Clarissa

by: Samuel Richardson

Letters 215–242

What follows is a tragedy of misinterpretation: when Lovelace is finally being sincere, Clarissa interprets him more harshly than she ever has before. When he has actually refrained from doing her harm, she considers that he has done an unforgivable thing. Lovelace, of course, is no innocent victim of Clarissa’s misreading; in fact, she is accusing him of much less than he has actually been guilty of. Nevertheless, it is Clarissa’s misreading that turns the plot back against her just when it seems almost ready to go her way.

In these series of events, Clarissa finally takes control and seems to be learning that there are times when letting go of virtue is necessary. She also gets an accurate enough idea of Lovelace to run away from him, although we know her actual reasons for doing so are unfounded. She lies and tricks her way out of the house and takes a false name and tells a false story when she is away. Clarissa has been bad before, of course—she kept up her correspondences against her parents’ command and ran away with Lovelace—but these new actions show her ability to scheme in a comparable way to Lovelace.

Although it looks like Clarissa is taking wise actions to carry out her escape (however dishonest they might be), her good sense falters: she is very clever when she sends Will with false letters and asks Dorcas for a week’s worth of food, yet she foolishly stays within Lovelace’s reach. Furthermore, when he arrives she scarcely makes any effort to get the ladies of the house, who are good ladies (with the possible exception of the Widow Bevis), on her side. Some critics have speculated that Clarissa, unknown even to herself, desires Lovelace and does not really want to get away from him, which would explain some of her seemingly stupid moves.

Clarissa also has singularly bad luck, which, as a constant obstacle, only serves to emphasize her role as heroine of the novel. If things were easy for her, we would not be so impressed by the strength of her virtue. If things are as hard as they can get, and unfairly so, her virtue will shine brighter. The letter from Anna that would have made everything clear arrives the very day that she runs away, so Lovelace can tamper with it before it gets to her hands. Her escape from her parents, too, apparently occurred just before they were about to relent. That such a paragon of virtue should have fate against her seems like a violation of poetic justice. It may be that making Clarissa so unlucky allows Richardson to heighten the drama of the events: A letter that comes just a moment too late is much more dramatic than one that comes in time, or several days too late. Another possibility is that Clarissa’s bad luck is like Job’s, whom God subjected to extreme misery so that he could show his faith and constancy.