Belinda: Wronged On Behalf of All Women

July 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

On the surface, “The Rape of the Lock”, by Alexander Pope, appears to be a mild satire on the recent rise in materialism and the specifically female habit of excessive consumption. Originally published in 1712, the poem was situated among numerous other satires on the same subject, including Jonathan Swift’s “The Lady’s Dressing Room”. However, upon further examination, the poem seems to be far more troubling than what critics have called gentle social commentary dedicated to a friend or a brilliant use of the mock-epic style. The eighteenth century marked the transformation of many social and economic conventions, and these transformations resulted in an increase in power for many women. This shift towards equality was troubling to many men, who became anxious to restore their dominance and force women back into a position of subservience. I will argue that Pope uses Belinda to embody numerous aspects of British femininity, including consumerism and an adherence to the societal standards for relationships, and in doing so, he employs her many imperfections as a means to highlight women’s true inferiority.The dedication of the poem is cited as one of the primary reasons that “The Rape of the Lock” is regarded as a mild social satire. Inspired by a real-life event in which Lord Petre cut a lock of hair from the head of Miss Arabella Fermor, Pope claimed that the poem was intended to pacify the socially tumultuous situation. Addressed to Fermor herself, Pope explains that the poem was “intended only to divert a few young ladies, who have good sense and good humor enough to laugh not only at their sex’s little unguarded follies, but at their own” (Pope). He goes on to clarify the function of the sylphs and gnomes, and he reassures Fermor that she was not the inspiration for Belinda, saying “The human persons are as fictitious as the airy ones; and the character of Belinda, as it is now managed, resembles you in nothing but in beauty” (Pope). However, the patronizing nature of the letter is evident throughout. Pope seems to imply that Fermor’s gender makes her not only unable to grasp the concept of supernatural creature but also naïve enough to believe Pope’s transparent assertions. Another indication that the poem was ultimately not intended as a friendly gesture lies in the history of the dedication. Cynthia Wall explains that “Pope offered Arabella Fermor a choice of dedications, prose or poem. . . She chose the prose letter that has traditionally prefaced the poem” (Wall 175). The poem which she rejected as ultimately published under the name “To Belinda on the Rape of the Lock”, and it contains numerous other insinuations of female inferiority. Pope writes, “Nature to your undoing arms mankind/ With strength of body, artifice of mind;/ But gives your feeble sex, made up of fears,/ No guard but virtue, no redress but tears” (Pope 15-18). He also offers a measly attempt at consolation, saying that Belinda should not mourn the loss of her hair because it was important enough to inspire a poet. Overall, the dedication and its alternative both serve as distressing reminders that Pope’s intentions were likely not as honorable as many have claimed. While he claims to be writing in honor of Arabella Fermor, the dedication belittles her in such obvious ways that one can not ignore his disdain. Coupled with Pope’s use of the epic form, it becomes evident that Pope utilized “The Rape of the Lock” as a means to express his utter disgust for all the qualities possessed by women. Critics have written countless analyses of the mock-epic style found throughout Pope’s poetry. This style of writing was not simply a coincidence. Alexander Pope began his career translating many of the classical works, including those by Horace and Homer, and was thus very familiar with the literary conventions of epic poetry. These conventions can be seen numerous times throughout “The Rape of the Lock”. The poem opens with the invocation of a muse. The classical authors called upon one of the nine Muses, while Pope cites his friend John Caryll, writing, “This verse to Caryll, Muse! is due” (I, 3). The second epic reference is in the author’s description of Belinda as the ideal woman, far above the standards of the common people. Belinda is characterized as “fairest of mortals” (I, 27), having “graceful ease” (II, 15) and a beauty which rivals the sun. As in the epics, the poem is marked with numerous supernatural interventions; Odysseus was protected by the gods, and the Sylphs and Gnomes watch over Belinda. The traditional armament scene in which the warrior is assisted in his preparation for battle can be seen in Belinda’s dressing scene as “awful Beauty puts on all its arms” (I, 139). Pope writes, “The busy Sylphs surround their darling care,/ These set the head, and those divide the hair,/ Some fold the sleeve, whilst others plait the gown” (I, 145-148). The necessity for armament becomes apparent in the multiple occurrences of battle. First, Belinda engages in a tense card game called ombre. After nearly securing a victory over two lords, Belinda takes part in the feast after a battle, which in this case is a luxurious cup of coffee. Subsequently, after the Baron cuts off Belinda’s lock of hair, the men and women engage in a passionate battle. Unlike the weapons found in other epic battles, the men are equipped with their wits and the women must fight using their eyes or mouths. Pope writes, “Chloe stepped in, and killed him with a frown;/ She smiled to see the doughty hero slain,/ But, at her smile, the beau revived again” (V, 68-70). What function does the satirical mock-epic style serve in “The Rape of the Lock”? Scholars have offered numerous possible explanations. Cleanth Brooks theorizes that the mock-epic style was intended to portray the incident as trivial, saying, “His choice of the mock-epic fits beautifully his general problem of scaling down the rape to its proper insignificance. The scene is reduced and the characters become small and manageable figures whose actions can always be plotted against a larger background” (Brooks 110). On the other hand, Felicity Nussbaum argues that “the mock-heroic ‘Rape of the Lock’ teases Belinda while it displays her entrapment in the rigid rules of courtship” (Nussbaum 137). I contend that Pope uses the mock-epic style in order to show the utter inferiority of women. Epic poetry traditionally featured a hyper-masculine hero in a setting of warfare and male competition, and Pope juxtaposes these masculine elements by placing a feminine character in the role of protagonist. However, Belinda ultimately fails in this role, and Pope blames the failure on the fact that her femininity makes her unable to function in a traditionally masculine world. This masculine world was accentuated even further with the growth of trade. The eighteenth century signaled a drastic revolution in the British economy as an increased mercantilism led to a more extravagant standard of living. This expansion of trade was manifested in both higher earnings for many of the elite and the prevalence of luxury items, such as imported fabrics, coffee, and spices. Women were granted more purchasing power, and many females spent their newfound wealth on elaborate costumes and imported makeup. The changes in economy resulted in similar changes in the English society. The distinction between the aristocracy and the merchant class greatly expanded, and commodities became the most significant means of measuring one’s place in society. However, as with many social and economic changes, there is often a backlash. In an effort to reinforce their dominance, men focused upon the most obvious signs of progress, and women were blamed as being the primary cause for this move towards excessive consumption. As a result, women were continually criticized for their vain nature and lack of self-control. They were seen as the embodiment of the evils associated with commercialism, and their almost ridiculous fixation on fashion became a common topic for satire. Laura Brown explains, “The image of female dressing and adornment has a very specific, consistent historical referent in the early eighteenth century-the products of mercantile capitalism. The association of women with the products of trade is a strong cultural motif in this period, and the concern with female adornment . . . is a prominent expression of that association” (Brown 112). Clarissa’s speech before the battle between the sexes comments on the temporary nature of ornamentation. Pope writes, “But since, alas! frail beauty must decay,/ Curled or uncurled, since locks will turn to gray;/ Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade,/ And she who scorns a man must die a maid”” (V, 25-28). At first glance, it appears as though Pope uses Clarissa as a vehicle to inspire a change in the society which forces women to value their appearance. However, the conclusion of her speech reinforces the necessity of marriage, negating any progress towards empowerment. Cynthia Wall explains, “Clarissa counsels resignation, reinforcing a status quo that punishes a woman who scorns a man or rejects a lord-by definition denying her the ability and the right to choose” (Wall 34). Also, the reaction which her speech receives from the other women in the poem indicates its effectiveness. Pope writes, “So spoke the dame, but no applause ensued,/ Belinda frowned, Thalestris called her prude” (V, 35-36). The response seems to imply that if females themselves do not support Clarissa’s speech, why should society cease its criticism of women?The condemnation of women is seen continuously throughout “The Rape of the Lock” as Pope characterizes Belinda as the epitome of excessiveness. He describes Belinda’s “joy in gilded chariots” (I, 55) and the “sparkling cross she wore/ Which Jews might kiss and infidels adore” (II, 7-8). He criticizes her overly prideful nature as he writes, “Think not, when woman’s transient breath is fled/ That all her vanities are dead:/ Succeeding vanities she still regards” (I, 51-53). He also mocks the female system of values, saying that Belinda can not distinguish between what is truly important and what is mere frivolity. The author describes Belinda’s inability to decide between her intrinsic qualities or her material possessions. Is it worse to “Stain her honor, or her new brocade/ Forget her prayers, or miss a masquerade/ Or lose her heart, or necklace at a ball” (II, 105-109)? Nicholson elaborates on these juxtaposed values, saying, Pope “shows market values confounding a traditional ethics as they refashion the human personality, accommodating it to different priorities. In Pope’s construction, a commercialized society rewrites virtue and leaves Belinda without any anchoring sense of morality” (Nicholson 40). All of these representations of extravagance serve to highlight Belinda’s superficial nature and her close bond with consumption. Nicholson further explains that Pope portrays “Belinda as a consumer, the embodiment of luxury, whose ambience is defined by the wealth of objects with which she surrounds and decks herself” (Nicholson 28). Pope employs Belinda to represent not simply a single greedy woman but rather the belief that all women equally as ostentatious. By representing all women in Belinda, Pope uses her fall from arrogance in order to humble all of womankind. Another important example of Pope’s derogatory representation of women can be seen in Belinda’s toilet scene, in which Belinda adorns herself with numerous imported beauty items. Pope writes, “The various offerings of the world appear;/ From each she nicely culls with curious toil,/ And decks the goddess with glittering spoil./ This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks,/ And all Arabia breathes from yonder box. The tortoise here and elephant unite/ Transformed to combs, the speckled and the white” (I, 130-136). This toilet scene, which was a common literary convention in the eighteenth century, is used to specifically tie women to mercantilism. Laura Brown writes, “The artifice through which Belinda’s beauty is either created or awakened is attributed to the products of trade and defined through a catalogue of commodities for female consumption” (Brown 113). This explicit association of women with trade reinforces the propensity to blame women for the problems linked to the increased commercialism, essentially placing men in a permanently elevated status. While Belinda as a whole personifies the feminine habit of excessive consumption, her vanity is most obviously encompassed in her locks of hair. Pope describes “two locks which graceful hung behind/ In equal curls, and well conspired to deck/ With shining ringlets her smooth ivory neck” (II, 20-22). The hair is described as beautiful enough to ensnare man’s imperial race (II, 27), and after the Baron cuts it off, it is placed in the sky as a constellation. Pope describes the “ravished hair,/ Which adds new glory to the shining sphere!” (V, 141-142). On the other hand, as Felicity Nussbaum claims, “Each bit of praise for Belinda in ‘Rape of the Lock’ is mitigated by satiric diminution” (Nussbaum 141). In this instance, the beauty of the lock is negated by the amount of superficial effort placed into maintaining its appearance. Pope asks, “Was it for this you took such constant care/ The bodkin, comb, and essence to prepare?/ For this your locks in paper durance bounds,/ For this with torturing irons wreathed around?/ For this with fillets strained your tender head,/ And bravely bore the double loads of lead?” (IV, 97-102). Pope wraps Belinda’s femininity into her lock of hair, and by destroying her lock, he essentially manages to destroy her entire gender. In addition to her appearance, a woman’s identity was inexorably tied to her relationships with men. A woman was seen as the property of her father until she became married, and then the father transferred her rights to her husband. This objectification was widely accepted in the traditionally patriarchal society as women were thought to be unable to take care of themselves. Few women owned property, and the occupations available to women were extremely low-paying. Therefore, females were taught from an early age that their goal was to find a husband who could support them. Marriage was rarely viewed as a loving union, but rather one of economic security. Although wives were expected to be submissive to their husbands, women began to exhibit more control over their own destinies. As a result, Pope uses Belinda as a model of the consequences for defying the social constraints placed on love. Women in the age of Pope were repeatedly praised for their wit and the ability to balance intelligence with the proper deference to their male counterparts. However, Pope portrays Belinda as possessing neither of the two. Clarissa explains the importance of character, saying, “Trust me, dear, good humor can prevail/ When airs, and flights, and screams, and scolding fail./ Beauties in vain their pretty eyes may roll;/ Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul” (V, 31-34). Pope characterizes Belinda as relatively dim-witted, having “infant thoughts” (I, 29) and a “vacant brain” (I, 83). Also, Belinda does not recognize the perceived impropriety of a woman appearing more intelligent than a man. Belinda possesses “learned pride” (I, 37), and motivated by her “thirst of fame” (III, 25), she dares to challenge the Baron and another young man to a game of cards. Diana M. Agy writes, “When Belinda challenges men to ombre, we see her overstep her culturally defined status of subservient female” (Agy 233). Consequently, instead of the expected acquiescence, Belinda displays an unexpected desire for power and comes dangerously close to winning the game. I contend that Pope uses this social transgression to symbolize the agency which real women were gaining and utilizes her as a means to punish all women for their attempts at empowerment. Women in the eighteenth century were also expected to follow certain standards for courtship. They should be playful and engaging but not to the point of giving men false hopes. Women should always maintain the appearance of propriety, while still remaining flirtatious in order to attract a suitable husband. However, Pope portrays Belinda as unable to find any sort of middle ground; she is either characterized as a tease or a prude. Pope first characterizes Belinda as a tease, saying, “Favor to none, to all she smiles extends;/ Oft she rejects, but never once offends. Bright as the sun, her eyes the gazers strike,/ And, like the sun, they shine on all alike” (II, 11-14). She is protected by the Sylphs, the guardians of all coquettes. However, as Ariel discovers upon peering into Belinda’s mind, there is “an earthly lover lurking at her heart” (III, 144). Although the identity of this lover is never revealed, his presence in Belinda’s thoughts signals her transition from coquette to prude. Her care is then transferred to the gnomes, who protect those who never act upon their romantic feelings. This change was foreshadowed in the first Canto, when Pope writes, “Some nymphs there are, too conscious of their face,/ For life predestined to the Gnome’s embrace” (I, 79-80). The mythological creatures watching over women throughout “The Rape of the Lock” are dually significant within Pope’s attempts to debase women. First, the creatures are assigned based upon a woman’s personality, and she can only be protected by one creature at a time. This attempts to compartmentalize the numerous complexities within a woman’s mind. That is, a woman can be a coquette or a prude; she can not have characteristics of each. By limiting a woman’s ability to express her individuality, Pope manages to repress the essence of femininity. Next, Pope implies that the spirits not only guard the women, they dictate their thoughts and actions. Pope writes, “Oft, when the world imagine women stray,/ The Sylphs through mystic mazes guide their way” (I, 91-92). He also describes the Sylphs as “these that early taint the female soul,/ Instruct the eyes of young coquettes to roll,/ Teach infant cheeks a hidden blush to know,/ And little hearts to flutter at a beau” (I, 87-90). These depictions of the Sylphs imply that they exhibit control over Belinda and other coquettes, which effectively confiscates any agency held by Belinda or other women. Eighteenth century society was no different from our own in that romantic relationships were still unavoidably linked to sexuality. The expression of sexuality was a relatively new phenomenon, instigated in rebellion against the Puritan lifestyle previously forced upon the English citizens. However, as with many conventions of the time, sex carried with it a gendered double standard. Although men were encouraged to openly practice their sexuality, women were taught that virginity was their most important asset. Without their virtue, women were not considered to be “marriage material”. However, as many critics have explained, innocence was often not valued as much as the appearance of innocence. Cleanth Brooks writes, “Chastity is, like fine porcelain, something brittle, precious, useless, and easily broken” (Brooks 104). While Belinda is constantly lauded for her virgin status, Pope fills the poem with sexual innuendos to illustrate her deceptively virtuous nature. The poem opens with a description of Belinda as a “sleepless lover”, and her dreams “that even in slumber caused her cheek to glow” (I, 24). Although the readers do not learn the identity of Belinda’s secret lover, we are instead presented with a substitute for her sexual desires-her dog, Shock. In the first Canto, the insinuation is obvious as Shock leapt from the bed and “waked his mistress with his tongue” (I, 116). Throughout the remainder of the poem, the dog is consistently worshipped as if he were human. Pope appoints the supervising Sylph to watch over Shock, and after the Baron cuts Belinda’s lock, “Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast,/ When husbands, or when lapdogs breathe their last” (III, 1557-158). According to Nussbaum, “The lapdog assumes the role of a surrogate husband, and the satire mocks such unnatural behavior. The implication . . . is that women will resort to any means to quench their insatiable desire” (Nussbaum 140). Pope’s accentuation of Shock both portrays Belinda as overtly desperate for sexual fulfillment and reinforces his earlier suggestion that women are unable to distinguish between items of importance (a husband) or material things (a dog). Finally, the subtle references to sexuality are brought to the surface with Belinda’s “rape”. Although the term rape could be used to refer to a violation of Belinda’s very essence, I believe Pope purposefully chose a phrase so closely associated with sex. The implication is that the lock of her was representative of her virginity, and by stealing it, the Baron has doomed Belinda to a life of shame. Thalestris tells Belinda that society will likely label her a whore for giving away her hair to the Baron. She says, “Methinks already I your tears survey,/ Already hear the horrid things they say,/ Already see you a degraded toast,/ And all your honor in a whisper lost!” (IV, 107-110). After the rape, Belinda cries, “Oh, hadst thou, cruel! been content to seize/ Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!” (IV, 175-176), implying that she would rather have been physically raped than to lose the illusion of chastity. As Karen Aubrey elucidates, “Had he raped in the true sense of the word, Belinda’s humiliation would have at least been private and would have preserved appearances” (Aubrey 12). Thus, Belinda’s rape is far more significant than forced sexual intercourse. The Baron takes away both Belinda’s innocence and her ability to exist in a society which placed such an emphasis on the appearance of innocence. The rape is only one of the methods which Pope uses in order to highlight women’s inferiority. Initially, the dedication letter subtly insults Arabella Fermor, patronizing her intelligence based simply on the fact that she is a woman. Next, the style of the poem points out the inability of women to function within the masculine world of epic poetry. Finally, Pope uses Belinda to embody all of the aspects which the British associated with femininity, and then he systematically destroys these characteristics. The result of “The Rape of the Lock” is that women are left without a suitable means to define their identity, and Pope has accomplished his goal of returning men to a position of complete superiority. The poem is the ultimate humbling experience for women, emphasizing the consequences for a woman who attempts to escape from the social constraints of femininity.

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