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Clarissa might be perkier and prettier than a cheerleader who exclusively wears J. Crew. She's the kind of person who apologizes when you bump into her, because she's just that genuinely nice. For real, though, maybe she should take some lessons from Regina George, because sheer awesomeness doesn't get her very far. "You see what you draw upon yourself by excelling all your sex," BFF Anna warns her (1.11). (Translation: stop being so darn perfect, because you make all the girls jealous and all the boys hot for you.)
But it's no use. Clarissa can't help being perfect and perfectly nice, and her family keeps on assuming that she'll kowtow to their every wish just because she's too sweet to say "boo," and Lovelace assumes he can wrap her around his little finger.
But as the book wears on (and on and on and on …) we learn that there's a little more to Clarissa than a pretty pretty princess.
Clarissa may be sweet and innocent, but she's not the type to back down when her family wants to marry her off to old man Solmes. Even if her only option is locking herself up in her room, that's a choice she's happy make. Her Uncle Harlowe may hope his "beloved niece only wanted to know her papa's will to obey it" (7.19), but that's just wishful thinking. Clarissa may want to make everyone happy, but she's going to take her sweet time making a decision that will affect the rest of her life—even if she makes the wrong one.
Clarissa may secretly have the hots for Lovelace, but she wants to do this thing right. That means holding out when her bad boy crush tries just about everything to seduce her. Doesn't he know he's dealing with a classy broad? Or maybe he does: Lovelace sees "how fervent, how amiable" her devotions are in church, but that's all part of her charm (159.2). It's almost like her virtue attracts the worst type of people.
By the end of the book, Clarissa's virtue is practically as bright as a beacon. Belford thinks she's an "angel indeed," which pretty much says it all (349.1). Clarissa's rape may be the central event of the novel, but it only shows that she can't be corrupted.
Anna spells it out for us in one of her early letters, telling Clarissa that she's "our pattern" (39.14). Brain Snack: this little phrase is a key way to understand Clarissa. Richardson has designed her to be a model. Confused about the best way to be a woman? Clarissa is there to show you. "Pattern" comes from the Latin word "patronus"—not the protective spell; the patron, which came to mean someone who modeled appropriate behavior.
Eventually the word came to mean a plan or design, the way we use it today, but in the eighteenth century people would still have been hearing that older use, too. Clarissa is meant to crazy virtuous, because she's an ideal that all us sinful women are supposed to try to emulate.
(Fair enough, but, given the way the book ends, we'll pass.)
You know what makes Clarissa so darn perfect? She doesn't know how perfect she is (or presumably how beautiful she is. In her letters to Anna, Clarissa is constantly condemning herself for—what, being the victim of circumstance? It's hard to make out exactly what Clarissa thinks she did wrong, since the way she presents it there was literally no other choice she could make but to run away with Lovelace.
Still, in Clarissa's mind, she could always be doing something better. It might be self-preservation, but Clarissa is the first to pile on the hate: "They cannot, however, say worse of me than I will of myself" (94.3). Maybe that's why Clarissa can't help but blame herself after Lovelace kidnaps her. Even though he's a master manipulator, she thinks she somehow should have known better. Is this a good time to mention that the girl is only eighteen?
It's hard to figure out what Clarissa wants, because she's always doing stuff for other people. We've never seen a more selfless gal. In fact, it's fun to envision an alternate ending where Clarissa tells everyone to get the heck out of her way—she's going to get out of this toxic environment and join the Peace Corps. Or something.
But if we really think about it, Clarissa only sticks her neck out for one thing. She wants a love story, and she's not willing to settle for anything less. She asks why "must I be pushed into a state which, although I reverence, I have no wish to enter into?" (9.10). But the possibility of a happy marriage with Lovelace keeps her ticking halfway through the book.
After Lovelace does his dastardly deed, Clarissa puts the kibosh on any kind of romance between them. Even though he's jonesing to marry her, she refuses to let the jerk get his own way. After all, what kind of love story would that be, marrying her rapist? She'd rather die than sacrifice the only thing she's ever really wanted.