Clarissa’s scruples play a role in entrapping her in others’ machinations. She could have remained inside instead of meeting Lovelace far from the house, but her sense of responsibility for the violence that might ensue leads her into his trap. There is, of course, the possibility that this is only an excuse, and Clarissa meets Lovelace because she wants to; she admits attraction to him, and he is the only person who seems willing to take action for her welfare. But this is simply speculation: although her actions might say otherwise, Clarissa’s words give no clear evidence.
Even though she has escaped and is no longer imprisoned in her bedroom, Clarissa is now bound by a new constraint: a spoiled reputation. No matter what happens, it will be assumed that Lovelace has seduced or raped her, and Clarissa will forever be a ruined woman—unless, of course, she marries him. But Clarissa’s punctilio interferes once again: she cannot abide the thought of marrying a wicked man, although she has some hope that Lovelace may reform and will consent to marry him if he does. Lovelace skillfully manipulates Clarissa’s misgivings, making it appear that she is refusing to marry him while in fact the decision is in his hands.
Lovelace’s decision to put Clarissa’s virtue on trial points to Clarissa’s position as an exemplar. Assumed to be the most perfect of women, Clarissa is called upon to stand trial for the entire sex. According to Lovelace’s theory, if she cannot maintain her virtue under his battery, female virtue must be essentially corruptible. Furthermore, Clarissa’s exemplarity makes her a tempting target for challenge-loving men like Lovelace. If he can corrupt her, he can do anything.
In this society, a woman’s chances of maintaining her virtue are incredibly slim. First, she is physically weak and socially confined. In addition, her education and upbringing are calculated to protect her innocence, not to prepare her for the cunning nature of rakes like Lovelace. Indeed, as we have seen, Clarissa’s senses of decorum and duty have helped Lovelace to imperil her virtue. The definition of virtue is also brought to the surface here. For women, virtue is simply chastity. Even if a woman is raped, she loses her virtue, as rape and seduction are not regarded as very different things. Rape, in this view, is a part of seduction, so a raped woman must have allowed herself to be seduced.
Once Clarissa and Lovelace are in the same place, experiencing the same events, the dynamic of their letters changes. In previous sections there was some tension between Lovelace’s designs and Clarissa’s experience, but now they are in direct contact, so the letters build a sense of dramatic irony (that is, the reader knows more than the characters). Because we are privy to Lovelace’s plans and manipulations, it is clear that Clarissa’s interpretations are often wrong, and that, although she is resistant, she still succumbs to Lovelace’s traps.