The Rape of the Lock
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...