Choose a self-contained section of The Rape of the Lock (such as Belinda’s morning ritual or Umbriel’s descent into the Cave of Spleen) and discuss its function within the poem as a whole.
Suggested Response: With Belinda’s morning routine, Pope establishes the mock-heroic motifs that occur throughout the poem. He figures her toilette as the preparation of an epic hero before battle. The scene begins as a religious sacrament. Belinda’s reflection in the mirror is the image of the goddess while Belinda herself presides over the ritual (I.127). The “sacred rites” that she performs—in reality the simple act of dressing herself—act within Pope’s epic paradigm as a prayer to the goddess for success on the battlefield (I.128). In this case, of course, Belinda’s battlefield is the courtly party at Hampton Court Palace. Once the sacraments are performed, Pope depicts Belinda’s toilette as the ritual of arming the hero. Pope refigures the combs, pins, “puffs, powders, patches” that Belinda uses to prepare herself as the arms and armor of the epic hero (I.138). Belinda is not, however, a fearsome warrior such as Achilles or Hector but rather a beautiful coquette. By replacing the martial hero with a charming lady and the battlefield with a palace, Pope demonstrates the diminishing of epic subject matter, a central concern of his social critique. The energies once expended on religious devotion and “mighty contests” are now wasted on the vanities and trivial entertainments of the upper classes (I.2).
How does Pope use the reversal of gender roles to advance his parody of the epic in The Rape of the Lock?
Suggested Response: Pope reverses traditional gender roles to emphasize the comic absurdity of his subjects’ behavior. Throughout The Rape of the Lock, Pope focuses on the poem’s heroine, imbuing her with the masculine characteristics of the traditional epic hero. At the outset of the card game in the third canto, Belinda desires the recognition that battle will bring her: “Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites, / Burns to encounter two adventurous knights” (III.25-6). Belinda’s behavior is likewise less than lady-like. After she wins the game she celebrates her victory: “The nymph exulting fills with shouts the sky” (III.99). The other women in the poem demonstrate similar behavior. Thalestris easily overcomes many of the men during the fight over the lock, in which the women are the aggressors. The men, by contrast, are mostly foppish and weak. Even the poem’s nominal hero, the Baron, assumes subservient postures and has to be provided with a weapon by Clarissa. The reversal of traditional gender roles exposes the degree to which eighteenth-century society has fallen from epic ideals. Women seemingly overreact to the smallest slights while the men are pathetic fops with no courage. Instead they waste their time gossiping and pursuing frivolous amusements.
Which elements of society does Pope satirize in The Rape of the Lock? Be sure to consider his use of the mock-heroic genre.
Suggested Response: In The Rape of the Lock, Pope’s satire focuses on the foibles of the upper classes. According to Pope’s poem, these members of society are only interested in trivial matters, a point which he punctuates in his depiction of the card game as an epic battle. In reality an excuse for gambling and flirting, the “battlefield” of ombre becomes the only opportunity for these young aristocrats to gain heroic recognition. Pope reinforces this impotence of the upper classes by demonstrating their ignorance of the world outside of Hampton Court Palace. He makes numerous allusions to the British Empire and trade: “One speaks the glory of the British Queen, / And one describes a charming Indian screen” (III.13-4). The nobles seem content to drink coffee—an obvious import from the British trade networks—while discussing irrelevant matters such as “who gave the ball, or paid the visit last” (III.12). Pope thus exposes the ignorance and idleness of the upper classes.
What is the sexual allegory in The Rape of the Lock?
Suggested Response: As the title of the poem suggests, the cutting of Belinda’s hair has a sexually explicit connotation. In his description of the Baron’s schemes to steal Belinda’s hair, Pope uses the words “force” and “ravish” which reinforce the theme of violation that the poem’s title introduces. The Baron also expresses his willingness to acquire the lock “by fraud betray,” suggesting his comfort with taking advantage of Belinda’s innocence (II.32). Ariel’s suspicion that the foretold “dire disaster” will be a sexual assault further advances the sexual allegory. He worries that Belinda will “stain her honor or her new brocade” (II.107). The staining of Belinda’s honor has explicit sexual implications while the staining of her dress implies both sexual maturity and the loss of virginity. Even the hair itself has sexual connotations. Pope allows for a secondary reading of Belinda’s curls as pubic hairs, which emphasizes the theme of sexual violation. According to Pope’s sexual allegory, Belinda’s virtue is in greater danger than the simple act of stealing her ringlet suggests.
Discuss Pope’s critique of the sexual double-standard for women in The Rape of the Lock.
Suggested Response: During the eighteenth century, a woman was expected to attract the attentions of men in order to find a suitable husband. Of course, society also demanded that a woman also remain a virgin until she married. A woman who compromised her virtue in the pursuit of a husband was usually ostracized by her acquaintances and lost her place in respectable society. Pope dramatizes this double-standard in his description of Belinda’s petticoat, which essentially serves as a fortification to protect her chastity while her curls attract male admirers.
What is the role of the supernatural forces (Sylphs, Gnomes, etc.) in The Rape of the Lock?
Suggested Response: The supernatural forces that feature in The Rape of the Lock perform a role similar to that of the gods and goddesses in traditional epic poems, such as The Iliad. Just as the gods change the tide of the Trojan War in The Iliad, Pope’s mythic creatures affect the action of the poem. Ariel acts as Belinda’s otherworldly guardian, warning her of threats and protecting her throughout her adventures. It seems, however, that Ariel has limited power to protect Belinda. In the first canto, a love letter distracts Belinda from Ariel’s warning of impending danger. Similarly, when he sees Belinda’s attraction to the Baron in “the close recesses of the virgin’s thought,” he retreats, powerless to defend her (140). Though his duty is to guard Belinda’s virtue, Ariel apparently cannot fully protect her from the perils of love. While Ariel’s role resembles that of a godly guardian—much like Athena’s guidance of Diomedes—Umbriel acts as a threat to Belinda, exacerbating her pain. His role is thus similar to Aphrodite’s attempts to sabotage the Greeks.
Discuss Pope’s attitude towards religion in The Rape of the Lock. What are its implications for his social critique?
Suggested Response: In The Rape of the Lock, Pope depicts a society all-too-willing to worship beauty, which he depicts as religious perversion. His description of the cross that Belinda wears encapsulates this sacrilege. Although the cross is an obvious Christian symbol, it serves an ornamental, not religious, function. It remains so secular, in fact, that “Jews might kiss” and “infidels adore” it (II.8). Pope even sexualizes the cross, locating it on Belinda’s “white breast,” suggesting that her breasts are the objects of worship, not the cross (II.7). Pope’s subversion of religious worship critiques the value society places on appearances rather than morality.
What are the implications of Clarissa’s moralizing speech in the fifth canto of The Rape of the Lock? Be sure to discuss some of the interpretive problems associated with it.
Suggested Response: Clarissa’s speech questions the value society places on appearances, in particular female beauty. She observes that men worship women as angels without assessing their moral character and that the beauty these men revere is ephemeral: “frail beauty must decay” (V.25). She declares that because beauty cannot last, women must have other qualities to sustain them after they lose their looks. Although Clarissa’s conclusions reflect part of Pope’s critical agenda, reading Clarissa’s speech as Pope’s central moral oversimplifies the poem. Her actions in the poem further problematize the moral superiority she attempts to claim in this speech. Clarissa’s complicity in the “rape” of Belinda’s hair taints her self-righteousness. Furthermore, Pope’s conclusion directly contradicts her central argument that beauty is ephemeral. Pope turns Belinda’s severed hair into a star that people can admire for all eternity while his poem immortalizes her beauty.
According to Pope’s argument in the fourth epistle of An Essay on Man, from what does man’s happiness derive?
Suggested Response: In the fourth epistle of An Essay on Man, Pope depicts the source of man’s happiness as virtuous behavior. In return for his virtuousness, man is reward with “what nothing earthly gives, or can destroy, / The soul’s calm sunshine, and the heart-felt joy, / Is virtue’s prize: a better would you fix? / Then give humility a coach and six” (IV.167-70). Though “the soul’s calm sunshine” is not earthly riches, this reward is the ultimate realization of wise self-love, which awakens the “virtuous mind” (IV.263). The serenity that man achieves through virtue allows him to perceive that he is a part of God’s design and to accept his place in it. This blind faith in God emphasizes Pope’s goal in writing the poem, specifically to “vindicate the ways of God to man” (I.16).
Consider one of the interpretive problems presented by An Essay on Man and explain how it undermines Pope’s attempt to “vindicate the ways of God to man” (I.16)?
Suggested Response: The greatest hurdle that Pope faces in writing An Essay on Man is that he is a man and therefore cannot know the ways of God, let alone justify God’s ways to other men. In the poem’s prefatory address to the reader, Pope states his intention to consider “man in the abstract, his Nature and his State, since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection of imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.” According to Pope’s conclusions about the nature of the universe, God’s creation is an ordered hierarchy in which man has his ordained place. Since man is merely a part in the whole of creation and further exists in a middle state of the hierarchy, man can only perceive a small portion of God’s order. As a man, Pope cannot fully perceive the “proper end and purpose” of mankind.