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First things first: "Lovelace," according to standard pronunciation of the time, would have been pronounced "Loveless." Yep, Richardson isn't really hiding the moral here. That name is just the first clue that Lovelace is your typical bad boy. That is, if the typical bad boy had the mischievous smile of James Franco, the face of Ryan Gosling, and possibly a heart of stone. We know that Lovelace does lots of rotten stuff, but the real question to ask is why he gets away with it. To get to the bottom of this mystery, Shmoopers, we have to delve deep into the Bad Boy Files.
Long before James Dean was a rebel without a cause, Lovelace was the ultimate ladykiller. Think about it: who doesn't have the hots for Lovelace? Arabella's just mad because he likes her sister better. Anna's totally on his side until the Really Bad Thing happens. And even though Mrs. Sinclair's entire brothel is made up of women Lovelace loved and discarded, they still want to help him nab Clarissa. That, folks, is dedication. Even the Lovelace haters have something in common with his biggest fans: they all wanted a little of that Lovelace sugar, and they didn't get it.
If we're looking for answers about Lovelace's appeal, let's go no further than Clarissa herself. "Mr. Lovelace is not a man to be easily brought to give up his purpose, in a point especially wherein he pretends his heart is so much engaged…" Clarissa confides in Anna (4.23). And that's just it. For a fickle bad boy, Lovelace sure seems to have tunnel vision for Clarissa. When all that seductive charm gets channeled in one direction, you better believe it's powerfully attractive.
Maybe that's why mostly everyone seems to want to help Lovelace, even when he's doing despicable things. How could such a handsome, devilish rake be up to no good?
First, let's get some definitions out of the way. A rake is your garden-variety bad boy: fast cars, fast women, and fast exits when he get bored. They were a big deal in the eighteenth century, and the biggest deal of all was stories about reforming them. You know, bad boy meets nice girl and settles down to live happily ever after. Even Richardson himself wrote one a few years earlier—Pamela, in which a virtuous servant girl manages not to get raped and ends up marrying her wealthy, would-be rapist. Happily ever after.
Clarissa is a corrective to that fairy-tale story. In the preface, Richardson says he wanted to show girls the error of the "dangerous but too commonly received notion, that a reformed rake makes the best husband" (preface.12). Of course, Clarissa never gets to find out, since we never really find out if Lovelace actually wants to marry her. Sure, he undeniably has the hots for Clarissa. We just aren't convinced he wants to put a ring on it, since he does everything short of murder to get Clarissa into his power. He sees her as the ultimate conquest.
Clarissa is the ultimate conquest because she's the ultimate woman, the "pattern" that all women should try to imitate. (Check out our "Character Analysis" for more on Clarissa's awesomeness.) Lovelace holds Clarissa to an impossible standard, even telling Belford that she may be the one to break him of his bad habits.
Not to get all armchair psychologist on the guy, but there's totally a reason why he keeps comparing her to an angel. As long as Clarissa refuses to have sex with him, he can put her on a pedestal far above all the "normal" women who swoon over him on a daily basis. Ever heard of the Madonna-whore complex, buddy?
It's the one thing everyone seems to be holding out for: Clarissa, Anna, his buddies, and even the Harlowe family seem to believe that Lovelace will eventually get it together. But does he really have what it takes to be Clarissa's husband?
To be honest, he's all over the place. First, he tells Clarissa that he's drawing up a marriage settlement to make them a legit couple. Surely it's just another one of his tricks? But nope, he actually sends it off to his lawyer. But then he ridicules marriage and talks about avenging himself against all womankind. Plus, he alludes to the fact that he often uses the promise of marriage to coax girls into sex: "I verily think, that I have had three of four precontracts in my time, but the good girls have not claimed upon them of a long time…" (254.1).
Once he gets what he wants, destroying Clarissa in the process, Lovelace is a little sorry for his actions: "Pity me, Jack, for pity's sake; since, if thou dost not, nobody else will: and yet never was there a man of my genius and lively temper that wanted it more" (266.1). Okay, fine. But notice all that talk about his own sufferings? Classic narcissist here. We're pretty sure that Lovelace is a rake to the end, and we're not too sorry when Clarissa's cousin kills him in a duel.
And the next time a bad boy invites you to hop on the back of his motorcycle, remember that not every rake can be reformed.