The rape of the Lock - Alexander Pope
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.
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