On her white breast a sparkling cross she wore, / Which Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.
The Rape of the Lock, II.7-8
The Rape of the Lock
A major theme throughout Alexander Pope's poem, The Rape of the Lock is beauty and the importance of being beautiful, especially in the main character Belinda. Belinda is an upper class woman that travels in a high class circle. On many different occasions, Pope makes it a point to emphasize how important beauty is to Belinda and how beautiful her peers think she is. The climactic event that occurs during the poem is the Baron cutting off a lock of Belinda's hair. This incident is looked at as an extreme tragedy, she even acts as though she is mourning the loss of her hair. This central theme of vain women throughout the poem raises many questions about the women of that time period. In the first canto of the poem, we even get a glimpse of the process that Belinda goes through to get ready for a social event. Many critics have looked into why Pope may have felt the need to emphasize this theme in the poem, were all women this vain in the eighteenth century?
How vain are all these Glories, all our Pains,
Unless good Sense preserve what Beauty gains:
That Men may say, when we the Front-box grace,
Behold the first in Virtue, as in Face!
"...The Rape of the Lock is the management of a woman's character, which in Belinda's instance is primarily determined by her beauty; and as we shall see Pope's management of her character/beauty is a simultaneously ideological and aesthetic goal"(Chico 1).
Alexander Pope was born on May 21, 1688 in London to a mother and father that were both associated with the catholic religion. At times this made his life somewhat difficult, especially when it came to his education. Pope was banned from many schools due to his religion, but with the help of his father he was able to overcome this. His education was a bit unconventional, but he was determined learn from whom ever and wherever he was able to (Corrinne 2). One of his most famous works, The Rape of the Lock was written after Lord Petre "...cut off a lock of Miss Arabella Fermor's hair and refused to return it, and the incident had caused bad feeling between the two families"(Hyman 406). Although Pope was not associated with this elite group, his friend Caryll was a close confidant of both of the families. Pope wrote the poem in a joking matter to laugh at the situation and those involved. The character of Belinda and The Baron are written after Miss Arabella Fermor and Lord Petre.
Rape of the Lock was originally constructed with only two cantos. Later on Pope went back and extended it to five. In addition, he also added Homeric aspects, including the underworld, and the Homeric battle between Belinda and The Baron (Hyman 406).
The Elite Women of the Eighteenth Century
In the eighteenth century many women were associated with making a home for themselves and their families. Most elite women spent their time "preoccupied with public affairs and social life outside of the home, upper-class women were accused of being thoroughly undomesticated"(Lewis 337). In many ways, the elite were seen as incapable of making a home because they were too busy "...destroying homes and families through their idleness, greed and vanity"(337). Although women didn't play many roles in home-making, they were indeed very involved in political and social events. With the involvement in elite culture in some cases females were excluded; however, eighteenth century English women were able to participate in "...art, public performance, philosophical debate, and politics"(Potter 5). Social obligations were not only a large portion of life for the elite, but for women during these times, shopping and looking appropriate at all times was of much importance. England "...was a place of glamour and fashion where the glitterati of the late seventeenth and eighteenth century met to see and be seen"(Potter 70). As the elite group in England grew, "there were increasing numbers of sites for celebrity and fashion in the eighteenth century, from the court to operas, clubs and assembly rooms, masquerade balls, and art exhibitions"(70). These events became very popular, they were written about in the news and journals. Having a proper fashion sense was extremely important, especially when all eyes were on the elite and the activities that they attended.
In the Poem written by Alexander Pope we see the group of elite youth practicing some of the similar social constructs that are listed above. Belinda was part of the elite. Although she was recognized as the most beautiful girl among her peers, she was also able to have an intellectual conversation with the opposite sex. Belinda's eloquence surprising for the time, but not for a woman who came from a family of power, like characters in Rape of the Lock.
Eighteenth Century Fashion
Fashion in the eighteenth century was seen as a way for a woman to define herself and her social status. "The experience of shopping for fashionable clothing in the 18th century was more than a simple commercial exchange. How a woman shopped , as well as what she bought, were important social and cultural indicators"(Dyer 2). Fashion was distributed to the woman in multiple ways, but most of the elite had someone sort of a close friend, relative, or a maid to bring clothing to the home. Fashion during this time included, elaborate dresses with corsets to make women look slimmer and well put together. The clothing featured beautiful high quality fabrics from all over the world, making clothing expensive. Dresses and shoes were often times hand embroidered, which was a lengthily process. Some examples of this expensive attire is seen in the The Rape Of the Lock when Belinda is at her dressing table preparing to go to the castle. Her clothing was elaborate and flattering to her figure in many ways; Pope included multiple traditions that were practiced during the time period in his work.
The Importance of Personal Expression
Often times, women used clothing to express themselves. The outfits that they wore gave them the ability to convey "...identity, personality and fashion"(Berg 421). The art of purchasing clothing became a form of social interaction between middle and upper class women. Purchasing expensive clothing gave women a way to feel good about themselves and often became a big part of their daily lives."The unwritten social rules of encounter in shops constituted a form of polite deportment, encompassing gesture, verbal exchange and a ritualised patter of behaviour..."(Berry 377). Shopping was broken into "two types of experiences: the sensory and the social"(Dyer 3). Sensory was based on having the skills to touch and feel fabrics to determine whether or not it was good quality. "The experience of wearing clothing involves constant sensory interaction with the fabrics, materials, shapes and cut"(3). Many women while shopping felt the need to touch and feel an item before wearing it or buying vs. women who let a proxy pick out their clothing for them. On the social side of things, "the shopping process provided a platform for a public display, spectacle, pleasure and entertainment"(3). The act of shopping more than anything else was about seeing others and being seen.
Living in the time period, Alexander Pope recognized how vital shopping was to a woman and her status in the community. In many ways, he chose to take what he saw around him and create characters based on these real life interactions that he witnessed daily. After researching the time period and habits of the women who lived in it, it is clear that the theme of vanity that runs throughout Popes poem isn't all fiction. He merely took the most elite group of women in his time period and emphasized their daily activities. He added a few magical elements, and comedic relief to assist in his goal of exposing the eighteenth century woman in vain.
The Rape of the Lock is a poem in which things, not people, are the heroes (Crehan 47).
Throughout the poem, Pope put emphasizes material items; below are some of the major trivial objects:
The Beloved Lock:
Baron had an extreme desire to cut the curl from Belinda's head. He becomes entirely obsessed with a lock of hair, but not the girl. In many ways his fetish takes over and it becomes a game in which he must catch his prize.
"Pope's Baron "meditates the way, I By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray," but he is driven by acquisitive desire. What he wants is not a woman's love; it is a "Prize," a valued thing: "He saw, he wish'd, and to the Prize aspir'd."(Crehan 47).
The Labors of the Toilette:
For a good portion of the poem the reader gets a glimpse of Belinda's time on her Toilette as she is preparing herself to meet with her peers. With the assistance of her servants, she gets this overwhelming and magical feeling when she is finished dressing. Pope focuses on the idea that Belinda believes that her material items are what makes her beautiful, such as her powder puff. When she looks in the mirror after she is finished, she smiles and claims that she has been "Transform'd"(Pope). Without these material items, Belinda would not feel beautiful. Although she gives the reader the idea that she doesn't feel she is beautiful until she is all done up, she becomes a bit vain when her peers are telling her she is the most beautiful woman. It is her material items that help Belinda to truly see it herself.
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