Please wait while we process your payment
If you don't see it, please check your spam folder. Sometimes it can end up there.
Don’t have an account?
Create Your Account
Sign up for your FREE 7-day trial
Already have an account? Log in
Choose Your Plan
$4.99/month + tax
$24.99/year + tax
Save over 50% with a SparkNotes PLUS Annual Plan!
for a group?
Get Annual Plans at a discount when you buy 2 or more!
$18.74 /subscription + tax
Subtotal $37.48 + tax
on 2-49 accounts
on 50-99 accounts
Want 100 or more?
for a customized plan.
You'll be billed after your free trial ends.
7-Day Free Trial
Renews December 7, 2023
November 30, 2023
Discounts (applied to next billing)
This is not a valid promo code.
(one code per order)
Annual Plan - Group Discount
SparkNotes Plus subscription is $4.99/month or $24.99/year as selected above. The free trial period is the first 7 days of your subscription. TO CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION AND AVOID BEING CHARGED, YOU MUST CANCEL BEFORE THE END OF THE FREE TRIAL PERIOD. You may cancel your subscription on your Subscription and Billing page or contact Customer Support at email@example.com. Your subscription will continue automatically once the free trial period is over. Free trial is available to new customers only.
For the next 7 days, you'll have access to awesome PLUS stuff like AP English test prep, No Fear Shakespeare translations and audio, a note-taking tool, personalized dashboard, & much more!
You’ve successfully purchased a group discount. Your group members can use the joining link below to redeem their group membership. You'll also receive an email with the link.
Members will be prompted to log in or create an account to redeem their group membership.
Thanks for creating a SparkNotes account! Continue to start your free trial.
Your PLUS subscription has expired
See discount terms and conditions.
The novel’s first thirty letters are between Clarissa
Harlowe and her best friend, Anna Howe, although some copies of
letters to and from other characters are enclosed within these.
A dramatic event has just occurred: Clarissa’s brother James has
gotten into a fight with the notorious libertine Robert Lovelace,
and he lies injured. Anna has heard rumors that the fight was over
Clarissa, and she asks her friend to clear up the story. Clarissa
explains that Lovelace visited the Harlowes as a suitor to her older
sister, Arabella. Arabella admired Lovelace, but he showed a total
lack of interest in her and appeared much more attracted to Clarissa.
James Harlowe returns from Scotland and learns about the family’s
new relationship with Lovelace. James is furious and threatens to
disown Clarissa if she ever marries Lovelace.
To explain their history, Clarissa reveals that James
and Lovelace had been at college together, where Lovelace had been
popular, successful, and something of a bully. James’s pride and
bad temper had caused a rift between the two, and Lovelace’s power
over his classmates had given him the ability to ruin James’s school
experience. Siding with James, the Harlowes (except Clarissa) began
to treat Lovelace rudely. James challenges Lovelace, but, as a poor
swordsman, loses the fight. Lovelace acts like a gentleman by allowing James
to live, and by politely sending inquiries about his recovery, to which
the Harlowes respond insultingly.
In the next few weeks the Harlowes become worried that
Clarissa will marry the man who is now the family enemy. They forbid her
to see Lovelace and propose a new suitor: a rich, ugly man named
Roger Solmes. James and Arabella convince Mr. and Mrs. Harlowe to
insist on Clarissa’s marrying this man, whom she hates. Clarissa
is not allowed to write any letters or leave home until she agrees
to marry Solmes. She arranges to carry on a secret correspondence
with Anna, and Lovelace convinces Clarissa to also correspond with
him by implying that if she does not, he may not be able to contain
his anger at the Harlowe’s insults.
Anna writes that Clarissa’s brother and sister are solely
motivated by jealousy. From childhood, Clarissa has been admired
for her beauty as well as for her virtue and intelligence. When
their grandfather died, he left his estate to Clarissa instead of
to her older brother and sister. James and especially Arabella have
always been in Clarissa’s shadow, and Lovelace’s defeat of James
and rejection of Arabella have fueled their resentment.
Anna also suggests that Clarissa is in love with Lovelace.
Clarissa is alarmed by this idea and insists that she “would not
be in love with him, as it is called, for the world.”
Anna mocks Clarissa for her denial, then relates new information
she has learned about Lovelace. He is very wild, especially with
regard to women. He lives for pleasure but is generous and financially
responsible, as well an intelligent and accomplished man of very
good family. He is noted for his love of and talent for writing
(as is Clarissa).
The Harlowes continue to lobby Clarissa to marry Solmes.
His money and his property, which adjoins theirs, will greatly advance the
standing of the Harlowes, possibly enabling James to buy a title. Clarissa’s
confrontations with her family become increasingly dramatic and
she is ever more torn between familial duty and her dislike of Solmes.
Lovelace writes to Clarissa and expresses his anger that
she is, by common report, about to marry Solmes. It is clear that
Lovelace has a spy in the Harlowe house, because he knows about
everything that has been happening there. He tells Clarissa that
his family (which is a very noble one) admires her and supports
the idea of their marriage. He asks if he can approach Clarissa’s
father and uncles to make his proposal, and also if Clarissa will
meet him privately one night in the garden. Clarissa feels she should
stop writing to Lovelace, but the threat to her brother and the
fact that she has few other bargaining chips convince her to continue.
She eventually responds to one of Lovelace’s letters, forbidding
him to visit her father and uncles and insisting that she wants
to stay single.
The Harlowes refuse to let Clarissa go to church and dismiss
her maid, Hannah, who has been helping with the secret correspondences.
Arabella’s maid, the pert Betty Barnes, is assigned to watch over
Anna’s situation provides a contrast with Clarissa’s.
She and her mother have a close but tempestuous relationship, and
Anna has none of Clarissa’s scruples about familial piety. Mrs.
Howe wants Anna to marry a respectable man named Hickman, whom Anna mocks
mercilessly. Mrs. Howe is close friends with Clarissa’s Uncle Antony.
Anna recommends that Clarissa take control of her grandfather’s
estate, which Clarissa had put into her father’s power. Clarissa
refuses, insisting that as a daughter her proper place is in her father’s
house and under her father’s control.
Letter 31 is the first written
by Lovelace. It is to John Belford, one of his wild pack of friends.
Lovelace writes of his hatred for the Harlowes and his love for
Clarissa, whom he calls “my angel” and “my charmer.” It is revealed
that early in his life Lovelace had been jilted for a man of higher
status and had vowed revenge on all women. Lovelace also mentions
that he is somehow manipulating Clarissa’s uncle and, through him,
Mrs. Howe to turn them against Clarissa so that she will have no
choice but to seek protection from Lovelace.
What makes Clarissa difficult, as well
as interesting, is that it takes a very long time to relate a very
small number of actions. Although the first section covers three
months and more than a hundred plus pages, hardly anything occurs
that could be called an event. The only major plot point, the duel
between James and Lovelace, has happened before the book begins.
The event that provides the conflict for this section, Clarissa’s
forced marriage, has not happened yet and may not happen. From this
first section we can gather that reading the book for plot will
likely be disappointing. The action mainly goes on in characters’
minds and in their written and spoken conversations with one another.
Clarissa’s letter (or epistolary) form
lends itself to a psychological, rather than plot-driven, novel.
As Richardson notes in the Preface, a novel in letters is bound
to be longer than one written as a narrative, because the letters
will include the characters’ thoughts about and speculations on
the events that happen. Since the letters in Clarissa are
written by four different characters, we are given multiple points
of view on single events, which also contribute to the length of
the work and relative lack of action. This storytelling device was
an innovation for Richardson. While his first novel, Pamela,
is also in the form of letters, almost all of the letters are written
by Pamela. Clarissa is more ambitious: the different
points of view make the novel richer and allow us to relate with
more than one character.
The letter format, especially when it uses more than one
narrator, leaves a lot up to the reader. Multiple voices add depth
to Clarissa’s story, but they might also lead to
confusion: how can we tell which characters are telling the truth?
With no narrator to warn readers that the rakes’ behavior is immoral,
and that their perspectives may not be trustworthy, each character
and event is open to interpretation. As it happens, Richardson’s
readers did not interpret the work as he would have wanted them
to. He was upset that many readers admired Lovelace and even picked
up some of his slangy expressions.
The first section of the book introduces most of the major
characters, beginning with Clarissa Harlowe, who is described by
the people who know her as exemplary. She is exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally
intelligent, and devoted to virtue. She is a credit to the Harlowe
family, but her superiority is also a threat to them. Clarissa’s
brother and sister resent her for her good fortunes, as indicated
by their reactions to Clarissa’s inheritance and to Lovelace’s courtship.
The beautiful and virtuous Clarissa is out of place amongst the
Harlowes, who demonstrate a variety of negative personality traits.
Mr. Harlowe is characterized as domineering, Mrs. Harlowe is passive
and fearful, Arabella is mean-spirited, and James is hotheaded and
As noted by Anna, the main vice and motivation of the
family is avarice: their aggressive plans to marry Clarissa off
to the wealthy Mr. Solmes reveal that wealth and status are of the
utmost importance to them. The Harlowes are members of the English gentry, a class
of people in the eighteenth century who were newly wealthy and did
not have social status. There was a stigma attached to being from
an up-and-coming family like the Harlowes. Mr. Solmes is one of
this group as well: he has made a great deal of money but has not acquired
the social graces of the aristocracy. The Harlowes, too, are wealthy, but
not noble. As such, they are socially inferior
to Lovelace, who will inherit a peerage when his uncle dies. To
marry Clarissa would be a step down for Lovelace, but her individual exceptionality
makes her an acceptable choice in the eyes of his family (at least
according to Lovelace).
Clarissa and Anna’s correspondences highlight their very
different dispositions and the ambiguities of Clarissa’s feelings
for Lovelace. While she claims that Clarissa is too serious, Anna characterizes
herself as too flippant, and she freely makes fun of her mother
and her potential fiancé, Hickman. In contrast, Clarissa feels obliged
to speak respectfully of her family even when they are mistreating
her. Anna teases Clarissa about the “throbs” she might feel when
she reads Lovelace’s letters, although Clarissa insists that she
is simply treating him with ordinary respect, and that it’s her family’s
hatred that has sparked her interest in him. The difference between
their accounts of Clarissa’s feelings for Lovelace makes it unclear
how much Clarissa’s desire, or unconscious desire, for Lovelace
might motivate her actions. Once again, the letter form leaves us
to decide who is telling the truth.
Although Clarissa does not approve of Lovelace, she finds
him intriguing. In Clarissa and Anna’s letters, we learn that Lovelace
is an inappropriate match in one important way: she is virtuous
and he is wicked. In other ways, however, the two seem to make a
nice couple. As Clarissa is superior to other women, Lovelace surpasses other
men in looks, bravery, intelligence, and charm. A major contributing
factor to Lovelace’s bad reputation is his mistreatment of women,
which, according to him, is a result of an early rejection. However,
it is clear that Lovelace thoroughly enjoys the game of seducing
and abandoning women and is capable of weaving elaborate webs of
deceit. Clarissa, however, is not an ordinary target of Lovelace’s
game: he claims to be in love for the first time, yet he still relishes
his ability to turn her family against her and drive her into his
arms. A tension is created between Lovelace’s love of Clarissa and
his love of intrigue and revenge.
Clarissa, meanwhile, is occupied with the knotty struggle between
familial duty and her individual happiness. The tension that arises
here is between the individual and the social organization. Clarissa
seems to believe in both: she considers it unthinkable to accept
unhappiness for the rest of her life, but she also believes that
as a daughter she is, and ought to be, subjected to her father’s will.
Clarissa’s conception of virtue is therefore rather complicated: while
following rules is important, a person still has responsibility for
his or her own happiness. She believes in obedience to one’s parents,
as indicated by her willingness to hand over the inherited estate to
her father. But she is also unwilling to obey her parents’ commands
to marry a despicable man and compromise her personal freedom.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Clarissa!