Most modern readings of Clarissa agree that the novel portrays a pro­found change in social institutions as traditional family life is vitiated by the increasing impetus towards capital accumulation; operating in tandem, the system of primogeniture and the competition for wealth and status undermine cohesion within kinship groups and in particular deny daughters their customary share of emotional and financial resources. Clarissa's objectification and exploitation, however, arise not from the ethos of possessive individualism and the pursuit of self-interest, but from the discursive system of moral obligation and gift exchange—the very practices that supposedly establish and maintain affective relationships. In its portrayal of the gift economy, Clarissa investigates the unstable ideological power of donation, obligation, and reciprocity: while this economy supports the patriarchal household and enables its adaptability to changing material circumstances, in the hands of Clarissa herself it eventually serves as a weapon for the destruction of that household.

Contributor's Note

Linda Zionkowski is professor of English at Ohio University. She is currently completing a study of women and gift relations in eighteenth-century fiction.