The Rape Of The Lock: Socially Constructed Virtue

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock may seem on the surface to lampoon the trivial nature of aristocratic offenses and satirize women for their hollow pride, but the famous mock epic does more than thumb its nose as female vanities.  It is a work that demonstrates how the social construction of virtue that is performed and perceived, is more important than authentic virtue, which highlights the hypocritical and insincere nature of those who adopt certain religious or moral stances in public, but are only concerned with the appearance of virtue, not with virtue itself.

 

If Belinda were re-invented for a contemporary audience, her 'own importance' might inspire her to indulge in selfie culture.

If Belinda were re-invented for a contemporary audience, her ‘own importance’ might inspire her to indulge in selfie culture, like Kim Kardashian .

The poem starts off with Sylph Ariel, who shares a name with a fallen angel featured in John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Ariel addresses Belinda, the protagonist of Pope’s mock epic, in the same manner that Lucifer address Eve in Milton’s epic, focusing on her vanity, not her virtue.  He describes her as the “Fairest of Mortals” (Pope, 1.27) and encourages her to know her “own Importance” (35).  One could imagine a contemporary version of Belinda gracing the cover of the poem’s print version with a duck-faced selfie considering the vanity and self-importance she is described as adopting.  Belinda’s vanity goes beyond appealing to the eye, and is a multisensory experience, as is evidences by the nosegay she wears (3.142). And like Milton’s Eve, Belinda is not seen as an intelligent person as Ariel notes that though wits may be observant of dishonestly, the “Fair and Innocent shall still believe” (1.40).  Belinda will not be aware enough to anticipate danger according to this voice.  Women’s minds are also described as yielding (61): not a flattering image of the female mind.

 

 

The Bible on Belinda's vanity table is a satiric juxtaposition akin to a crucifix dangling in the cleavage of a hypersexualized... Madonna?

The Bible on Belinda’s vanity table is a satiric juxtaposition akin to a crucifix dangling in the cleavage of a hypersexualized… Madonna?

When describing her dressing table, the contrast of vanity and virtue becomes almost absurd through Pope’s biting use of satiric juxtaposition via alliterated itemization: “Puffs, Poweders, Patches, Bibles, [and] Billet-doux” (138) are strung along her table.  The Bible, put in the context of cosmetic items, demonstrates that the virtue is associated with accessories that are meant to make Belinda more ascetically appealing than she would otherwise be, linking the Bible with both vanity, and dishonesty.  This is furthers when Pope refers to the dressing table as an altar (127) and the process of applying makeup to “Rites of Pride” (128), and refers to cosmetic power, of the sublunary world, where one might have typically expect the placement of the cosmic powers of the superlunary realm.

 

During the Restoration they wore wigs.  In Hollywood they get hair transplants.

During the Restoration they wore wigs. In Hollywood they get hair transplants.

The women, though, are not the only target of Pope’s satire, as the men are shown to be equally vain.  The competition for the ladies is described as wig against wig (101), demonstrating that the men also put on false faces, or at least false hair pieces.  This removes them from the realm of the real and defines their courting as a process in which they compete with things that are not authentically their own.  Their swords are also juxtaposed, but whereas in an authentic epic two lords or knights might do battle in a sword fight or indulge in some fencing, these men try to outdo their competitors by putting fancier sword-knots on the hilt of their unused weapons (101).  Clearly actions is the seen as a last resort as these men would rather women gauge them by their accessories, and not the content of their character.

 

Arabella Fermor, the inspiration for Pope's mock epic.

Arabella Fermor, the inspiration for Pope’s mock epic.

The act of virtue is superseded by vocalization of vice.  It is noted that as people gossip, “a Reputation dies” with every word (3.16).  Here it is made clear that it is not an unvirtuous act that destroys a reputation, but merely somebody vocalizing gossip concerning unvirtuous acts.  This is reinforced when Thalestris, a friend to Belinda, speaks to her, stating that she must retrieve the lock of hair that had been stolen, imagining the “horrid things [people would] say” and suggests that Belinda would become a “degraded Toast”, whilst her “Honour in a Whisper [would be] lost” (4.108-110).  For three straight line Thalestris notes how spoken words, not actions, would run Belinda’s virtue, by employing the words ‘say’, ‘toast’ and ‘whisper’.   Thalestris, who knows that Belinda has been virtuous in act (or lack thereof), even suggests that she will not be able to maintain her friendship with Belinda if her reputation is ruined, for it would “then be Infamy to seem [Belinda’s] Friend” (112).  This reinforces that the fact that is not actual virtue that is prized by the aristocracy, but the perception of virtue.  Thalestris is willing to forgo a friendship with a virtuous friend in order to maintain the appearance of virtue, placing the social perception above authentic.  This hold religious implications as well.  If Thalestris genuinely believe in god, then she would seek to maintain virtue in god’s eyes, not society’s, but it seems clear that the aristocracy is far less concerned with what god thinks and far more concerned with what their social peers think.

 

 

Belinda's Indian gems were essentially the Restoration version of a Blood Diamond.

Belinda’s Indian gems were essentially the Restoration version of a Blood Diamond.

Aside from the social satire, Pope places a number of items throughout the poem that had been collected from around the world.  The items are largely accessories and hold no practical value, but the fact that they litter the poem suggests an indulgence in the extravagant at the expense of those whose native lands have been colonized.  There is a casket, for example, that unlocks “India’s glowing Gems” (1.133).  Most would assume that such goods came from the East India Company (EIC), or a like enterprise.  The violence tied in with the EIC’s expansion and securing of a monopoly in India would have made such gems the equivalent of Blood Diamonds today.  Pope goes onto describe how tortoises and elephant are united to create combs from Arabia (134-136).  Wars were likewise being fought in the Middle East at the time, and so goods coming from that region would have been seen a conflict items from a contemporary perspective.  None of the violence associated with these regions is mentioned in the poem though.  These regions are then defined, not by their cultures or their people, but by the commodities that they produce.  Pope calls them the ‘offerings’ of the world as if they had been freely given and denotes that violence that took place to procure the goods.  The fact that the comb is made out of the by-products of elephants and tortoises demonstrates that such exploitation and commodification extends to the natural realm as well.  The savagery involved in taking down an elephant for its tusks is deplorable, but the material that the comb is carved out of is mentioned only in passing.  The aristocracy does not have a though about the implications carried within the commodities they consume. They are complacent and complicit in their consumption.  How much of this Pope intended to read is unclear, but it a contemporary context it seems obvious.

 

Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope

The work, overall, is a sharp satire that lampoons the performance of virtue, noting that authentic virtue is far less important to the aristocracy than is the socially constructed perceptions of virtue.  Men place value in female appearance, and not female wit, and often lack respect for female autonomy.  They are treated as a prize or a conquest, and not as a person, and such arrogant attitudes are reinforced by the fact that the trinkets, accessories and commodities that populate the poem are procured from places where people persevere exploitation, none of which even so much as enters the conscious minds to the poem’s aristocratic population.  The aristocratic culture is one of arrogance and callous self-indulgence, and Pope encapsulates this beautifully, succinctly and perhaps a bit too entertainingly, in his famous mock epic.

Crosses and Clevage

Crosses and Cleavage

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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