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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady is an epistolary novel by Samuel Richardson, published in 1748. It tells the tragic story of a heroine whose quest for virtue is continually thwarted by her family, and is one of the longest novels in the English language. Its most notorious scene is when the male protagonist Lovelace rapes Clarissa by drugging her. Through this action, Clarissa must accept and marry Lovelace. The novel ends when Clarissa dies in the full consciousness of her virtue and trusting in a better life after death.

Plot summary

Clarissa Harlowe, the tragic heroine of Clarissa, is the beautiful and virtuous young lady whose family has become wealthy only in recent years and is now eager to become part of the aristocracy. The original plan was to concentrate the wealth and lands of the Harlowes into the possession of Clarissa's brother James Harlowe, whose wealth and political power will lead to his being granted a title. Clarissa's grandfather leaves her a substantial piece of property upon his death and a new route to the nobility opens through Clarissa marrying Robert Lovelace, heir to an earldom. James's response is to provoke a duel with Lovelace, who thereafter is seen as an enemy to the family. James also proposes that Clarissa marry Roger Solmes, who is willing to trade properties with James to concentrate James's holdings and speed his becoming Lord Harlowe. The family agrees and attempts to force Clarissa to marry Solmes, whom she finds physically disgusting as well as boorish.

Desperate to remain free, she begins a correspondence with Lovelace and when her family's campaign to force her marriage is at its height, Lovelace tricks her into eloping with him. Joseph Leman the Harlowes' servant, shouts and makes noise so it may seem like the family has awoken and they have discovered that Clarissa and Lovelace are about to run away. Scared of the aftermath, Clarissa goes with Lovelace. Clarissa remains Lovelace's prisoner for many months. She is kept at many lodgings and even a brothel where the women are disguised as high-status ladies by Lovelace himself. She refuses to marry him on many occasions, longing — unusually for a girl in her time — to live by herself in peace. She eventually runs away but is discovered by Lovelace and is tricked into going back to the brothel.

Lovelace, who means to marry Clarissa in order to avenge the treatment begot to him by the Harlowe family, wants to possess Clarissa's body as well as her mind. He believes that if she loses her virtue, she will be forced to marry him on any terms. As he is more and more impressed by Clarissa, he finds it difficult to believe that virtuous women do not exist.

The pressure he finds himself under, combined with his growing passion for Clarissa, drives him to extremes and eventually he rapes her by drugging her. Through this action, Clarissa must accept and marry Lovelace. It is suspected that Mrs. Sinclair (the brothel manager) and the other prostitutes assist Lovelace during the rape.

Lovelace's action backfires and Clarissa is ever more adamantly opposed to marrying a vile and corrupt individual like Lovelace. Eventually, Clarissa manages to escape from the brothel but becomes dangerously ill due to the mental duress she has been under for so many months at the hands of "the vile Lovelace."

Clarissa is sheltered by the kind but poor Smiths and during her sickness she gains another worshipper - John Belford, another libertine who happens to be Lovelace's best friend. Belford is amazed at the way Clarissa handles her approaching death and laments over what Lovelace has done. In one of the many letters sent to Lovelace he writes that "if the divine Clarissa asks me to slit thy throat, Lovelace, I shall do it in an instance." Eventually, surrounded by strangers and Col. Morden, Clarissa dies in the full consciousness of her virtue and trusting in a better life after death. Belford manages Clarissa's will and ensures that all her articles and money go into the hands of the individuals she desires should receive them.

Lovelace seems to have moved on but Belford sends him Clarissa's will. He is shattered when he reads it and can live no longer. Col. Morden has gone back to Italy and he knows that there is only one way to atone for his sins. Lovelace asks Morden for a duel (although not directly) and they meet somewhere in Italy. Lovelace fights Morden and keeps on getting injured. He pretends to be not injured and goes after Morden many times - each time receiving another deadly blow. Eventually Morden realizes that he has been injured very badly and might die. The duel ends, Morden leaves and Lovelace is taken to his lodgings. The doctor is unable to do anything and Lovelace dies a day afterwards. Before dying he says "LET THIS EXPIATE!"

Clarissa's relatives finally realise the misery they have caused but discover that they are too late and Clarissa has already died. The book ends with an account of the fate of the other characters.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Clarissa" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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