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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
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.
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Clarissa!