“The Rape of the lock” is a poem that was written by Alexander Pope and has been regarded as a characteristic mock-heroic narrative poem that after a revision and expansion was adopted under Alexander Pope’s name in 1714. His expansions lead to a poem with 5-Cantos of 749 lines. The poem satirically presents a squabble in an incident related by John Caryll, who happened to be Pope’s friend and a close acquaintance to the feuding parties. In the incident, John Petre (characterized as Baron) cut a lock of hair belonging to beautiful Arabella Fermor (characterized as Belinda) without her consent, resulting into an impasse between the duo’s families. In penning down the poem to bring to the fore the silliness and absurdity of the dispute, Pope borrowed from the tone and style of classical sources namely “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” which were Homer’s great epics. Locked up in “The Rape of the Lock”, it is the way the society in Alexander Pope’s eighteenth century English generation viewed women and the attitude with which they treated them. This essay will, thus, delve into the attitude of women as depicted in Pope’s “The Rape of the lock” and bring out a comparison and contrast of the major female characters in the poem.
The Status of Women
Before considering the societal view of women, as presented in Pope’s literary masterpiece, a comparison and contrast of some female characters set the pace for this essay. The contrasting demeanor of Belinda and Thalestris is very much exposed. On the one hand, Thalestris subscribes to a masculine character and is a representation of an emancipated woman who has risen above male and female stereotypes, while Belinda, on the other hand, embraces a feminine demeanor a character that Thalestris despises. Furthermore, Belinda is a natural beauty and seems to accentuate her physical appearance, and consequently, Thalestris considers her as “prude” (Canto 5, 36)
Another scenario that warrants comparison is with the trio of Belinda, Thalestris and Clarissa. These three women are negatively portrayed in “The Rape of the Lock”. The poem paints all of them with a condescending picture in the poem. For instance, Clarissa is used as Pope’s mouthpiece, thus, depicting a patronizing attitude. He goes on to bring out the idea of self-righteousness through Clarissa when she says, “locks turned to gray, though still curled with a pathetic hopefulness, unclaimed and unprocessed by any man”. In addition, Thalestris has been given the name of an Amazonian queen. The name has Pope writes “[is] a kind of empty and vicious principle of female victory and dominance at all costs…Honor forbid! At whose unrivaled shrine / Ease, pleasure, virtue, all, our sex resign” (Canto 4, 105-106). Finally, Belinda’s portrayal cannot be emphasized than it has. She has been mocked and degraded too.
Pope tries to wake his readers to the fact that women have been reduced to an object of desire, where the only value they contribute to the society their beauty. This is epitomized in Belinda whose beauty and an elegant demeanor made her public spectacle especially to men. The desire for power and dominance, which is a price for independence, induces women to escape marriage, since wedlock means that a woman will have to be a subject to the man. Just like Belinda and her metaphoric hair lock, women posses an armory of natural beauty that makes them invulnerable to their male counterparts, thus, giving them leverage to woo men. Men, as a result, are brought down to their knees, a form of subjection. Pope writes, “This nymph, to the destruction of mankind, / Nourished two locks which graceful hung behind / In equal curls, and well conspired to deck / With shining ringlets her smooth ivory neck. / Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains, / And mighty hearts are held in slender chains. / With hairy springes we the birds betray, / Slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey…¨ (Canto 2, 19-26)”
Their beauty armory notwithstanding, women still find that they are not invulnerable after all, since sooner or later they crumble under the male desire for ownership. Pope brings out this statement when Belinda, thinking that she is under no male domain granted by her singleness, loses her lock of hair to Baron. She, thus, loses her subjectivity and assumes an objectivity status. Women are considered not as having no intellectual muscles, but individuals concerned about their social functions (Canto 5, 19); and social charm and grace. Women viewed this role bestowed upon them by the English society, then as cherished and serious affair to the point of Belinda, for instance, struggling with Baron just because of her hair lock. Notably, the Sylphs are ready to combat to preserve the chastity and beauty belonging to Belinda, and punishment awaits those fairies that do not live up to their protective duties. (Canto 2, 91-36) In Canto 5, Pope writes, “Now love suspends his golden scales I air, / Weighs the men’s wits against lady’s hair; / The doubtful beam long nods from side to side; / At length the wits mount up, the hairs subsides”. (Canto 5, 71-74) It is evident that in a mockery, Pope depicts women as being judged by their body physique, while men, on the other hand, are judged, based on their intellectual prowess. Pope shows that the life of Belinda is mired with laziness in the morning, self-indulgence in the afternoon and seduction in the evening. He continues to argue that even Belinda’s dog, Shock, is intelligent such that it has noticed how Belinda wastes the better part of her day pursuing trivialities.
Moreover, the victimization of women in the society then and today is brought out clearly in Pope’s “The Rape of the lock”. The cutting of her hair lock leaves Belinda grappling with private and public embarrassment, brought to her by Baron. Instead of blaming her assaulter, she finds a reason to blame herself for her inferior status and stupidity. Additionally, the society also blames Belinda, the symbol of women, for her seductive antics. The cutting of her hair lock can be looked as a metaphorical breach of her sexuality, something that is comparable to a literal rape case today. Many times a woman has been blamed for her immodest or seductive appearance, as a contributory factor to her falling victim of a rape case. On that note, the society requires women to remain chaste and modest in grooming, so as not to attract unnecessary attention.
In addition, women are regarded to be secondary relative to men in Pope’s mock-heroic poem. Pope writes that, “And she who scorns a man must die a maid; / What then remains but well our power to use, / And keep good humor still whate’er we lose?” (Canto 5, 28-30) It is notable that a woman should be willing and ready to laugh at her secondary position, since it is a societal dictate, and little can be done about it; women who pride in their virtue will remain in melancholy devoid of a mate; and since Belinda thumps her chest as a result of winning in the game of cards, a male dominated arena, she has to be punished for this. It is, therefore, clear that male chauvinism is entrenched in the societal fabric in “The Rape of the lock”. Pope continues to help us paint a picture of Belinda, as if she is performing a dressing ritual as a result alluding to her accessorizing as an act of religious ceremony. He further delves into the power of women through the satirical use of Belinda depicting her as a mock hero, who is incapable of doing anything for herself, but is often dependent on others to perform her responsibilities.
Generally speaking, “The Rape of the lock” aims to expose the depraved status quo back in the eighteenth century in the English society that despised women by giving them a secondary role after the dominant males. The women were considered of no real importance, but were regarded as beautiful creatures that could be possessed or manipulated at ones disposal. Married women never had a say when it came to decision-making on serious matters of the household, were pushed aside and viewed with little significance, if at all there was some respect.
In contemporary society, a similar spirit like that of the eighteen century English nation, still brews in the societal air; to some male stereotypes, this air seems to be aromatic and one that influences their relationship with women today. This negative attitude still permeates modern societies at the chagrin of many women who have subscribed to feminism. The so-called affirmative action in several nations that seeks to promote human rights seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Therefore, this message of women’s rights and equality still needs to be preached and embraced at all costs and Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the lock” though humorous and critical approach, has been a paradoxical pacesetter for these much needed societal reforms.