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.