Before long Clarissa is recovering. She makes several attempts to escape but is stopped by the women of the house. She has a conversation with Lovelace, in which she remains composed and stern, and this reduces him to a sniveling apology and declaration of regret. He begs her to marry him immediately, and she refuses.
Lovelace’s uncle, Lord M., is very ill and calls for Lovelace to come to him. Lovelace is torn, feeling that he cannot leave Clarissa but knowing that he has to go to his uncle if he expects to inherit his wealth and title. He continues to press for marriage, and she continues to refuse haughtily and tries to escape once again. Lovelace admits to Belford that his whole plan has failed. Because Clarissa was unconscious when he raped her, her will has not been violated. The rape has therefore failed to put her in his power.
The women of the house try to ingratiate themselves with Clarissa. Dorcas succeeds to some extent, and Clarissa writes her a note promising her money for assistance with her escape. Dorcas gives the note to Lovelace, who plans to use it as a provocation for a fight. He comes up with a new contrivance, using Dorcas to suggest a means of escape to Clarissa in which she will go outside and be picked up by a strange woman in a carriage. The lady will offer to take her to her house. In reality, the lady will be another whore, and once she has put Clarissa to bed Lovelace will surprise her there. The plan fails: Clarissa does not wholly trust Dorcas and is wary of the strange coincidence of the lady passing in the carriage. Lovelace is disappointed, but his plots are not at an end. He constructs another letter from Tomlinson, which recommends the following Thursday for the wedding because it is Uncle Harlowe’s birthday and he will come to town to celebrate it with Clarissa’s marriage. Clarissa still refuses.
The rape is the central event of Clarissa, its climax and turning point, and Lovelace’s confession to Belford is described more succinctly than anything else in this generally prolix novel. The form of Lovelace’s letter creates a space of silence and opacity around the rape, a moment of inscrutability in an otherwise exhaustively detailed novel. The threat and buildup of this event generates most of the suspense in the first part of the novel, and the consequences of it determine the action of the last part. Critics have focused much attention on the rape, and important scholarly works on Clarissa have titles like “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” and The Rape of Clarissa. Lovelace’s single-line letter to Belford says only that the end of the road has been reached, and that Clarissa is alive. Belford’s response balances this terseness with an overflowing of anguish and condemnation, so the reader cannot be in any doubt of what has happened, and cannot infer from Lovelace’s brusque letter that the rape was of little importance. The fact of Clarissa’s unconsciousness, as well as her subsequent madness, amplifies the obscurity of the event. This thing that changes everything happens in silence and shadows.
Clarissa’s refusal to marry Lovelace after the rape proves that her principles have passed his “trial.” In his view, rapes are in some way, sometimes retroactively, consensual: women must relax their virtue either before, during, or after their rape. No matter how much Clarissa fights beforehand, Lovelace thinks she will be subdued forever once he has raped her and prove him triumphant. However, because she had been drugged, and therefore unable to either consent to or prevent her attack, Lovelace has failed to gain purchase on her: she cannot accept any responsibility or guilt for it, and she therefore leaves with her virtue and will intact.
Perhaps if Clarissa were conscious during the rape things would have been different: she might have blamed herself for failing to stop it and been content to take whatever options were open to her, whether they compromised her principles or not. Marriage to Lovelace is the only option that will save Clarissa from the stigma of a ruined woman: if she marries him, she will be free of the fallen-woman designation and would be reinstated into society and deemed an acceptable citizen. However, the marriage would retroactively legitimize the rape and, since she had been drugged and unconscious, Clarissa has no reason to feel shamed for her inability to prevent it. This concludes that all women whose rapists do not drug them must accept blame for the action taken against them, since they failed to prevent their own desecration. This is true in the cases of Sally Martin and Polly Horton, who are left with no option but to become prostitutes, and in the case of Miss Betterton, who died tragically during childbirth.