Although Richardson occasionally throws us a funny bone (what's up, Dorcas-the-toad?) the main tone of the book is dark and moralizing. It's the kind of story where you're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Remember, Richardson got reamed for easing off on the moral stuff in Pamela, so Richardson isn't about to give us a happy ending here.
But even so, the dark moments at the end of Clarissa are really dark. Think of Clarissa's extended death scene: "We thought she was gone; and each gave way to a violent burst of grief" (481.18). And that comes after a whole two or so volumes of dying.
And then there's the capital-M Moral. Although it's more than a little cringeworthy for a twenty-first-century reader, we have to remember that morals were Richardson's bread and butter. Let's just hear from Lovelace at the point when Clarissa is definitely on her deathbed: "Tell her, oh tell her, Belford, that…I can and do, repent—and long have repented—Tell her of my frequent deep remorses" (470.6). In other words: repent, ye sinners; and ladies—don't let yourself be raped, but if you do, make sure manage to die without actively killing yourself.
The moral might fall short today, but it went the distance back in the day.
Man, is Clarissa ever a downer. Spoilers to come, so beware scrolling down if you're not totally done reading yet.
Okay, so our girl wants to get in on some true love action (minus the action part—until she's married, anyway). Her crush basically kidnaps her, takes her to a brothel, kidnaps her a second time to take her back to the brothel, and rapes her while she's drugged. And if all that's not enough to really put a damper on the mood, she dies at the end. Like Belford says, "I never had such a weight of grief upon my mind in my life, as upon the demise of this admirable woman…" (481.1).
Remember how much you ugly-cried during The Fault in Our Stars? This is supposed to have roughly the same effect.
Now that we've wiped the snot from our noses, let's take a look at how Clarissa fits into another genre. This is family drama at its best (or rather, at its worst). It's the perfect storm for a family melt-down: a father whose solution is to shut his daughter out, a mother who resorts to bribery to make her point, and two bratty siblings that have some major jealousy issues. Oh, and there's the letter Arabella sends seemingly moments after his sister bites the bullet: "We have just heard that you were exceedingly ill…And you have been very naughty—but we could not be angry always" (484.1). Yeah, the family drama is strong in this one.
Clarissa; or The History of a Young Lady seems pretty clear from the outset. It's all about Clarissa's adventures and mishaps, after all. She's the star of the show, the belle of the ball, the main attraction.
But what's up with the second part of the title? Richardson seems to be making a universal claim about all young ladies of the time. It makes sense: Richy-Rich made his name writing that other famous story about a young lady, Pamela; or Virtue Rewarded. Compared to that title, Clarissa slips a clue that its heroine might not get the same reward. She may be super virtuous, but that doesn't ensure that she'll automatically get everything she wants. Instead, we're going to get a glimpse into the history of lots of ladies struggling to balance family and marriage. It might not be all flowers and unicorns, but that's a history worth looking at.
Clarissa's out of the picture by the end, leaving us to wonder what happened to all of her homies. Okay, and leaving us to wonder about what happened to the people who wronged her. (You know we love a good revenge story.)
Since Clarissa's not around to explain it all (womp womp), Belford supposedly steps in to give us the final update on the whole crew. We say "supposedly" because the letter says it first: it's "supposed" to be written by Belford, but no one's totally sure (Conclusion.1). (Here's a creepy thought: if it's not Belford, who took over all of Clarissa's letters? Cue the Twilight Zone theme song.)
Belford or not, we get a straightforward rundown of the remaining characters. The highlights include Arabella driving her husband to infidelity through her "impatient spirit and groundless passions" (Conclusion.10). No one saw that coming, right? The last characters we hear about are Colonel Morden and Belford himself, both of whom came to Clarissa's defense at the very end. Obviously, both are happy as clams.
Weirdly, the last paragraph of the book is an update on the Widow Lovick. Remember her? We wouldn't blame you if you didn't, because she only pops up in boarding-house scenes. Clarissa likes her enough to leave her a ring in her will, but we don't get too much character detail. Anyway, her "prudent behaviour, piety, and usefulness, has endeared herself" to the Belfords (Conclusion.31).
So the one (surviving) example we get of a virtuous woman is a widow, not a married woman or a maiden. What's up with that? If we had to guess, we'd say it's a shout-out to an alternative path to independence. Clarissa never got to have her own household and family, but the Widow seems to have it all and a bag of chips. What do you think, Shmoopers? Should she have just married old Solmes and waited for him to die first?
The setting in Clarissa is kind of like the setting of AMC's Mad Men: it takes place only indoors. (Think about it! It's true!) Okay, if you want to quibble, you can track down a few moments that take place outside (like when Clarissa meets Lovelace in the garden, or when Betty shakes her picnic trash all over the park). But for the most part, there's definitely something to be said for the way it's all about indoor spaces.
Oh yeah, you knew we were going there. Clarissa is basically locked up for the whole novel, despite her many attempts to escape. (And let's not even talk about how nasty her room at the Harlowe's must have seemed after she lived there for a while.) She seems pretty depressed about it: "But how long I should be either here, or alive, I cannot say!" (78.1).
And Clarissa's escape options other than Lovelace seem pretty limited, where "perhaps, they have no notion of the back door; as it is seldom opened, and leads to a place so pathless and lonesome" (86.22). Hey-o, that sounds like Clarissa's life! Any options she has of getting away from her fate seem to lead back to more heartache and sadness. It sounds about right that the setting reflects her inability to get away.
First of all, who actually believes that Clarissa had no idea she was holing up in a whorehouse? Overall, not Lovelace's brightest idea to bring his new girlfriend to the place all his old girlfriends ended up.
Mrs. Sinclair's whorehouse represents the worst possible situation for Clarissa. Since her virginity is so important to her, it's totes creepy that Lovelace tries to make her feel totally isolated. "To such a place then—and where she cannot fly me—And then to see how my will works, and what can be done by the amorous see-saw…" Lovelace boasts (108.7).
And while we're already totally aware of Lovelace's double standards for women, he makes it extra clear at Mrs. Sinclair's: "Oh, how I cursed the blaspheming wretches! They will make me, as I tell them, hate their house; and never rest till I remove her" (158.7). Did we mention that Lovelace was the one who encouraged Clarissa to go to the brothel? This guy is an expert at playing the blame game.
We can't leave this section without telling you a few things about the mid-eighteenth-century England that Clarissa takes place in. The most important thing to know here is that it's not just doors and windows trapping Clarissa; it's her whole society. In eighteenth-century England, women couldn't work or earn money unless they were prostitutes or maids. If you were a well-born girl who wanted to stay that way, you had to marry—and you had to marry well, because once you were married, that was it. Done for life. If you married a guy who beat your or wasted all your money or brought his whores home, too bad.
That's why Clarissa is so dead-set on making her own choice, and we have to understand this situation before we can really sympathize with her. Marriage was the major event of a girl's life, and if Clarissa lets her family mess this up for her, she's going to regret it the rest of her (or Solmes's) life.
Of course, if she messes it up herself…well, let's just say that story doesn't end well either.
Did we mention the book is long? Oh boy is it long. We recommend a bucket of Red Vines and at least a six-pack of Diet Coke if you're planning to tackle this beast of an eighteenth-century novel. Between the length and some high-falutin' language, saddle up for a slightly difficult journey through Clarissa's every emotion. But it's worth the price of admission. Remember, the guy who wrote this thing was basically Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling rolled into one for eighteenth-century readers.
The first thing you need to know about Richardson is that the guy has a lot to say. Okay, okay, the book is 1,488 pages—that's not exactly a revolutionary statement. But R-man actually obsessed over the length of the book and his trademark long-winded style to the extent that he revised it for ten years.* That's a long time, Shmoopers!
What Richardson didn't totally get was that his readers would eat up that wordy style. Who would have thought that this sentence would get some engines running:
I dare not ask to go to my dairy-house, as my good grandfather would call it; for I am now afraid of being thought to have a wish to enjoy that independence to which his will has entitled me: and as matters are situated, such a wish would be imputed to my favour to the man whom they have now so great an antipathy to. (6.6)
Whew. Try saying that ten times fast. But if you think about it, that long-winded sentence conveys an awful lot about Clarissa's emotional state. She's self-conscious to the point of oversharing, and that makes for a pretty complex character. Richardson packs drama into each of his sentences, even if they're a little on the long side.
*Angus Ross, Introduction to First Edition, 1985.
From the start, we get that Clarissa likes to write. It's essential that she keeps throwing down on paper, to the extent that she hides her pens and papers from the Harlowe family. So why is Clarissa such a great penpal?
First of all, Clarissa's story is never supposed to get out. Ruined women aren't supposed to talk, according to the Harlowes. But Clarissa practically has a whole volume of letters telling the story of how she did everything right, and it still ended up all wrong. It's more of a tragedy to tell it that way, but at least Clarissa has a voice. Scratch that—she has a pen that tells it like it is. Like Belford writes to Lovelace, "Give sorrow words" (419.16).
It's not just significant that Clarissa wants to keep writing. It's also pretty telling that Lovelace and the Harlowe family are dead set against her putting pen to paper. What's the big deal, might you ask? Check out what her Uncle Antony has to say: "You had better not write to us, or to any of us. To me, particularly, you had better never to have set pen to paper on the subject whereupon you have written" (32.39).
Say what? Seems like Antony wants to prevent Clarissa from having the ability to communicate her true emotions. Denying her a pen is all about denying her speech and self-determination. If she can't write it, she can't be it.
That's why her writing gets so crazy after her rape. When Lovelace rapes her, he takes away her ability to make her own choices; he destroys her self.
Eventually, writing helps her put herself back together. It's important not only that she produce some writing, but that it gets read by someone outside of Mrs. Sinclair's brothel. Otherwise, there's a chance that Clarissa's story will die along with her—because she is her story.
Clarissa sees something in Belford that makes her trust him, which is why she trusts him with distributing eleven letters of forgiveness after her death. It's clear that Clarissa wants to deliver a message from beyond the grave (although she totally could have played the ghost card. That would be awesome).
Need proof why Belford is her perfect representative? While our guy is thinking about Clarissa's terrible fate, he tells Lovelace "I drop my trembling pen" (500.54).
Rather than recording his own version of the narrative, Belford allows Clarissa to tell the whole story in her own words.
Not to get too holy up in here, but angel imagery is practically littered throughout Clarissa's life. Okay, we get it: Clarissa's like an angel on earth. She eventually has to bail because she's just too good to hang around losers like Lovelace and the Harlowe crew. But it's not like Clarissa always has a halo on her head. It's only after her rape that she becomes a prime candidate for the Angel Mafia.
Belford gets the angel imagery going after he busts Clarissa out of jail. Belford not-so-subtly notes that
the kneeling lady, sunk with majesty too in her white, flowing robes (for she had not on a hoop), spreading the dark, though not dirty, floor, and illuminating that horrid corner; her linen beyond imagination white, considering that she had not been undressed ever since she had been here; I thought my concern would have choked me. (334.16)
Let's break it down, shall we?
First of all, we've got those white robes. Baby, you can see her halo without Beyoncé pointing it out. Plus, Belford can literally see Clarissa's goodness lighting up the dark room. Think of how helpful she'd be for Swiffer commercials! Finally, Belford makes sure to mention that Clarissa has remained clothed since she arrived, meaning that her clothes are white even though she hasn't been able to wash them. She's so pure that she even purifies her clothes. That's some powerful bleach.
For most of the story, Lovelace calls Clarissa pet names like "dear creature." Not so cute, right? He's basically dehumanizing her to keep from thinking about his atrocious actions. After her death, though, she's an "angel of a woman" (334.17). In other words, the guy can only revere her if she's more than human. Once Clarissa's beyond his reach forever, he's totally comfortable calling her an angel.
If Clarissa's the angel of the story, then Lovelace must be the one playing the devil card. He's pretty explicit about it, too: "My brain is all boiling like a caldron over a fiery furnace. What a devil is the matter with me, I wonder?" (497.21). It sounds like the dude already knows that his paradise is lost, even if he tries to deny it. To be honest, the distinction between good and evil is pretty clear, even if Lovelace seems to be all confused what he's done wrong.
As usual, Lovelace has a few partners in crime. The other devil of the hour would be Mrs. Sinclair, whose accident Belford characterizes as a plunge into hell: "…after a dreadful night, she lies foaming, raving, roaring, in a burning fever, that wants not any other fire to scorch her into a feeling more exquisite and vulnerable than any thy vengeance could make her suffer" (493.3). Not to hit it too hard with the Milton, but that's a direct copy of Satan's agony in Paradise Lost.
Actually, it seems like just about all of Clarissa's tormentors get compared to the guy down under. Belford calls Sally Martin "the devil incarnate" after telling her about Clarissa's death, which seems to imply that she's just as bad as Lovelace (493.5). Let's tone in down with the name-calling, Belford—especially when there's a real devil on the loose.
Think back—way back—to the beginning of Clarissa. The whole kerfuffle started because her rich granddaddy gave her an estate—and a dairy-house. In one of the first letters, we find out that Clarissa is often away because she's "absent at my Dairy-house, as it is called, busied in the accounts relating to the estate which my grandfather had the goodness to devise to me" (2.6).
Oh boy. Few problems here: (1) she's got something that the other kids don't have, and (2) she has her own house and her own money. In fact, she repeatedly says that all she wants to do is to hang out on her own estate and be left alone. To her, the dairy-house and estate represent self-determination and freedom: the ability to make her own choices and, crucially, have her own money.
Obvs, her family won't stand for that. So, in the end, she settles for another kind of house: a coffin.
Remember all that weird business about Clarissa ordering her own coffin? She repeatedly calls it a house, and when she dies Belford says that she was "removed […] in to that last house which she had displayed so much fortitude in providing." In the end, Clarissa does get to make her final choice and provide her own house. Too bad that there's no exit door.
Clarissa is full of dreams that give us clues into our favorite characters' internal states. Check it: before deciding to run away with Lovelace, Clarissa dreams the dude "carried me into a churchyard; and there, notwithstanding all my prayers and tears, and protestations of innocence, stabbed me to the heart, and then tumbled me into a deep grave ready dug, among two or three half-dissolved carcasses" (84.3).
Gruesome. There's definitely some foreshadowing going on with all this dream imagery, and Clarissa knows she should be paying attention to it. After all, she knows perfectly well that Lovelace has a rep for ruining girls' reputations. Those "half-dissolved carcasses" don't bode too well for our serial seducer. Still, it's telling that Clarissa can't help but keep the correspondence with Lovelace going. The dreams tell her everything she needs to know, but she still can't get enough of her boy.
Lovelace's dreams could definitely use some Freudian analysis. Usually, the guy manages to keep his emotions on lockdown, but his bad deeds come back to bite him when he hits the sack. In fact, we know that Clarissa thinks that nightmares are a divine punishment: "By God's grace I shall be easier tomorrow, and especially if I have no more of his tormentings, and if I can get a tolerable night" (440.10). All we have to say is: if Clarissa thinks she deserves nightmares, what do you think Lovelace deserves?
Before any of this stuff with Clarissa went down, Lovelace and Belford were gossiping about their buddy Belton's downfall. See, the guy whole-heartedly embraced the rake lifestyle and lived it up for a long time. Then he got sick and his mistress turned on him, leaving him broke and miserable. Now, we're not saying it's related to his philandering ways, but come on—it definitely is.
So how do we know that Belton's story is an allegory for Lovelace's lifestyle? Well, Belford keeps not-so-subtly hinting at the parallels between the two buddies. Lovelace doesn't really seem to get it, though. Not until Belford spells it out for him in all caps: "THOU MUST DIE, AS WELL AS BELTON" (419.7). Message received loud and clear!
So why would Richardson stick in an allegory that basically rehashes the plot? Well, the guy was a moralist. Since the major critique of his other best-seller, Pamela, was that the moral wasn't clear enough, Richardson gave the audience what they wanted.
Ever had a penpal? Then you, pal, were writing in the second person point of view. The same is true for most of Clarissa, in which Clarissa basically gets to relate her story to Anna Howe. But hold up! There are some complications to the typical second-person P.O.V. that we need to unpack.
First of all, Clarissa frequently refers to Anna or whoever she's addressing in her letters directly. Our girl isn't afraid to tell it like it is: "You both nettled and alarmed me, my dearest Miss Howe, by the concluding part of your last" (11.1). That's pretty typical for second person style. But what happens when Clarissa switches it up and writes to other characters? Or how about when we get a sneak peek into Lovelace's correspondence with Belford?
That, our Shmoopy friends, is what a polylogic point of view looks like. Sure, we still have one character writing to another character (and referring to that character as "you"). But we're getting multiple perspectives from a bunch of different characters. Using a polylogic point of view lets the reader stay one step ahead of the characters at all times.
How else would we know that Clarissa's new home is actually a brothel besides all the prostitutes?
Clarissa may be practically perfect in every way, but she can't help wanting a cutie to share the ups and downs of life. It's too bad that her chosen dude is Lovelace, a guy who is bad in every sense of the word. Our girl Clarissa doesn't exactly seem unfulfilled, but she knows she has to marry and she wants to have a say in the matter. More than marrying Lovelace, all her energies seem to be dedicated toward preventing a marriage with nasty old Solmes.
Clarissa gets pretty locked into action when Lovelace tricks her into running away with him. Although things never go swimmingly for Clarissa after this point, she does have a glimmer of hope after Lovelace sends a marriage settlement to his lawyer. Sure, it's not an ideal situation, but she figures it will be all good if she can finagle a marriage after all. And hey, Lovelace is planning to find her a house! What more could a girl want than house and a reformed rake?
But, of course, it's a no go. Lovelace ushers in the Frustration Stage when he places her in Mrs. Sinclair's brothel. Even if Clarissa isn't totally aware that she's surrounded by prostitutes, she definitely knows something's up. Although Clarissa manages to run away to Mrs. Moore's, her family has basically refused to help. By the time she ends up back at the brothel, she knows she's pretty much doomed. Plus, Mrs. Sinclair is a threatening force who wants to help put Clarissa in Lovelace's power. It's a dark time for our girl.
Lovelace relates Clarissa's rape in a single-line letter, but it has big-time consequences for her. She goes insane and can't even write her beloved letters to make sense of the situation. Clarissa asks Lovelace to put her in a madhouse, but the prostitutes get her thrown in jail instead. (Considering the state of madhouses at the time, that's probably an upgrade.) Only Belford is willing to help, and he can't do much.
Clarissa knows she's dying, even if everyone else is in denial. Lovelace's rape set in motion a whole chain of events that can only end with her peacing out forever, since she's been sullied now and can't live. Obvs. Plus, her death will make Lovelace reform and her whole family realize that they're sorry for being major jerks. Happy ending! JK no, it's still pretty much a tragedy.
Miss Clarissa and the rest of the Harlowe family live in jolly old England. Clarissa's practically perfect in every way, but her bratty siblings have some major jealousy issues. She's clearly her rich grandpa's favorite, which means she's due for a payday any day now.
Clarissa's bro has a bone to pick with Clarissa's beau, Robert Lovelace. Basically, that means they get all duel-happy and James Harlowe barely escapes with his life. Clarissa has to decide whether she should go with bad-boy Lovelace or nasty old Solmes, her family's hubby pick. When she chooses Lovelace, the dice are rolling … toward a pretty bad conclusion.
After a reallllly long period of rising action, Lovelace employs the help of Mrs. Sinclair to drug and rape Clarissa, making this climax literal. Sorrynotsorry.
It's all downhill from here. Belford starts looking out for Clarissa after she makes a break from the dastardly Lovelace, but she's already pretty sick. While our gal is preparing to take a permanent trip upstairs, everyone starts realizing how much she's been wronged. Now all we need to know is how Clarissa's long, strange trip is going to end.
It's a bummer, but Clarissa was too gosh-darn perfect to stay on this earth. (Plus, now that she's been raped, she can't exactly marry and pass herself off as a regular old virtuous woman.) Everyone's sad, Lovelace feels bad, and Clarissa's family decides to forgive her. Oh yeah, we're sure she appreciates that…in heaven. You dirtbags.
Clarissa's as happy as a clam before her parents forbid her from talking to her new crush, Lovelace. She's dead-set against marrying gross old Mr. Solmes, but her BFF Anna tries to stop her from doing anything rash. When Lovelace tricks Clarissa into running away with him, her family assumes she's a ruined lady. The stage is set for some serious complication in Act II.
Clarissa thinks Lovelace is moving her to a more respectable living situation, but her new hangout is actually a brothel. She manages to escape, but Lovelace reels her back in by getting prostitutes to pretend to be his family (y'know, that old trick). Clarissa continues to resist until Lovelace drugs and rapes her while she's unconscious. We're about as far from a happy ending as it's possible to imagine—which is a good place for Act II to end.
Clarissa's a dying woman, and only Lovelace's pal Belford can help. The prostitutes from Mrs. Sinclair's have Clarissa thrown into jail, but Belford gets her out and finds her a doctor. Lovelace repents and wants to put a ring on it for real, but Clarissa's already bought a coffin. Clarissa dies, everyone repents, and Colonel Morden kills Lovelace in a duel. Bow: tied.