Study Guide

Clarissa Themes

  • Lust

    Is it hot in here or is just us? Lovelace single-handedly cranks up the radiator with his passion for Clarissa. While everyone else in Clarissaseems pretty adept at keeping their lusty feelings in check, Lovelace doesn't really bother keeping it under wraps. Let's just say that the guy could use a cold shower.

    Of course, Clarissa is the main object of Lovelace's lust. While he's hot to trot, she'd just rather not. It's not that simple, though: Lovelace is free to carry on a never-ending bachelor party without major consequences, whereas Clarissa's marked as a ruined woman as soon as she climbs in his carriage. Life isn't kind to a lusty lady in Clarissa's day. The million-dollar question is whether Richardson is critiquing the double standard or buying into it.

    Questions About Lust

    1. Does Clarissa ever acknowledge lust or romantic feelings for Lovelace, or is it just a one-sided kind of deal?
    2. Why does Lovelace find Clarissa so appealing? Can we tell if he's attracted to a particular type?
    3. Does Lovelace ever experience real repercussions for his lust before the Clarissa incident? How is his reputation affected?
    4. Is it Lovelace's lust that drives him to harm Clarissa, or is it something else? In other words, is this really about sex, or could it be about power?

    Chew on This

    Lovelace's sex obsession is the result of some serious insecurity issues with women.

    While Lovelace's lust for Clarissa is replaced by respect, he's never truly able to love her in a way that would result in a happy marriage.

  • Manipulation

    It's tempting to call out Lovelace for being the master manipulator in this here story. He goes to extreme lengths to keep Clarissa under lock and key, while tricking all his cronies into helping him do it. Plus, he's got that winning smile!

    Thing is, just about everybody has a piece of the manipulation pie (with the possible exception of Clarissa, of course). The Harlowes are all about coaxing and badgering Clarissa into marrying Solmes, even though that's clearly not what she wants. Mrs. Sinclair and her merry band of prostitutes definitely want to manipulate Clarissa into sinking to their level. In Clarissa, it's all about keeping your head in the game—and trying to figure out what's going on in everybody's head.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. What are Lovelace's most effective manipulation techniques? Does he try to manipulate Clarissa differently than he manipulates everyone else?
    2. Clarissa's not always savvy, but she shows her hand every once in a while—and it's usually a flush. How does Ms. Pokerface make other people do what she wants?
    3. Does Lovelace succeed at manipulating Clarissa to his will, or does he ultimately fall short?
    4. Does Lovelace ever manipulate Belford, or is Belford immune to his charms?

    Chew on This

    Over the course of the book, Clarissa learns how to manipulate and how to avoid being manipulated.

    Mrs. Sinclair manipulates Clarissa and everyone else around her just for the sheer joy of watching destruction. Some women just want to watch the world burn. 

  • Guilt and Blame

    In Clarissa, there's only one game to play at family home evening, and it's not Monopoly. It's the blame game. At the beginning, it's all about pinning the blame on Clarissa (kind of like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, only a little more sinister). Everyone blames her for not cooperating, but no one seems to have her best interests at heart. By the end, the goal shifts to expose every single one of those phonies. It may seem pretty simple to point a finger toward Lovelace, but nearly everyone seems to have a hand in sending Clarissa to the grave. The problem? Well, it doesn't exactly bring her back. 

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Let's start with the nitty-gritty: who is most responsible for Clarissa's death? Is her family just as much to blame as Lovelace, or is that way harsh?
    2. Taking it in the opposite direction, who feels the most guilt for Clarissa's ultimate fate?
    3. Does Lovelace feel guilt for the other women he seduced, or is his guilt just reserved for Clarissa? Heck, does he even feel guilt about what happened to her?
    4. Does Clarissa ultimately blame herself?

    Chew on This

    Belford helps Clarissa because of his own unresolved guilt about being a player in his youth.

    Clarissa consciously tries to avoid placing blame on others, although she probably has the most right to do so. 

  • Pride

    Pride goeth before a fall. Truer words were never spoken in Clarissa-land, where everyone's got something to prove. If we could get the Harlowe family on Dr. Phil's couch, we might ask them to break down exactly why pride is more important than keeping family bonds intact (and if we could answer that question, we'd be raking in the millions).

    In Clarissa, pride has a lot to do with two things: wealth and reputation. Either you have 'em or you don't, but no one wants to admit that they've fallen short. James and Arabella want their sis to marry Mr. Moneybags and be done with it, but Clarissa's is more worried about keeping a solid rep. 

    Questions About Pride

    1. What is it about Lovelace that wounds James's ego so much? Or does James see something in Lovelace that goes beyond his hurt pride?
    2. Is Clarissa just as proud as the rest of her family? Does her pride parade need toning down, or is she just a strong individual?
    3. Is Lovelace proud about anything beyond the notches on his bedpost? Where's his sense of family honor?
    4. Are Clarissa and Lovelace too proud to get along, or is one more willing to budge?      

    Chew on This

    Despite always being there for Clarissa, Anna is proud of her ability to keep out of trouble.

    Clarissa is too proud to cave to parental pressure, but she'd adjust her attitude for the right person.

  • Principles

    Shmoopers, let's talk about how Clarissa's principles spread like wildfire. Think of her as Regina George in Mean Girls (except, y'know, not mean): everything the girl does is trendy two seconds later. Even though Anna's not the jealous type, you just know Clarissa's letters make her step up her moral game. Even the prostitutes start reading moral literature when Clarissa comes to town. Our girl can't help it: she's naturally good.

    But a certain fellow whose name starts with L threw his principles out with the bathwater. Lovelace isn't terribly concerned with maintaining integrity, especially where Clarissa is concerned. For some weird reason, though, the guy can't help but surround himself with virtuous people like Clarissa and Belford. While he's not going to be copying Clarissa anytime soon, he's picking up what the Queen Bee is putting down—and it's all laid out in Clarissa

    Questions About Principles

    1. Where does Clarissa get her integrity? Does she have a role model, or does she naturally intuit what's right?
    2. Does Lovelace have some sort of moral code? What does he consider crossing the line, morally speaking?
    3. How does Clarissa's definition of virtue change over the course of the book?
    4. What leads Belford to help Clarissa out? Is he acting according to his principles, or is there something more going on here?

    Chew on This

    Clarissa's virtuous reputation is based on her ability to empathize, not her virgin status.

    Lovelace is driven to corrupt Clarissa spiritually as well as seduce her.

  • Gender

    Let's not mince words: it's tough to be a lady in the eighteenth century—and in Clarissa. While Lovelace is gallivanting around doing whatever the heck he pleases, Clarissa has to treat her life like a high-stakes chess tournament. And she's not the king or the queen in this game—she's the pawn.

    For real, Clarissa has lots of disadvantages. Her family is less than supportive, Lovelace is dead-set on seducing her, and Mr. Solmes wants her to be his bride. But mainly, she's an unmarried woman who doesn't have tons of options. It's a good thing she's got Anna to commiserate over all her probs, because she's playing this game to win.

    Questions About Gender

    1. What advantages does James Harlowe have that his sisters might not necessarily get? Is James aware of these advantages?
    2. Does Clarissa have a strategy for marriage and family, or does she just let the cards fall where they may?
    3. Does Lovelace ever consider the double standard for men and women? Why or why not?
    4. Why is Clarissa's family so anxious to have her married ASAP?

    Chew on This

    Richardson saw <em>Clarissa </em>as an exploration of the difficulty of women's lives.

    Lovelace isn't fully aware of how his actions will affect Clarissa until it's too late for him to go back.

  • Revenge

    No, Clarissa doesn't come swooping in with a cape to deliver justice to those who have wronged her. (Would watch.) Instead, revenge gets talked about….and talked about…and talked about, without anyone's making good on their passionate promises. That is, unless you count James Harlowe's weak attempt to fight Lovelace for making fun of him in college, which we don't, because James falls right on his face. Obviously.

    No, revenge is mostly a pipe dream for Clarissa's friends and family. Until Colonel Morden arrives in the final act, it seems like Lovelace will get away with his crimes. Of course, we still love to imagine all 1500 pages of Clarissa as a build up to the final duel, in which Morden gives Lovelace a little taste of revenge. It is a dish best served cold, after all, and anything would be cold after 1,500 pages. 

    Questions About Revenge

    1. What are James's motives for revenge against Lovelace? Do they have anything to do with Clarissa?
    2. Does Anna finally get her revenge against Lovelace?
    3. Why is Morden so cool and collected while seeking revenge? Is that just part of his M.O.?
    4. Why doesn't anyone try to seek revenge against Lovelace for the other women he's seduced and ruined?

    Chew on This

    Richardson generally approves of duels and sees them as a good way to settle offenses against your honor.

    Belford's revenge against Lovelace consists of becoming Clarissa's executor. (Instead of executioner. Womp womp.)

  • Society and Class

    It's not like Clarissa is all high-society or anything. She's just extremelyconscious that class matters if she wants to survive and thrive in her little community. Let's just say that Clarissais like a giant game of that middle-school game Telephone. People are constantly whispering, and Clarissa is the hottest topic of conversation since Lady So-and-So married Whatshisface.

    Even more important than Clarissa's reputation is acting correctly for her class. If she can stay out of the headlines and marry someone who adds to her family's fortune, she'll be set for life. Of course, that won't be the easiest task in the world—not as long as there's a handsome devil looking to woo her and not wed her.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Based on what we know about Clarissa's family, what social class are they from? How do we know?
    2. Is Lovelace of a significantly different class than Clarissa's family? Why are the Harlowes so dead-set against Clarissa marrying Lovelace?
    3. Is Clarissa completely ostracized from society when she runs away from Lovelace?
    4. Why can't Clarissa take her grandfather's fortune and peace out?

    Chew on This

    Clarissa is far more concerned with maintaining her reputation than advancing her social class, which leads to most of her problems.

    Lovelace couldn't care less about where he stands in society. He just wants to do his own thing—and if that involves consorting with whores, so be it.        

  • Religion

    It's not that she's all holier-than-thou, but—okay, she's a little holier-than-thou. Clarissa definitely takes puts the "pie" in pious. Especially when she's cut off from her family and friends, Clarissa turns to the big man for some consolation. It doesn't hurt that Lovelace stays the heck away from church (we think there's a good chance he's a vampire).

    Clarissa has always been into religion. But by the end of <em>Clarissa</em>, she hits the Bible big-time. She can't go a single second without quoting Proverbs or acting all angelic-like, and we can't blame her—she's got a one-way express ticket to heaven. And she sets a good example along the way: Clarissa's devotion to religion inspires Belford, Anna, and a host of others to embrace a holy lifestyle. It's just too bad that Lovelace can't get on board.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why is Clarissa so intent on going to church every week? Does she say anything about religion's importance in her life?
    2. Does Clarissa really get more religious after her illness, or is she just trying to get on the big man's good side before dying?
    3. Does Lovelace eventually turn to religion, or does he shun it until the end?
    4. What's with the preoccupation with angels and devils? Are we supposed to take this literally, or is it all a big metaphor?

    Chew on This

    Clarissa's religion is genuine, but it's also a way for her to explore an identity other than wife or mother.

    People consider Clarissa to be angel on earth because they can't handle the idea of a ruined woman living her life.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    What's up with everyone wanting to keep Clarissa locked up? She's got a tighter curfew than a sixteen-year-old who's just wrecked the family car. Unfortunately, unless our girl is escaping from somewhere, she's always under lock and key. Even when she's at Mrs. Moore's or Mrs. Smith's, she's being carefully monitored by someone. Whether it's a friend or foe, Big Brother is always watching.

    If Clarissa is really the History of a Young Lady, as the subtitle implies, there's a lot more going on with this freedom and confinement thing. After all, it's not like young ladies in Richardson's time got to go roaming around with the freedom a Lovelace might have. In some ways, this is the story of how Clarissa learns to navigate spaces that most respectable women wouldn't dare enter. The irony is that she isn't free when she wanders into and out of brothels and boarding houses. Not to be a downer, but there's just no way out for Clarissa.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Does Clarissa feel more confined in her family home or when she's with Lovelace?
    2. How does Clarissa get up the courage to escape from Lovelace? Does she have any support from anyone?
    3. Where does Clarissa have the most freedom? Does she ever get to experience freedom before her death?
    4. Are the other ladies in the book confined by social conventions, or is Clarissa the only one under lock and key?      

    Chew on This

    Belford doesn't so much liberate Clarissa as confine her in another way.

    When Clarissa runs away with Lovelace, she's at least partly willing. It may be another form of confinement, but at least it feels a little more like freedom.