Alexander Pope’s Misogyny in The Rape of the Lock
When bringing up the topic of misogyny in history and literature, many tend to shrug their shoulders and say “well, that’s just how it was back then,” or “women just didn’t have the same rights. It was the tradition.” Even a certified educator approved by eNotes Editorial on enotes.com argues that “…during Pope’s day, women had no rights. Feminism was a far-off idea. Pope’s attitude toward women would have been considered within the norm.” What some people do not realize is that just because something was normalized, it does not mean that it was okay and misogyny is not always a man deciding that he hates women. Misogyny was deeply ingrained in the culture of England in the eighteenth century and still is today, though to a much lesser extent, and Alexander Pope’s mock epic poem The Rape of the Lock is a great example of this.
The work is actually based on true events which caused a feud between two wealthy families. A Lord Petre had cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair, to her and her families dismay and outrage. A friend of the family and Pope suggested he write something “in the hope that a little laughter might serve to soothe ruffled tempers” (Norton Anthology of English Literature 506). In the poem, Arabella is represented by the character Belinda and Lord Petre is represented by The Baron. Pope also uses this poem as commentary on the vanity, triviality, and high expectations and standards in society, specifically the bourgeoisie; however, he seems mostly to make use of women to make his point.
Despite the fact that the mock epic is riddled with misogynistic themes, The Rape of the Lock is one of the most, if not the most, well-known and often-read works by Pope along with being commended by many as the best mock-epic in English-language literature. The Rape of the Lock is beautifully written, but that beauty hides Pope’s misogyny in his negative portrayal of women’s behavior, his objectification of women, and his promotion of rape culture; this is supported by the critical works ‘The Rape Of The Lock | Feminist Analysis” from UKEssays, “’Quick as Her Eyes, and as Unfix’d as Those’: Objectification and Seeing in Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’” by Rebecca Ferguson, and “Re-Reading the Power of Satire: Isaiah’s ‘Daughters of Zion’, Pope’s ‘Belinda’, and the Rhetoric of Rape” by Miles Johnny.
Beginning in the dedication to Arabella, Pope begins to build up an idea that women are flawed or less intelligent. He is definitely trying to tiptoe around offending Arabella by using flattery and describing the construction and wording of the poem, but still manages to insult her knowledge. He explains his use of “machinery” in his poem, which, according to him, “…is a term invented by the critics, to signify part which the deities, angels, or demons are made to act in a poem…” (Pope 508) and then apologizes for “how disagreeable it is to make use of hard words before a lady” (Pope 508). The language is simply demeaning; it is as if he is talking to her like a child. It almost sounds like a joke, but that is his real dedication to her. Before this, he also indicates that his poem is aimed mostly at “…young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh… at their sex’s little unguarded follies… [and] their own” (Pope 507). This solidifies the idea that he is being more critical of women than he is of men.
This dedication alone largely sets the misogynistic tone for the poem. ‘The Rape Of The Lock | Feminist Analysis” brings to light some of the elements of the actual poem that reflect a belief that women are inferior in the game of cards that Belinda plays at the party. It also mentions that the poem builds Belinda as a “mock-hero” and a powerful female character while describing how she has everything done for her and is not fighting a real battle, but a game of cards, and “by portraying Belinda as a powerful woman as the leader in a mock battle, Pope effectively exaggerates any sense of true power that Belinda possesses” (UKEssays). The essay reveals how Pope is basically giving Belinda pointless and exaggerated. authority and power; her card-battle is meaningless. ‘The Rape Of The Lock | Feminist Analysis” shows that while The Rape of the Lock is not only a mockery of epic poems and heroes, but a mockery of women and their authority or lack thereof and also brings up important ideas like those that women were believed to have only the purpose of serving men.
Something in Pope’s work that is insulting to women not discussed in the aforementioned essay is The Cave of Spleen in Canto 4. In the article “The Cave of Spleen,” Lawrence Babb states that “…Pope represents Spleen as a sullen goddess who holds court in a misty underworld cavern filled with apparitions and subsidiary personifications.” He also says that “The malady… called spleen (vapours, hypochondria, and hysteria…) had had a long history in medical tradition.” It wasn’t that long ago that medical professionals believed that women were hypochondriacs and had false pains and ailments along with female hysteria, a broad term that could be used as diagnosis for any physical or mental ailment suffered by a woman for no other reason than having a uterus (McVean). It was commonly believed that not only were women inferior in character, but also physically inferior and naturally flawed.
In Pope’s work, Belinda is overcome by this “hysteria” when her attention is brought to her now severed lock of hair. Belinda “sighs forever on her pensive bed, Pain at her side, and Megrim at her head” (Pope 519). Pope is describing some false illness or pain and melancholy that she must be feeling, which paints her as dramatic. He goes on to describe all women as “feel[ing] such maladies as these, When each new nightdress gives a new disease” (Pope 519). This excerpt is basically saying that every day women will have some new dramatic complaint of an ailment allegedly afflicting them. ‘The Rape Of The Lock | Feminist Analysis” and the references of female hysteria in Canto 4 of The Rape of the Lock paint a clear picture of a man who generalizes women as inferior to men in their gender role, their mental ability, and their physical health.
Another theme of misogyny that shows in Pope’s work is the objectification of women, or the idea that women are sexualized objects whose only purpose is to cater to men; this idea goes hand in hand with the previously mentioned ideas of women being inferior to men. The mock-heroine Belinda is sexualized all throughout the poem and described as making herself attractive and presentable to appeal to men. The way Pope describes it, you would think that The Baron is deeply in love with Belinda and wants a token (her hair) to think of her with; however, he doesn’t seem to care too much for her wellbeing and is just obsessed with her beauty or sexual appeal, as “he meditates the way, By force to ravish, or by fraud betray” (Pope 512).
He is staring at her hair and trying to think of what he could or would do to get a piece of it. Rebecca Ferguson explores these ideas of objectification in her essay “’Quick as Her Eyes, and as Unfix’d as Those’: Objectification and Seeing in Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock.’” In the poem, we see the lady with her “sylphs” having her makeup done and hair curled, with special care taken to “tend her favorite lock” (Pope 514). Ferguson explains that “Presented first as ‘the embodiment of a self-enclosed narcissism’, Belinda is subsequently robbed of her supposed autonomy and made subject to ‘a single sexual ideology in which women are inferior, emptier, and narrower than men’ (Pollak, pp. 78, 90).”
There are several instances in the poem where Belinda’s good looks are mentioned as well as how people admire her beauty; this shows Pope’s characterization of her as just a beautiful young woman made to ogle at, nothing more and nothing less. Ferguson also wonders if, in her makeup, hair, and dress routine, “Belinda herself [became] no more than a ‘painted Vessel’ of the world, ‘to be conquered, ransacked and possessed by commercial man’ (Pollak, p. 95)?” Other instances showing her objectification include: “Fair nymphs and well-dressed youths around her shone, But every eye was fixed on her alone” and “There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves, And all the trophies of his former loves” (Pope 512). The last quote implies that the Baron has either been with other women who have him a token to remember them, or he has stolen other things from pretty women he was attracted to; either way, he views the women’s things as trophies. He sees the objects, as well as the women, as prizes to win or conquests to be made and he seems to have jumped from prize to prize. This shows a belief that women are expendable.
A third and final misogynistic theme in The Rape of the Lock is the promotion of rape culture, or “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture” (Women’s Center). The word “rape” had a different context than it does today. It was used sometimes in the way it is now, which is a word describing sexual assault, but it could also be used as seizing anything with force. However, due to the many sexual undertones and references to chastity and a power play between The Baron and Belinda, there is still some context of sexual violence in The Rape of the Lock. One way that Pope downplays rape and fortifies rape culture is the comparison of rape and cutting off one’s lock of hair throughout the story. Along with this, more specific lines and ideas show misogyny and support of rape culture. Johnny Miles discusses and analyses these lines in his “Re-Reading the Power of Satire: Isaiah’s ‘Daughters of Zion’, Pope’s ‘Belinda’, and the Rhetoric of Rape.”
First off, he mentions that, on page six of his essay, the quote “it was intended only to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and humor enough to laugh not only at their sex’s little unguarded follies, but at their own,” (Pope 507) from the dedication to Arabella “seeks to deflect attention away from his misogynous judgment by focusing it on what he calls the ‘”folly” of female nature’ (Meyers 1988: 45).”
He also brings up the fact that Pope makes it seem like Belinda and other ladies who show off their good looks and are prideful and vain are deserving of some negative action against them, as described in this quote: “The haughtiness of these women calls to mind YHWH’S threat against the haughty (2.11-17), thus compelling us to expect such behavior to usher in their humiliation. But in what do they take such excessive pride that it should prompt their humiliation?” (Miles 8). Another point made by Miles on page ten of his analysis is that “Just as Pope inscribed male readers who would ‘get the point’ of his satiric humour, the Isaianic poet, too, engages in an inscribing activity by interpellating (male) readers to share in his mockery of these women with his belabored depiction of their vanity.”
One last important point that needs to be brought up that Miles has described on page eighteen is that “While rape may, indeed, be a serious problem for women, it is not a ‘women’s problem’ as the myths of rape cultures would have us believe; rather, rape is a ‘men’s problem,” and ”objectification of the ‘daughters of Zion’ and Belinda fuels the premise of rape that female sexuality is responsible for the exercise of desire in both men and women. Rape-myths such as ‘women are seductresses’ and ‘women deserve what they get’,” furthers rape culture and misogynistic tendencies and beliefs.
All in all, Pope came off as very misogynistic and misguided in his mock-epic poem The Rape of the Lock, as well as many other male writers and poets of the time. Going back even to the medieval stories of Chaucer like The Canturbury Tales, men have been spinning toxic tales and spewing misogynistic ideas, whether in a narrative or a love-poem. If one thought that today women have high expectations of beauty and behavior, they could only try to imagine how many expectations were placed on women throughout the years now long gone. Misogynistic beliefs grew ideas that women were lesser than men in many ways, including physically and mentally. They believed women couldn’t reason and use logic the way men did and that they instead relied too heavily on emotions.
They also believed women were physically inferior and flawed, especially the uterus; for example, the ancient Greeks thought the uterus could move and slide throughout a woman’s body and interfere with other organs (McVean). Not too far back in the past, when early trains were invented, it was believed that the velocity of the train and the forces one’s body would cause women’s uteruses to fly out of their bodies! Ideas of female inferiority in Pope’s work was critically discussed in ‘The Rape Of The Lock | Feminist Analysis” from UKEssays.
Pope’s poem also brings up his support for ideas of objectification of women and rape culture, which are discussed critically in “’Quick as Her Eyes, and as Unfix’d as Those’: Objectification and Seeing in Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’” by Rebecca Ferguson, and “Re-Reading the Power of Satire: Isaiah’s ‘Daughters of Zion’, Pope’s ‘Belinda’, and the Rhetoric of Rape” by Miles Johnny. Hopefully, after considering the misogyny of Alexander Pope, a great English writer, one may consider the bigotry of other popular male writers like him throughout the ages who all may be less deserving of such fame due to their slander of the female sex.
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