future.
With the exception of Clarissa, every character in the novel is either rewarded or punished on earth. Good people get married (Anna, Hickman, Belford), while bad people die in misery (Lovelace, Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe, Mrs. Sinclair, Belton) or suffer horrible marriages (James, Arabella). Clarissa dies, too, but her death is happy and she insists that it is actually a reward, because it allows her to go to heaven. Although the other characters do not have to wait for death to provide justice, their fates are delayed, so that at many points it looks as though vice is rewarded while virtue is punished. This, as Richardson tells us, is only realistic. But he assures us that there is always justice in the end.
Although Lovelace seems to die honorably in a duel, an old-fashion match marked by chivalry and grace, he has actually been subject to twists of fate that highlight his punishments and his ultimate poetic justice. Lovelace’s demise is inadvertently triggered by the actions of friends and accomplices; for instance, Sinclair’s prostitutes, his coconspirators, have Clarissa arrested and his spy, Joseph Leman, sends Lovelace a letter about Morden’s trip to France. Both are intended to help him but instead provoke his downfall. On the other hand, Belford, a model of character and reform, receives the rewards in the end that were initially intended for Lovelace. That both men reach appropriate ends is evidence that Clarissa’s sense of justice is truly poetic.
At the beginning of the novel, Clarissa’s movements are increasingly limited by her family: she cannot write letters or go to church, and she is confined to her room, with a maid guarding her. Her escape from this confinement results in an even greater one, with her actions restricted by Lovelace. Enclosure sometimes seems like safety, as when Clarissa locks herself in her room, but more often it indicates her trapped position. Clarissa finally escapes after her rape, but enclosure continues to follow her until the end. As she nears death, Clarissa stops taking carriages, then she stops walking, then she does not leave her room, then she is confined to a chair—and, finally, to her coffin. In the book’s conclusion, it becomes clear that Clarissa can only escape confinement in death. The enclosure of Clarissa’s body into her coffin paradoxically reflects the freeing of her soul.
Both Lovelace and Clarissa have significant dreams. Just before she runs away with Lovelace, Clarissa dreams that he has stabbed her and thrown her into a grave with other decaying bodies, and she is frightened enough to take back her intention to escape with him, although Lovelace will not allow her to do so. As Clarissa nears death, Lovelace has a dream in which she ascends to heaven, while he descends into a bottomless pit. In both cases these dreams are frightening and act as warnings, but Clarissa’s dream does not keep her safe and Lovelace’s does not make him reform. Similar to Clarissa’s “mad papers” and the letters that Lovelace writes while delirious, dreams offer a window into a character’s innermost self, which sometimes knows more than his or her conscious mind.
A preoccupation with money is a sign of bad character, and greed is frequently a motivator behind many of the character’s actions. The Harlowes align with Solmes because of his wealth, while Clarissa thinks his money grubbing is despicable. Mrs. Howe and Uncle Antony’s courtship is based on money and is therefore treated in a ridiculous, even laughable manner. Clarissa constantly refuses offers of money from Anna, Lovelace, and Belford and insists on paying for everything herself even if she must sell her clothes to get money for her coffin. It is to Lovelace’s credit that he is generous and gives money freely. Money is linked to class anxiety: those who have the highest rank tend not to be concerned with money, while those eager to rise in society are overly attentive to it. Mrs. Sinclair is an aggressive businesswoman and represents the grotesqueness of greed in both her wicked actions and in her repulsive, “manly” physical appearance. Clarissa shows that she transcends her social position by having no desire for money at all.
For women, beauty is associated with goodness, but this does not hold true for men. Clarissa is remarkably beautiful, and it is clear that her beauty reveals her ceaseless inner goodness. Even when she is emaciated and near death, Belford calls her a “beautiful skeleton.” On the contrary, the whores at Mrs. Sinclair’s house look nice enough when they are dressed up to look like dignified members of the aristocracy, but when Belford sees them in dishabille he is disgusted by their ugliness. The whores, unlike Clarissa, are vicious and therefore ugly underneath their finery. Lovelace is an exceptionally attractive man, and his good looks go a long way in helping him seduce women and collect minions to help him carry out his contrivances. Belford, on the other hand, is ugly, as Lovelace points out time and again. But in the end, Belford rises above his rakish ways and proves to be a good man, and arguably one of the only characters in the novel who comes to Clarissa’s aid.
Throughout the novel, Clarissa is referred to and described as an angel. Lovelace calls her “my angel” and other people frequently refer to her as a divine woman. She wears white and has an otherworldly goodness that is frequently equated with heaven and the afterlife. Lovelace is determined to defile Clarissa’s purity and prove that she is indeed a woman and not an unearthly being: “And should not my beloved, for her own sake, descend by degrees from goddess-hood into humanity?” On the other hand, Lovelace and Mrs. Sinclair’s whores are associated with devils and demons. Lovelace frequently calls his servant Will, who assists him in his wicked works, “my devil.” After Lovelace rapes Clarissa, she asserts in a letter that he is “Satan himself.” And Lovelace describes Mrs. Sinclair’s whores as diabolical and calls their establishment a “hellhouse,” which again associates him with Satan or some hellish figure: from his first flight with Clarissa, he is mysteriously drawn to Sinclair’s brothel, the setting of numerous deceits and Clarissa’s ultimate desecration.
References to animals occur throughout the novel and, in contrast to the symbol of the angel, they are always associated with the bestial and with sex. Mrs. Sinclair is most often described as an animal and frequently embodies several at once. Lovelace compares women to chickens, easily tricked into sex, or flies to be trapped in his web. Belford tells Lovelace that to have sex with Clarissa would be a shame, even if he married her first, because it would bring her down to the level of an animal. In the “mad papers” Clarissa writes after her rape, she describes a parable about a lady who attempts to raise and tame a young tiger into a lapdog, only to be savagely shredded to bits once the beast returns to its true nature. This symbolizes her experience with Lovelace, the personification of this vicious, untamable creature.