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Jun 25, 2018

The Rape of the Lock: Relationship between Literature and Society

The Rape of the Lock is a poem in which Alexander Pope shows himself emphatically as the spokesman of his age. This poem pictures the artificial tone of the age and the frivolous aspect of femininity. "It is the epic of triflings; a page torn from the petty, pleasure-seeking life of fashionable beauty; mise-en-scene* of the toilet-chamber and the card table; in short, the veritable apotheosis in literary guise of scent, patches and powder." We see in this poem the elegance and the emptiness, the meanness and the vanity, the jealousies, treacheries and intrigues of the social life of the aristocracy of the eighteenth century.

At the very outset we become acquainted with the idleness, late-rising, and fondness for domestic pets of the aristocratic ladies of the time. Belinda wakes up at the hour of twelve and then falls asleep again. We also become acquainted in the very beginning of the poem with the superficiality of the ladies who loved gilded chariots, and affected a love of the game of ombre. Their ambition to marry peers and dukes, or men holding other high titles, is indicated, too, in the opening Canto:

Then gay ideas crowd the vacant brain,
While peers and dukes, and all their sweeping train....

The poem brings out the coquetry, the art, the artifice, and
and the “ varying vanities” of the ladies of the time . these ladies learnt early in their life how to roll their eyes and to blush in an intriguing manner. Their hearts were like toy-shops which moved from one gallant to another:
With varying vanities, from every part,
They shift the moving toy-shop of their heart.
One gallant could drive put another gallant, and one coach could drive out another coach. "Levity" was the hallmark of these women. Their manners and behaviour were artificial and affected. They knew the art to lisp, to hang their heads aside, to faint into airs, and to languish with pride. They used to sink on their rich quilts and pretend sickness so that young gallant men should come to inquire after their health and in this way also see the costly gowns which they were wearing.
The women of the time felt glad to receive love-letters. Thus, when Belinda at last gets up from her bed, her eyes first open on a love-letter couched in the conventional language of such letters. Another of the vanities of these ladies was to keep domestic pets such as dogs and parrots. Thus Belinda has her Shock and her Poll. Among the ill-omens that Belinda recalls after losing a lock of her hair is the indifference of her two domestic pets: "Nay, Poll sat mute, and Shock was most unkind !"
Aristocratic ladies treated toilet as their chief concern. One important passage in The Rape of the Lock describes Belinda at her dressing-table. Before commencing her toilet operation, she offers a prayer to the "cosmetic powers". At her dressing-table are "the various offerings of the world"— India's glowing gems, Arabia's perfumes, speckled and white combs, files of pins, "puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux." Later in the poem, we are told how these ladies "take such constant care to prepare the bodkin, comb and essence !" They take special pains to curl their hair; they bind their locks in paper durance; and they strain their tender heads with fillets.
The ladies lose their tempers over trifles. Screams of horror from Belinda rend the affrighted skies, and a "living lightning" flashes from her eyes. Thalestris is described as the "fierce virago". The ladies in the poem are depicted as very aggressive, and it is they who start the battle. Women have been jealous of one another from time immemorial. Clarissa stealthily hands over a pair of scissors to the Baron in order to assist him in his wicked design. It is in all probability Clarissa's jealousy of Belinda's beauty, and fame that prompts her to offer this assistance to the Baron.
The ladies have no moral scruples. "Honour" is a word with little meaning for them; and "reputation" is more important to them than honour. The loss of "honour" does not matter if "reputation" is not lost. Several passages in the poem reveal the moral disarray of their lives. In one passage, for instance, a frail China-jar receiving a crack is equated with a lady's losing her chastity. A lady's staining her honour is more serious than her staining her new brocade. A lady's missing a dance-party is as serious a matter as her forgetting her prayers. A lady's losing her necklace is as serious as losing her heart. The death of a lap-dog or the breaking of a rich China-vessel is as serious a matter to the lady as the death of her husband. These are all examples of the superficial nature of the ladies of the time. There is a complete confusion of moral values in their minds. Belinda herself has no real sense of feminine virtue or honour. She is in love with the Baron, and for this reason Ariel gives her up when he sees "an earthly lover lurking at her heart". Her lament over the loss of a lock of her hair is sheer hypocrisy. Besides, she feels unhappy because the loss of this particular lock of hair was vital to her charm. She would not have been much hurt if the Baron had stolen any other hair:

Oh, hadst thou, cruel, been content to seize Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these !

The aristocratic young men of the time were, like the ladies, lacking in any serious purpose or morality. Florio and Damon are representatives of those gallants and fops who vie with one another to capture the hearts of the ladies. There is a keen competition among them to win feminine favours. Wigs strive with wigs, and sword-knots strive with sword-knots. The attitude of these fops to love is amusingly described in the manner in which the Baron tries to propitiate heaven in order to win Belinda's heart. The Baron builds an altar to Love. This altar consists of twelve vast French romances, three garters, half a pair of gloves, and all the trophies of his former loves. He lights a fire with the tender love-letters that he has received, and breathes three amorous sighs to raise the fire.
The life of the fops is as empty and shallow as the life of the ladies. This is emphasized by the role played by the empty-headed Sir Plume with bit "unthinking face". He is proud of his "amber snuff-box" and "the nice conduct of a clouded cane". He can hardly speak a dozen words without uttering half a dozen oaths. The manner in which a "beau" or a "witling" perishes in the battle of the sexes shows the same thing . "One died in metaphor, and one in song." Taking snuff and wearing wigs were the foremost fashions among the men of that time.
The shallowness and superficiality of the time are also clear from the kind of gossip that goes on at the court; "At every word a reputation dies". Pauses in conversation are filled with snuff-taking or fan-swinging, or "with singing, laughing, ogling, and all that." Card parties were common. Ombre was the favourite game. A victory at ombre gave to a woman a feeling of importance. Coffee-drinking was another important diversion of the times. Coffee "made the politician wise". It was coffee that gave rise to a clever device in the Baron's brain for obtaining possession of a lock of Belinda's hair.
We are given a satirical picture of judges, jury men, and merchants. The judges are in a hurry to sign the judgment and the jury-men are in a hurry to pronounce a verdict of-"guilty" because they want to get back home for dinner. The merchants spend feverish hours at the Exchange. Other aspects of the life of the time which are mentioned in an amusing manner are the wits of heroes and of beaux, courtiers' promises, cages for gnats, chains to yoke a flea, dried butterflies, and heavy books of casuistry. There are references in the poem also to Hyde Park Circus, the Mall, and Rosamonda's Lake. And there is a reference to the well-known astrologer of the time, Partridge, who always made prophecies about the downfall of Louis of France, and of the Pope at Rome.
The glitter and the elegance of the period are also effectively depicted in the poem. Belinda's beauty and charm receive much attention. Robed in white, she sees her heavenly reflection in the mirror. Assisted by her maid, Betty, she decorates and embellishes herself with cosmetics and jewellery. We are fascinated by Belinda's beauty as described in the famous passage dealing with her toilet. Her beauty and charm are mentioned again and again in the poem. She is described as the rival of the beams of the sun. She wears a sparkling cross on her white breast. She smiles at everyone:

Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike And, like the sun, they shine on all alike.

The poet invests her almost with the character of a divinity. If she has any faults, they are hidden by her graceful ease and her sweetness. If she suffers from any errors, the beauty of her face would make us ignore them. She has a care-free temper: "Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay." She is shallow and superficial and yet she is fascinating. We see her as a coquette, a sweet charmer, a society belle, a rival of the sun, and a murderer of millions. This Cleopatra-like variety indicates simultaneously her charm and a vacuous lack of character. The poet uses hyperbolic language in describing her— faultless beauty and even divinity; "nymph", "maid", "the fair virgin", "goddess", etc. The idealising words used by Pope for Belinda reflect the homage which society paid to the image of the beautiful woman. The portrait that Pope paints of Belinda is, of course, satirical, but we also feel compelled to admire this woman who is not less than a divinity. Pope's attitude, and therefore our attitude, towards Belinda, is mocking and yet tender, critical and yet admiring.

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