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 cruel.
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.