The Rape of the Lock: Serious Stuff Alexander Pope's mock heroic epic The Rape of the Lock appears to be a light subject addressed with a satiric tone and structure. Pope often regards the unwanted cutting of a woman's hair as a trivial thing, but the fashionable world takes it seriously. Upon closer examination Pope has, perhaps unwittingly, broached issues worthy of earnest consideration. The Rape of the Lock at first glance is a commentary on human vanity and the ritual of courtship. The poem also discusses the relationship between men and women, which is the more substantial matter in particular. Pope examines the oppressed position of women. Infringement on a woman's personal space, her person and her pride by an aggressive male (the Baron) are certainly problems not to be taken lightly. In today's society, these things translate to sexual harassment. Pope also raises the issue of conflicting love, the opposition between spiritual and secular love. The poem portrays men and women as more concerned with social status, material values, and physical beauty than the development of the spirit or of the character. Pope suggests that the former is the morally wrong path, and criticizes (through satire) his characters for their vanity and lack of morality.
The significance of a woman's outward beauty (specifically Belinda's) has direct consequence for her role in society. "The place of woman... is shaped by social [and] economic... forces. Women are routinely subordinate... in the 'public' sphere, partly because of their confinement to roles associated with being wives."1 Belinda is an unmarried upper class woman. Maintaining her position in high society will depend on marriage; though not one necessarily of her choosing. Her marriage will not ultimately depend on her intelligence, or her personality, as women were not valued as objects of individuality but as beautiful objects to possess: "The adventurous Baron the bright locks admired,/He saw, he wished, and to the prize aspired." (II, 29-30) Therefore, Belinda's power lies within her outward beauty. Belinda's strength is her physical appearance. Pope mocks the importance placed on appearance as he compares a hero's donning of armour to Belinda's being made up at her dressing table;
Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet doux.
Now awful Beauty puts on all its arms... (I, 137-39)
We see a woman ready to go into the battle of the sexes whom the Baron (her opponent) already regards as a threat. Specifically, her beauty is a threat in that it empowers Belinda and means he may have to compete with other men for her affection. The idea of a woman holding power of any sort over a man attacks the male ego or at least threatens the Baron's ego. He is
Resolved to win, or by fraud betray;
For when success a lover's toil attends,
Few ask if fraud or force attained his ends. (II, 31-33)
The Baron will either have the lock, or destroy any power she possesses with it.
The war Pope illustrates between men and women continues with the playing of the card game. Instead of fighting on the traditional battlefield Belinda plays cards against the Baron, eager to meet him on his own terms:
Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites,
Burns to encounter two adventurous knights,
At ombre singly to decide their doom,
And swells her breast with conquests yet to come. (III, 25-28)
The playing of the game and the use of the word "conquest" could also represent the idea that Belinda is fighting for survival in her societal circle. She could view the playing of the game as a battle to win suitors, "knights". Regardless, Belinda wins the card game and offends the Baron's pride. Out to take his revenge, to reclaim his dignity and steal hers, the Baron cuts Belinda's prized lock of hair:
" Let wreaths of triumph now my temples twine,"
The victor cried, "the glorious prize is mine!
... So long my honour, name, and praise shall live! (III, 161-170)
The Baron has taken away Belinda's power. He cuts from her a symbol of her beauty, stealing what she regards as her honour. This disempowerment is not unlike an actual rape. Chastity is regarded as honour for many men and women, yet Belinda values her lock of hair as her source of honour. Hence, the Baron takes away her virtue. Belinda is reproached by an older woman of the court, who has lost her own beauty and advises Belinda to rely on inner grace, " Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul." (V, 34) Yet, "no applause ensued." (V, 35) While the comment strikes a stinging chord with Belinda, the court does not find merit in the idea that a woman's inner values are important. Clarissa, the dame, sounds a little feminist for her time. The idea that the woman's beauty existed in character was not yet a popular notion. Still, Belinda is belittled by Clarissa. She attacks Belinda's sense of worth as a woman by not accepting the Baron's trick with more grace. If the Baron's ego hadn't been inflated enough by claiming Belinda's lock, Clarissa only confirms the Baron's (and Belinda's) misguided values by attacking Belinda's inner beauty, in essence, her value system (morals) as well. Belinda has been insulted twice in the course of the action.
Pope writes of a world whose value system is confused. Clarissa almost takes on the role of Pope when she admonishes Belinda for her lack of elegance and sense of humour. The Baron throughout seems intent on not winning Belinda's favour but on claiming her honour, the prized lock of hair. This is a rather twisted goal. The 'civilized' thing to do would to have honourably courted Belinda. Instead, the Baron is only interested in the fame the claiming of the lock will bring. It's another trophy of another conquest:
...to Love an altar built,
Of twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt.
There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves,
And all the trophies of his former loves. (II, 37-40)
Other than displaying a lack of courteousness and civility, the desire for the lock seems more like a worshipping of the lock. The Baron even swears by the lock:
But by this Lock, this sacred Lock I swear
(Which never more shall join its parted hair;
Which never more its honours shall renew,
Clipped from the lovely head where late it grew),
That while my nostrils draw the vital air,
This hand, which won it, shall forever wear."
He spoke, and speaking, in proud triumph spread
The long-contended honours of her head. (IV, 132-139)
The lock is now a "sacred" lock, which possesses "honours". It is a long sought after prize, indicating the Baron's mind has been on the frivolous and cruel prank of clipping Belinda's hair. Morally, the Baron should have been thinking of more spiritual, less flighty things. Yet, in worshipping the lock, the Baron makes it a spiritual thing, which goes against the ideals of Christianity. Material things are not intended to be worshipped as "sacred" objects.
Pope takes the worship of materialism to a higher level earlier in the poem when Belinda, not just her beauty, is likened to a goddess with a priestess:
The inferior priestess, at her altar's side,
Trembling begins the sacred rites of Pride.
Unnumbered treasures ope at once, and here
The various offerings of the world appear;
From each she nicely culls with curious toil,
And decks the goddess with the glittering spoil. (I, 127-132)
The "priestess" in line 127 is Belinda's maid, and the "alter" is the dressing table, covered in "offerings" to the goddess Belinda. The "rites" are those of "Pride", which to Christians, is one of the deadly sins. Beauty is clearly worshipped in The Rape of the Lock, but so is Belinda herself. Belinda is so obsessed with material objects and beauty she prizes her hair, as does the Baron, above all else. She even wishes that he had cut "hairs less in sight" (V, 176), that he had not tampered with her visible beauty. If there was any doubt Belinda is a materialistic creature, it is confirmed when the Sylphs read her thoughts (presumably where any source of inner worth might be found) and discovers
The close recesses of the virgin's thought;
As on the nosegay in her breast reclined,
He watched the ideas rising in her mind,
Sudden he viewed, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking in her heart. (IV, 140-144)
Belinda's mind is distinctly dwells material and secular matters, not those spiritual and holy. The Sylph suggests that her virginal, beautiful appearance is only an image she portrays, not a truth. Indeed, Belinda is likened to a painted ship, if not literally called a "painted vessel" (II, 47) without the metaphor.
Pope, through the Baron's unseemly behaviour, suggests that society has granted men the right to do what they want; women are expected to support, or tolerate, men's aggressiveness because they have no socially-sanctioned right to protest whatever men choose to do. The rape of Belinda's honour is sanctioned because women are valued only as objects of beauty. In the same turn, Belinda, the Baron and the society they represent are obsessed with material things (such as the lock) and self-worship. Pope suggests that attention to spiritual matters, the strengthening of character, and the development or value of inner beauty are matters to which society does not properly attend. This lack of attention to the immaterial and tendency to give in to worldly temptations indicates a frivolous aristocracy, who lack virtue and morality. This is Pope's concern and criticism.
1. Held, Virginia; Rights and Goods-Justifying Social Action; The University of Chicago Press, 1984
Pope, Alexander; The Rape of the Lock; The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th Edition; W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1996
Held, Virginia; Rights and Goods-Justifying Social Action; The University of Chicago Press, 1984