The Rape of the Lock- 18th Century Women

Arabella Fermor

 

In “The Rape of the Lock”, Pope reveals within his dedicatory letter that Belinda is a literal representation of Arabella Femor, a member within his Catholic circle. He expresses within his letter that the poem primarily functions to point out the follies of women and society, and hopes that a few may admit and enjoy the humor within their follies. Therefore, Pope uses Belinda to represent early 18th century women and satirically poke fun at their silly ways.

At first glance, we are introduced to Belinda as a stunningly beautiful woman whose beauty is a “rival to [the suns] beams.” The praise, however, is ironic for in the previous canto we see that Belinda has deliberately and ritually created this image with “puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux.” Therefore, Pope uses Belinda’s effort in creating such an image to ridicule society for placing external beauty as a significant value for women to pursue rather than internal beauty. Furthermore, Belinda adorns a cross on her “white breast” for which “ Jews might kiss, and infidels adore.” Despite the cross being a strictly Catholic symbol, Belinda uses the religious symbol for ornamental purposes to sexually enhance her beauty for “Jews” and “infidels” to admire. Hence, the use of a religious symbol for purely aesthetic purposes amounts to sacrilege and moral depravity for Belinda and all her admirers.

During the climax of Belinda’s tussle with the Baron, Belinda is described to dodge the Baron’s attempts at snipping a piece of her hair several times. The Baron only succeeds when the sylph, who are guarding her hair, witness in “the close recesses of her virgin thought…an earthly lover lurking in her heart” thus causing the sylph to resign their efforts. Despite Belinda’s dramatic scream, it is implied she secretly desired to sacrifice her moral chastity. Furthermore, the two maids “ill-nature” and “affectation” show that Belinda had an ulterior motive to use this occasion to wear a new gown or act. Later in the poem, Thalestris states “ Gods! Shall the ravisher display your hair…and all your honor in a whisper lost” shows that Belinda does not regret nor languish in the thought of her moral breach but the embarrassment of social humiliation and her image. Therefore, Belinda is shown to lose her “virgin” or pure thought when she secretly desires the Baron to violate her hair. The lack of moral integrity is further exacerbated through Belinda’s anguish of not her moral purity but rather her fear of social humiliation. Given these points, one can exam Belinda’s entire situation as being corrupt since her anguish was intentional and her motivation to right what is wrong lacks any moral consideration.

In conclusion, we can see through Belinda that early 18th century women of high society were primarily admired for their beauty. It can be inferred from the extravagant parties and flirtatious engagements that women of this time prioritized social activities and were, perhaps, discouraged pursuing academic education. Therefore, women of the early 18th century played a role of social status symbols based on external beauty. Despite Popes satire on women, one can look at Pope’s ironic criticism as a means of advocating women’s rights. By satirizing how contemporary women behaved, Pope encourages readers, especially women, to humorously take his criticism but earnestly consider on pursuing more serious pursuits. Therefore, the discrepancies between Pope’s heroic couplets serve another layer of illumination and stimulation.

-Richard Chang

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