A virtuous young woman, the protagonist of the novel. Clarissa is noted for her exceptional beauty, virtue, and accomplishments. She is considered an “exemplar,” a model of female behavior, by everyone around her. She has very strict ideas of duty and morality, and she particularly enjoys taking care of the neighborhood poor. Although Clarissa is so endearing that most people can tolerate her obvious superiority, her older brother and sister are jealous of her, especially after Clarissa inherits an estate upon her grandfather’s death.
A dashing rake, the antagonist of the novel. Lovelace is of good family, handsome, brave, intelligent, and highly accomplished. He loves to write and does so with great skill. He has a history of seducing many women, all of whom subsequently either died in childbirth or became whores. He is in love with Clarissa, but he also sees her as a challenge for his powers of seduction. His admiration of her virtue is an additional instigation for him to try to conquer it.
Clarissa’s best friend, her confidante, and sometimes her foil. Anna is vivacious and flippant in contrast to Clarissa’s seriousness. She treats everyone, including her mother and her suitor, Hickman, with a freedom that is sometimes offensive or cruel. She sometimes teases Clarissa, especially about her concealed feelings for Lovelace, but she respects and loves her completely.
Read an in-depth analysis of Anna Howe.
Lovelace’s best friend, also a rake. Belford and Lovelace have a habit of correspondence that echoes that between Clarissa and Anna, but the two men write to each other in a secret shorthand that only they know. This allows them to freely discuss their libertine activities. Despite his lifestyle, Belford has a conscience, and his exposure to Clarissa gradually puts him on her side and against Lovelace, although he continues to be Lovelace’s friend.
The madam of a London whorehouse. Mrs. Sinclair is a monstrous creature, enormous, masculine, and wicked. Clarissa is repelled by Mrs. Sinclair, even though she believes her to be a respectable widow. An aura of sin surrounds her, such that as soon as Lovelace enters her house he finds all of his good intentions slipping away, although they return to some extent when he is away. Mrs. Sinclair is instrumental in the ruin of Clarissa.
Father of Clarissa, Arabella, and James, authoritarian and unforgiving. Mr. Harlowe’s bad temper is attributed to his gout, and he most frequently appears off-scene, vexing and incensed outside the main action of the novel. He is anxious about his family’s newfound wealth, reputation, and social position and will tolerate no disobedience from his children.
Clarissa’s older brother, proud, ambitious, and resentful. James is neither very brave nor very intelligent, but he is fiercely proud and responds violently to anything that he perceives as threatening to his reputation or prospects.
Clarissa’s mother, loving but passive. Mrs. Harlowe will not defy her husband, even when she disagrees with him. She resents Clarissa for causing trouble in the family, even as she pities her situation.
Clarissa’s sister, envious and bad tempered. Arabella is inferior to Clarissa in beauty and character and suffers from the shadow of her younger sister. Like her father and brother, Arabella overvalues money and reputation and is therefore doubly resentful of Clarissa’s inheritance.
Clarissa’s nurse, a pious woman. Well educated and well-bred, Mrs. Norton has fallen on hard times, although she was responsible for most of Clarissa’s education and sense of morality that grow into such impressive virtue.
Clarissa’s cousin and a trustee of her estate. Morden is abroad for most of the novel, while the Harlowes wait for him to arbitrate their conflict. He is comparable to Lovelace in bravery and skill and also has somewhat of a shady past.
Anna’s suitor, respectable but unexciting. Anna constantly mocks Hickman for his over-formal manners, but he patiently persists in his suit. When Clarissa leaves home, Hickman offers help, despite the risk of incurring the anger of Mrs. Howe.
Clarissa’s uncles and aunts. The all love Clarissa but will not help her against the wishes of Mr. Harlowe.
A rich, ugly, unappealing man. Except for the money he would bring into the family, Solmes is a completely inappropriate match for Clarissa. He is concerned with money above all else, mistreating his servants and even his family when it helps him advance in the world.
Lovelace’s relatives, well-bred, refined, and respected in society. In addition to their high social position, the family is esteemed for the merit of its individuals. They have heard of Clarissa’s virtue and would like to include her in their family despite her lower social rank.
The false name of Patrick McDonald, one of Lovelace’s accomplices in deceit. Tomlinson is an expert actor and convinces Clarissa of his sincerity. He has qualms about playing the part Lovelace has given him, but he plays it perfectly nevertheless.
Whores in Mrs. Sinclair’s brothel. Sally and Polly were ruined by Lovelace and want to see Clarissa suffer the same fate. Their mockery helps keep Lovelace on the path of wickedness.
Servants of the Harlowes. Joseph also works for Lovelace as a spy, and Betty, his girlfriend, is Arabella’s maid and treats Clarissa rudely. Hannah, by contrast, is faithful to Clarissa.
Keepers and guests of houses where Clarissa stays. All are decent people, although some are deceived by Lovelace and work against Clarissa.
Anna’s mother, courted by Antony Harlowe. Mrs. Howe struggles for control over her daughter and forbids her from helping Clarissa. While not a bad woman, she is a shallow and selfish one.