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.