The Negative Images of Wome in Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"

By: Cassandra Westfall
Knox College Common Room: Volume 2, Number 2
April 14, 1998
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Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a satirical and often demeaning look at the roles of women in 17th century English society. While Pope pokes fun at the superficial character of aristocratic society, he seems to particularly focus on the rituals of womanhood and is highly condescending towards women. His humor is often offensive and points to a more widespread view and interpretation of the value of women in society. By focusing on a particular negative incident, not very serious by many standards, Pope dismisses the anger that the young woman should rightfully feel and turns the entire episode into a laughable charade. Pope manages to marginalize women, in particular Belinda, by turning this incident-the de-locking-into a mock epic, mocking Belinda and discounting her worth.

The traditional interpretation has noted that Pope wrote this story "in the hope that a little laughter might serve to soothe ruffled tempers" after a real-life incident involving a stolen lock of hair had taken place (2233). The editors of the Norton Anthology of English Literature suggest that because of ant through Pope’s mock-heroic epic style, the reader is forced to "compare small things with great" (2233). It is said that although Pope "laughs at this world and its creatures-and remembers that a grimmer, darker world surrounds it (3.19-24, 5.145-48)-he makes us very much aware of its beauty and charm" (2234). Unfortunately, I can not buy this argument because it does not seem that Pope at all takes this incident seriously. Instead, he uses it as an opportunity to criticize women and poke fun at traditional female thought and practices. I truly saw few moments when the superiority of malehood was in any way threatened or ridiculed.

Pope writes an epigraph, directed to the lady involved, Ms. Arabella Fermor, which suggests that the poem was published at her request, although in actuality the writing of this poem was suggested to Pope by one of his male friends (2234). By implying otherwise, Pope is making it seem as though Ms. Fermor enjoyed and even asked to be mocked. If Pope’s intent was to unite the two feuding families (Lord Petre and the Fermors) by providing a story over which the two could laugh together (Pope 2233), he is seriously disappointing. It is unclear whether or not Ms. Fermor enjoyed this story and ended her anger, but from a late twentieth-century perspective, it is highly unlikely that insulting someone so forcefully could have any positive impact.

From the story, one may gather that the aristocracy at this time lived a rather frivolous life. Women spent much of their day preparing themselves for social functions (5.19). Beauty becomes very important, as do appearances- both physical and social. The virtue of beauty in this poem can not be overstated. Pope writes, "If to her share some female errors fall,/ Look on her face, and you’ll forget ‘em all" (2.17-8). The beautiful woman Belinda is seen as more virtuous than others simply because of her physical features. Showing social grace and charm is more important for women than anything intellectual they could say. Despite our readiness to dismiss this life as useless and worthless, it is possible to see that these women took their roles and duties very seriously. It is also quite obvious that these types of behavior were expected of women and that a woman who did not conform would be an unwelcomed outcast. For example, the Sylphs are ready to go to war for Belinda to preserve her beauty and chastity, and great punishment is threatened for any fairy that does not protect these virtues (2.91-136).

A female’s self-worth and means of social freedom are to be found through the fulfillment of a culturally desirable social life, fraught with rituals and mores for behavior between the sexes. When describing Belinda’s beauty routine, Pope writes, "The inferior priestess, at her altar’s side,/ Trembling begins the sacred rites of Pride" (1.127-8). For women, pride is to be attained through the rituals of beauty. When Belinda is forced to deal with her sudden hair loss, she experiences a great deal of shame and public humiliation. She exclaims, "Oh, had I rather unadmired remained/ In some love isle, or distant northern land. . . There kept my charms concealed from mortal eye,/ Like roses that in deserts bloom and die" (4.153-158). She wishes she had been concealed from society and wants to hide her face in shame.

Belinda’s priorities might be out of whack with today’s society; however, the fact remains that this was the type of lifestyle afforded to her by her status. As a woman, the courtly lifestyle was the best opportunity for a happy life. Of course Belinda would and should be upset by such a "trivial" matter. Her sole means of livelihood and success has been shattered by the "rape of the lock." Like many rape victims and women socialized into society today, Belinda tries to rationalize this incident by blaming herself. She remembers how she was forewarned about her fate, but she chose to ignore reason. She says she should have known better (4.165-166). Here, the woman is not only blaming herself, but professing her own internalized stupidity and implying her inferior status. She cries out from the pain she is experiencing and shouts, "Oh hadst thou, cruel! Been content to seize/ Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!" (4.175-6). The sexual undertones here are not very difficult to see. It appears that Belinda would have preferred to be raped sexually, where she would have suffered only private humiliation, than to have a precious lock of her hair cut off publicly. By this incident, Belinda is defaced not only privately but also publicly. Everyone can plainly see that Belinda has this major defect. It is as though the Scarlet "A" has been branded on her chest. Her "flaw" has become obvious to everyone; hence, the victim is victimized again by society.

For these reasons, it is especially unfair of Pope to paint this sickening, one-sided picture of Belinda and this incident. From Pope, we see no female character development whatsoever, and all mentions of Belinda’s personality are negative. We see a picture of a male blinded by the unrequited love a supposedly coquettish woman. The male in this story is portrayed not as a rapist, as the title of the poem would suggest, but as a victim bitten by the love bug and stung by Belinda’s piercing eyes.

Like the tendency today to blame the rape victim, we blame Belinda for her coyness and cruel wit. It is her fault that men can not control themselves around her. She is just too beautiful and full of her sly seductiveness. Women are expected to remain chaste and pure in order to remain honorable, yet women who refuse men are seen as prudes and deserving of ill will.

The madonna/whore issue is played out throughout this story. Many mentions of Belinda’s virginity are made, just as her refusals are given full attention. Pope writes, "And she who scorns a man must die a maid;/ What then remains but well our power to use,/ And keep good humor still whate’er we lose? (5.28-30). The woman who remains true to her virtue should expect to be unhappy and without a mate. Likewise, according to Pope, a woman should learn to laugh at her own victimization and secondary status because it is natural and there is little she can do to prevent it. Because Belinda shows pride in winning the card game and beating out males in a male domain, morality dictates that she must be punished and set straight about her "rightful" place. The didactic lesson is clear. A woman should never expect to be equal to a man.

The male involved here, the Peer, shows no remorse for his actions. He tells Belinda, "’This hand, which won it shall forever wear’. He spoke and speaking in proud triumph spread the long-contended honors of her head" (4.138-140). He is mocking Belinda and belittles and victimizes her even more by his flagrant disrespect for her body as personal property. He values the lock of hair as a prize-a prisoner of war or war booty. This hair symbolizes that Belinda (all women) is (are) clearly a victim and a loser in this war between the sexes. Like rapists today, the Peer does not allow Belinda the right to possess her own body. By mocking this fact, Pope is excusing this man from his responsibility and showing that this type of violation is acceptable. When Pope invokes the fairies in the beginning of the poem, he has the sprite Ariel say, "Warned by the Sylph, O pious maid, beware!/ This to disclose is all thy guardian can: Beware of all, but most beware of Man!" (1.112-114). Man is to be regarded by woman with at least some bit of trepidation. Through this, men’s violent or irrational behavior may be naturalized and women’s role as victim and secondary Other may become expected, naturalized and internalized.

More generally, Pope turns this story around to show how the woman is at fault and loses in the battle of the sexes because of her strongly implied inferiority. Pope focuses on the flaws and weaknesses of woman and uses this as an explanation and justification for women’s secondary status in society. In Canto 5, as Pope details the battles of war, he judges the worth of men and women. He writes, "Now love suspends his golden scales I air,/ Weighs the men’s wits against lady’s hair;/ The doubtful beam long nods from side to side;/ At length the wits mount up, the hairs subside" (5.71-74). Pope bases his value equations on the intellect of men versus the beauty of women. Women are to be judged not for their brains but for their physical features- a fact which makes Pope’s mocking style even more disturbing. He mocks Belinda and other women for their rituals of beauty, despite the fact that this is how they are to be judged. Would Pope mock a man for reading a book or practicing his elocution skills? Surely not!

Pope’s attitude towards women is obvious before one even begins the poem. In his letter to Arabella Fermor, he writes, "I know how disagreeable it is to make use of hard words before a lady. . ." (2234). He also states that it is in the nature of "modern ladies’ to "let an action be never so trivial in itself, they always make it appear of the utmost importance" (2234). This act is not so trivial when one considers the broader social implications of allowing this type of behavior. To give males free reign in society to abuse and assault the personhood of women is a gross injustice. Ms. Fermor is justified in being angry and defending herself against the predatory will of a self-centered man.

Unfortunately, Pope does not feel the same way. In describing Belinda’s anger, the author goes to great lengths to paint her as a witch with almost supernatural characteristics. Pope uses the Cave of Spleen, a sort of virtual reality hell, to explain the ensuing argument between Belinda and the Peer. He speaks in some detail of Thaletris-an Amazonian type woman who enjoys fighting. It is interesting that even Thaletris experiences some doubts about whether or not she should help Belinda who "burns with more than mortal ire" (4.93). Thaletris exclaims that she can already see that Belinda’s honor is lost and that she has become instantly defamed and deflowered by this act (4.105-116). To preserve their own social appearances, her friends must desert her or face this same type of degradation. Thaletris must examine whether helping Belinda is worth her while.

Thaletris tends to hold male characteristics and subscribe to some male-dictated norms, while rejecting males and other male-determined mores; therefore, she is the form of woman that is to be most feared and scorned by men. Thaletris, while not presented as such, represents the truly free female and is an early feminist character. Thatletris’ personality is divided among the other female characters and is used simply to portray the supposed vengeful, spiteful, and wholly illogical character of women. Her feminist standards may be rejected today, as she seems to reject femininity and scorns "feminine" females; however she represents the sole strong female role in the story. Thaletris’ militaristic notions about life and her unbridled sexuality lead her to consider Belinda a "prude" (5.36). She can not accept Belinda as a fellow sister, free to make her own personal choices, but must still reject her on certain grounds.

All in all, Pope’s characterization of women and his satirical telling of this incident paint a very negative picture of women. Women are shown as conniving, untrustful, illogical, and most importantly, inferior to men. Pope ridicules Belinda’s (Ms. Fermor’s) anger and does not seem to understand why women could get so angry over such a "trivial" matter. He does not respect female autonomy and buys in to the madonna/whore perception of women. The Rape of the Lock does a great injustice to women and only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes and generalizations about female character.

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