The Lapdogs of Swarthy Warriors: Gender Reversal in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock

July 26, 2019 by Essay Writer

In The Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope utilizes a reversal of gender roles to sculpt a subtle societal critique of the leisurely life of belles and beaux. Through this satirical device, Pope exposes the aristocratic pretensions of this heavily ornamented and indolent lifestyle. He emasculates his male characters and applies warrior-like traits to his female characters, with the exception of Clarissa, whom is instead identified as a defender of the patriarchy. In this mock-epic poem, assumed gender positions and presupposed dominances break and blur in the flurry of futile action that ensues between and within the sexes. The roles generally reserved for men in epic poetry are usurped from them and given to the women, who prove to be convincing warriors and dominant heroines. In this mock-epic piece, Pope walks a tightrope of maintaining his good rapport with the families mentioned and inserting his own critique into the poem. Critic Cleanth Brooks identifies Pope’s areas of critique as “…the real nature of the conventions of polite society, the heroic pretensions of that society as mirrored in the epic, the flattering clichés which society conventionally employs—all come in for a genial ragging” (Brooks 108). As a technique, gender reversal aids Pope in expressing his discontent with the decline of traditional roles. Pope uses the first two cantos of the poem to show Belinda and the Baron preparing for “war” in their respective manners. He gives the reader a glimpse into the magical inner-workings of Belinda’s morning routine. Belinda is armed with the aid of the sylphs, and “Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux,/Now awful beauty puts on all its arms” (I 138). However, Belinda is unaware of the conquests she will meet this day. Echoing the language of traditional epic in its cataloguing of weapons and armor, these lines gradually begin the language of mock-epic. Critic Hugo Reichard argues these two characters to be equal, each with powerful, dominant characteristics unique to their sex: “Both Belinda and the Baron are at the age of exuberance where the armor of courtship fits rather loosely…Feigning ‘death,’ sophisticating love, and shunning marriage, they wage a mock war in a mock-heroic poem. Their maneuvers […] make the plot of the poem a contest of wiles between commanding personalities—an uninhibited philanderer and an invincible flirt” (Reichard, 887-888).However, the scene in which we are first introduced to the Baron does not portray him as “commanding” in the least. Our high-maintenance heroine is juxtaposed with the fawning Baron, kneeling at his altar comprised of various love tokens from past amorous endeavors: “There lay three garters, half a pair of gloves,/And all the trophies of his former loves./With tender billet-doux he lights the pyre,/And breathes three amourous sighs to raise the fire” (II 39-42). Pope feminizes the Baron by introducing him as a beaux sighing and prostrating himself before the altar of love. The ‘contest of wiles’ that Reichard mentions seems to have little grounding in light of how quickly the Baron’s enjoyment of his victory is deflated. He also resolves to have the lock, no matter the method, be it “By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray” (II 34), indicating his willingness to use artifice and cowardice to obtain the lock. This is a far cry from the valorous, epic hero which the Baron sees himself to be, and Belinda later becomes.However, it is not long before these lightly satirical beginnings transform into a battleground where gender wars ensue and Pope wields his strongest satire. The actual scene of the “rape” itself reveals a complex network of indistinct gender alliances and positions. The rape of the lock is not the lusty, virile conquest, which would be anticipated for the Baron as a male warrior. It is actually incited by the temptation and aid of a woman, Clarissa. It is Clarissa who provides the shears with which the Baron cuts Belinda’s lock: “Just then, Clarissa drew with tempting grace/A two-edged weapon from her shining case:/So ladies in romance assist their knight,/Present the spear, and arm him for the fight” (III 127-130).Clarissa chooses to betray Belinda through deception instead of direct conflict. She is different from the other two prominent women of the poem, Belinda and Thalestris, in that she does not take the most direct, aggressive route to obtain power. Because she is female, and not a love interest of the Baron’s, their alliance is somewhat confusing. She later attempts to portray herself with neutralizing virtue, contradicting her earlier socially pragmatic behavior in aiding the Baron. It is possible that Clarissa sees herself as a neutral, combative force against vanity and coquettishness, therefore justifying her actions. Although the language of the poem connotes that Clarissa and the Baron have a romanticized knight/lady relationship, it is not clear what Clarissa has to gain by assisting in the cutting of the lock. Critic Peter Staffel accuses Clarissa of becoming a male sycophant for gain of status: “The deportment and carriage that Clarissa encourages perpetuate both women’s marginal status and her superiority to Belinda within those margins. Thus she establishes herself as a corrupt collaborator in a hegemonic patriarchy” (Staffel 91). Staffel seems correct in thinking that moral superiority above her female counterparts and patriarchal favor are the goals of Clarissa’s actions.Following the rape of her lock, Belinda falls ill with grief. Pope uses this illness to introduce us to another fantastical world, the Cave of Spleen, pulling us aside from the overblown epic human world. Ralph Cohen points to this world as a reflection of the human world, because “the mythological machinery reflects the same inversion of sexual roles” (Cohen 58). The gnome Umbriel descends into this world, where “Unnumbered throngs on every side are seen/Of bodies changed to various forms by Spleen…Men prove with child, as powerful fancy works,/And maids, turned bottles, call aloud for corks” (IV 47-48, 53-54). This image of impregnated men is a bold statement about the flexibility of masculinity within the poem. The cave could be interpreted as a murky microcosm of the human world. Just as the shapes of men and women shift in the cave, the roles and identities of both genders are shuffled around in the human world. The Queen Spleen, another example of a dominant woman, who parallels the powerful women yet to come, rules the cave. The woman with the strongest power associations is Thalestris, whose name echoes back to the Amazons. Unlike Clarissa, Thalestris acts as an ally to Belinda and advocates her anger and grief. Thalestris, as Belinda’s brave and aggressive sidekick, represents the tightly bound sisterhood, which Clarissa has failed to enter. She fights alongside Belinda and sets an example in her assertiveness. Thalestris’ first small victory is her domination over Sir Plume, her beau. With her rhetorical fierceness, Thalestris convinces Plume to demand the lock of the Baron. The reader watches Thalestris swiftly emasculate Plume with unrelenting slander: “’Men, monkeys, lapdogs, parrots, perish all!’/She said; then raging to Sir Plume repairs,/And bids her beau demand the precious hairs” (IV 120-123). For the third time in the text, men are referred to as lapdogs. Although there is not a blatant parallel, it is significant that men are included in this running list of animals. In this case, subtle juxtaposition is just as effective as an obvious parallel. As Ralph Cohen points out, like lapdogs, monkeys and parrots, all common pets of the stylish upper class, the men of this poem “…become the housebroken possessions of the women, to blither at their command, to obey their every wish…and to faint before the displeasure of their glances” (Cohen, 55). Upon her command, Plume submits to Thalestris’ will and assaults the Baron with a muddled list of over compensatory swearing: “Zounds! damn the lock!/‘fore Gad, you must be civil!/Plague on’t! tis’ past a jest—nay, prithee pox!/Give her the hair’—he spoke, and rapped his box” (IV, 128-130). His ludicrous demand does not move the Baron, whom ironically remarks that it pains him “Who speaks so well should ever speak in vain” (V 132). Thalestris apparently matches and surpasses Sir Plume’s rhetorical skills by virtue of her persuasive power. If she is not able to gain power over the Baron directly, she is still dominant in that she can vicariously influence him via Sir Plume. The accelerating action of this scene is interrupted by the reappearance of Clarissa, who delivers a speech on “good humor.” In his article “The Case of Miss Annabella Fermor,” Cleanth Brooks presents the most popular view of Clarissa’s purpose: “Pope expresses his own judgment of the situation, employing Clarissa as his mouthpiece […] Though Pope obviously agrees with Clarissa, he is neither surprised nor particularly displeased with his heroine for flying in the face of Clarissa’s advice” (Brooks, 105). This high-minded, ineffectual speech comically receives no applause. It seems that if Clarissa were truly Pope’s mouthpiece, her moralizing speech would at least elicit approval from the patriarchal side she is attempting to defend. It is clear that she utilizes this speech to elevate her own wisdom, which is a vanity in itself: “And trust me, dear, good humor can prevail/When airs, and flights, and screams and scolding fail” (V 31-32). By positioning herself as the expert on the virtues of “good humor,” she seems to forget her previous involvement in the perpetuation of this chaos: her assistance in the rape of the lock. It is more likely that Clarissa is just as much of a caricature as the society surrounding her, she merely has a different approach in her ludicrousness. Immediately following Clarissa’s applause-less speech, she meets with Belinda’s frown, and Thalestris comically quips her to be a “prude.” It would seem uncharacteristic of Pope to advocate such a self-aggrandizing and verbose speech, critic Robin Grove indicates it is more likely that he “detects the taint of high-minded insincerity in Clarissa’s over-conscious speech…” (Groves 83). Clarissa’s opportunism overshadows her moral voice and reveals her to be a socially pragmatic traitor. Her speech does not beg to be taken seriously because of her deceptive participation in the “rape,” which makes her as guilty and engaged in this vain game as the others whom she is attempting to rise above with rhetoric. Almost instantly after the deliverance of Clarissa’s speech, the warring characters escalate the conflict with humorous alacrity. The battle, full of fierce females and fainting men, culminates in the ultimate portrayal of gender reversal. The men are slain merely by the disapproving stares of their mistresses:While through the press enraged Thalestris flies,And scatters death around from both her eyes,A beau and witling perished in the throng,One died in metaphor, and one in song.O cruel Nymph! A living Death I bear,”Cry’d Dapperwit, and sunk beside his chair. (V, 57-62).Instead of drawing a more feminine comparison, Pope presents Belinda’s anger as surpassing the rage of Othello, a character embodied by his warrior status and short temper: “Not fierce Othello in so loud a strain/Roar’d for the handkerchief that caused his pain” (V 105-106). This parallel marks the final stage in the usurpation of conventionally male roles, and completes Belinda’s transformation into a swarthy warrior, a striking contrast with the delicate, belle Belinda at her vanity, whom we meet in the beginning of the epic. The Baron suffers a very unmanly defeat with merely a pinch of Belinda’s fingers, and is almost finished off by her mother’s hairpin, which Pope names a “deadly bodkin” (V 88). In the history of this hairpin, Pope includes a delightfully subtle commentary on the masculine becoming effeminate. He parenthetically traces the hairpin back to its origin, where it once belonged to her great grandfather, then was melted down into a widow’s belt buckle, and then a child’s whistle, and eventually was reincarnated as a woman’s hairpin. Belinda’s role of chaste coquette was defined in Pope’s day as “a woman who uses arts to gain the admiration and affection of men, merely for the gratification of vanity or from a desire of conquest, and without any intention of responding to the feelings aroused…” (Reichard 889). Belinda’s reactive rage at her “defilement” shows a rejection of her presupposed, natural role as woman, and in many ways her character would be a perversion of the expectations for women in her day. Clarissa’s speech sets up a narrow binary in which a woman like Belinda will either put aside her pride and marry or have no worth and die a spinster. Critic Robin Grove suggests that Belinda’s anger at the loss of the lock is actually “honest and life-engaging,” (Grove 83) considering that in the world of Clarissa and the patriarchy, she is only given the option of becoming one who “…scorns a man, [and] must die a maid” while on her current path (V 28). But for one to assume that the “Satire emerges because of the stress laid on Belinda’s rejection of her natural role” (Guilhamet 108), would be to ignore the ludicrousness of the portrayal of the men as well. Pope apparently disapproves of the Baron’s capriciousness with lovers, emphasizing his “…altar built,/Of twelve vast French romances, neatly gilt” (II 37-38). Pope ultimately equalizes the sexes by the mysterious disappearance of the lock, which becomes “a sudden star” (V 127). The apotheosis of Belinda’s lock raises it above the earth, where it was once an object of petty debate and a cause of war. The loss of the lock proves that nothing has come of this battle: neither harm nor victory. It is also fairest to both sexes, for the Baron has no trophy of conquest for his altar and Belinda does not gain her revenge. This equalization also lies in the satirical negation of the poem: nothing significant occurs. In spite of all of this language of “rape,” Belinda is still a virgin, even if her missing lock may imply she belongs to another. If Pope’s voice is inserted into the poem, it is in the last portion, where he soothes a fraught Belinda with the comfort that her name is “inscribed” in the stars. By transforming women, men, and hairpins, Alexander Pope creates a playful, yet mordant satire of the lazy, leisurely lifestyles of beaux and belles. His intricate network of gender alliances and oppositions are both playful provocations and engaging entertainment. By utilizing juxtaposition and metamorphosis, he seems to critique an age in which men and women have lost their bearings among frills and frivolity. Works Cited1. Cohen, Ralph. “The Reversal of Gender in ‘The Rape of the Lock.’” South Atlantic Bulletin. Vol. 37, No. 4. , pp. 54-60. Nov, 1972.2. Erskine-Hill, Howard, ed. The Art of Alexander Pope. New York: Harper and Row. 1979.3. Guilhamet, Leon. Satire and the Transformation of Genre. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987. 4. Mell, Donald C., ed, Pope, Swift and Women Writers. Newark: University of Delaware Press. 1996.5. Guerinot, J.V., ed. Pope: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, Inc. 1972.6. Reichard, Hugo M. “The Love Affair in Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock.’ PMLA, Vol. 69, No. 4. September, 1954.

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