In The Rape of the Lock, Pope constantly manipulates traditional gender roles to satiric effect. He portrays Belinda, the poem’s protagonist, alternately as an epic hero preparing for battle (I.139-44), a cunning military general reviewing his troops (III.45-6), and a Moor bellowing in rage (V.105-6). The poem thus describes Belinda in specifically male terms: heroism, battle, anger. Other women in the poem similarly demonstrate masculine characteristics. Thalestris displays her prowess on the battlefield while Clarissa provides a weapon to the otherwise impotent Baron. By contrast, the men act with feminine delicacy, fainting during the battle. Pope figures the Baron in mostly feminine terms. He is a fop, willing to prostrate himself before the altar of Love, and he cannot act on his desire without the explicit assistance of a woman. When Belinda conquers him in battle, she stands above him in a position of dominance. Even the poem’s more mechanical elements partake in this reversal of gender roles. The mythological sprites literally switch genders after they die, transforming from human women to male spirits. All this gender manipulation calls attention to the perverse behaviors of this fictional society. The poem certainly alludes to the expected behavior of each gender role: women should act with modesty while men should embody heroic and chivalric ideals. However, these characters flout the rules of traditional society.
Pope frequently focuses on female sexuality and the place of women in society throughout the corpus of his poetry, and it was a popular topic in the early eighteenth century (just think of Jonathan Swift’s misogynistic poems). The Rape of the Lock does not, however, feature a Swiftian tirade concerning the evils of women. It instead makes a considered exploration of society’s expectations for women. The rules of eighteenth-century society dictate that a woman attract a suitable husband while preserving her chastity and virtuous reputation. Pope renders this double-standard dramatically in his depiction of Belinda’s hair, which attracts male admirers, and its petticoat counterpart, which acts as a barrier to protect her virginity. Of course, a woman who compromised her virtue—either by deed or reputation—usually lost her place in respectable society. Pope examines the loss of reputation in the poem’s sexual allegory, i.e., the “rape” of the lock. By figuring the severing of Belinda’ hair as a sexual violation, Pope delves into implications of sexual transgression. After the Baron steals her curl, Belinda exiles herself from the party, retiring to a bedchamber to mourn her loss. Pope thus dramatizes the retreat from society that a sexually-compromised woman would eventually experience. Though Belinda is ultimately celebrated, not ostracized, by her community, her narrative provides Pope with the opportunity to explore society’s views on female sexuality.
The Deterioration of Heroic Ideals
Pope’s use of the mock epic genre in The Rape of the Lock affords him the poetic occasion to lament the deterioration of heroic ideals in the modern era. Though he depicts conventional epic themes such as love and war, his comic tone indicates that the grandeur of these matters has suffered since the days of Homer and Virgil. The “amorous causes” in Pope’s poem have little in common with Hector’s love for Andromache or Paris’ theft of Helen in The Iliad or Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus in The Odyssey (I. 1). By contrast, the love Pope portrays is that of the Baron for Belinda’s icon (her hair), not Belinda herself. Similarly, the “mighty contests” that once populated epic poetry now arise “from trivial things” (I.2). Achilles’ rage at Agamemnon for affronting his honor with the theft of Briseis has diminished to the anger of a young beauty at the theft of her hair, which will certainly grow back. Pope thus presents a society that is merely a shadow of its heroic past.
The Rape of the Lock demonstrates Pope’s anxieties concerning the state of religious piety during the early eighteenth century. Pope was Catholic, and in the poem he indicates his concern that society has embraced objects of worship (beauty, for example) rather than God. His use of religious imagery reveals this perversion. The rituals he depicts in the first and second cantos equate religion with secular love. During Belinda’s toilette, the poem imbues the Bibles and billet-doux (love letters) on her dressing table with equal significance. The Baron’s altar to Love in the second canto echoes this scene. On the altar—itself an integral part of Christian worship, in particular Catholic Mass—the Baron places “twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt” to honor Love, rather than gilded Bibles (38). Pope symbolizes this equation of religious and erotic love in the cross that Belinda wears. This central symbol of Christianity serves an ornamental, not religious function, adorning Belinda’s “white breast” (7). The cross remains sufficiently secular that “Jews might kiss” it and “infidels adore” it (8). Of course, Pope leaves ambiguous the implication that the Jews and infidels are admiring Belinda’s breasts and not the cross. This subversion of established principles of Christian worship critiques the laxity of early eighteenth-century attitudes towards religion and morality.
Idleness of the Upper Classes
The idleness and ignorance of the upper classes is integral to Pope’s critique of contemporary society in The Rape of the Lock. His satire focuses largely on the foibles of the aristocracy and gentry, who he depicts as interested only in trivial matters, such as flirting, gossip, and card games. Pope’s rendering of ombre as an epic battle demonstrates the frivolity of upper-class entertainment. In reality an excuse for flirting and gambling, the card game represents the young aristocrats’ only opportunity to gain heroic recognition. This is not, of course, true heroism, but rather a skill that serves no purpose in the outside world. Chief among the upper classes’ other pastimes is gossip, but Pope limits their conversation to the insular world of the aristocratic lifestyle. They care most about “who gave the ball, or paid the visit last,” the irrelevant structures of upper-class socializing (III.12). Few discuss the world beyond the society of Hampton Court: “One speaks the glory of the British Queen, / And one describes a charming Indian screen” (III.13-4). This couplet alludes to the worldly pursuits of trade and empire that are occurring outside of these aristocrats’ small social world.
Ephemeral Nature of Beauty
Beauty’s ephemeral nature reinforces Pope’s critical project in The Rape of the Lock. His poem attempts to dissuade society from placing excessive value on external appearances, especially since such things fade over time. Clarissa’s lecture in particular questions the value that society places on appearances. She notes that men worship female beauty without assessing moral character. Pope demonstrates that this is essentially a house without foundation: because “frail beauty must decay,” women must have other qualities to sustain them (V.25). Though Clarissa is complicit in the general frivolity and pettiness that Pope censures in the poem, her articulated scruples with regard to appearances serve his social critique.
Man’s Place and Purpose in the Universe
In his prefatory address to the reader of An Essay on Man, Pope describes 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.” Pope explores man’s nature and his place in the world throughout the poem. The first epistle explains man’s relation to the universe. Pope explains that man’s place in the “Vast chain of being” is in a middle state, below the angels but above beasts and fowl (I.237). Because man is an integral part of God’s creation, he cannot and should not try to comprehend God’s design. The second epistle depicts man’s relation to the individual. Pope argues that man is governed by the principles of self-love and reason. Self-love and the passions are the origins of human action while reason regulates human behavior. The third epistle examines man’s relation to society. The bonds that unite man to others are governed by instinct or reason. Man’s relationship with nature is largely instinctual, based on a primordial knowledge of the things necessary to survival (nourishment, sex, etc.). By contrast, man’s relationship to other men and to God is based on reason, and consequently, man established the institutions of government and religion. The former proves his love for other men and the second his love for God. The fourth epistle investigates man’s relation to happiness, which, Pope argues, is man’s ultimate aim. Though Pope does not provide a universal solution to “the proper end and purpose” of man, he does reveal one of the defining characteristics of humanity: man will always seek to understand his purpose in the world.
Pope’s Poems and Prose Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Pope’s Poems and Prose is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.