Pope uses the mock-epic style, an elevated form to discuss trivial events, in order to signify the importance of finding a meaning from something seemingly unmeaningful which, in this case, is the importance and power of women in this society. At the beginning of the 18th century, British society started to weaken the power struggle between male and female and Pope is able to effectively expose this image without being resentful like most of the writers did during that time period. Pope not only extensively focuses on the protagonist Belinda to represent the trial of women for individualistic power; but, he also successfully utilizes the power in women through other, supporting female characters.
One of the signs of the changing role of power between men and women is shown by refering to the power held by Queen Anne of Britain: “One speaks the glory of the British Queen” (Canto III. 13). Although she is not the protagonist of the poem, Queen Anne exhibited her power immensely in the newly-developed government in Britain, which was one of the first signs of the recognition of a woman’s power (Jones 273). Pope intentionally mentions her dominion: “Of foreign tyrants, and of nympths at home;/Here though, great Anna! Whom three realms obey,/Dost sometimes counsel take-and sometimes tea” (Canto III.6-8) This illustrates her comparable power to that of a man during this era as her power is summarized as being of utmost importance to Great Britain during her reign throughout the 18th century (Jones).
The traces of women’s power can be viewed through the female protagonist and other minor characters. At the beginning of Canto IV, Belinda, lies sickly mystified when she finds out Baron, a gentleman in her social circle, cut off a lock of her hair. A sylph who is playing the role of a handmaid, Affectation, shows off a special strength of a woman that suggests that the power within a woman is different from that of a man and a woman’s power essentially has as much influence of importance:
There Affectation with a sickly mien
Shows in her cheek the roses of eighteen,
Practiced to lisp, and hang the head aside,
Faints into airs, and languishes with pride” (Canto IV. 31-34).
Affectation’s power suggests that one significant advantage of a woman’s power is her ability to control men with their deceitful actions and pride.
The other female character who tries to show off her feminine power is Thalestris, Belinda’s friend, who demonstrates a certain type of power through persuasion and conversation that she keenly uses toward other characters in the poem. In an unusual way, Thalestris responds in such methods that are not expected of women during that time period. She says:
Already hear the horrid things they say,
Already see you a degraded Toast,
And all your Honour in a Whisper lost!
How shall I, then, your helpless Fame defend?
‘Twill then be Infamy to seem your Friend!” (Canto IV. 108-112).
With this comment, she pushes Belinda into the abyss of anger and despair. Thalestris continues to display her power when she orders Sir Plume, her significant other, to demand Baron, the culprit who cut the lock, to return the lock of hair to Belinda. Sir Plume’s request to Baron to return the lock back to Belinda glorifies Thalestris’s power:
My Lord, why, what the devil?
Z-ds! Damn the lock! ‘fore my Gad, you must be civil!
Plague on’t! ’tis past a jest— nay prithee, Pox!
Give her the hair (Canto IV, 127-130).
As a result of his weak request as a male, Sir Plume, reveals his inferior status to the female, Thalestris, which symbolizes the shift of authoritative power. Thalestris’s culmination to power is ultimately seen in the battle scene in Canto V: “While thro’ the Press enrag’d Thalestris flies, /And scatters Deaths around from both her Eyesâ€¦” (57-58). The image perceived from these lines depicts the rage of the women in British society through Thalestris.
Unlike most women before her time, Belinda is not at the service of men. Her way of appearance within the poem suggests her importance and power. She does not need to obtain a man’s permission to pursue any activity she chooses. She presumably decides independently herself any act she wants to commit in her life in an individualistic manner with no confinement:
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knocked the ground,
And the pressed watch returned a silver sound.
Belinda still her downy pillow pressed” (Canto I. 17-19).
She sleeps, gets ready for her leisure time, and accompanies her friends for a relaxing afternoon to attend playing cards, eating, drinking, and festivities. This is the proof of a woman with unimaginable free will during this era, as she needs no permission from a superior to engage in these activities.The most visible evidence of Belinda’s self-determined individualistic power is best depicted when she engages in a fierce struggle with Baron. These lines symbolize the authority of power held by a woman and the equity of power between men and women within the British society.
See fierce Belinda on the Baron Flies,
With more than usual Lightning in her Eyes;
Nor fear’d the Chief th’ unequal Fight to try,
Who sought no more than on his Foe to die.
But this bold Lord, with manly Strength indu’d,
She with one Finger and a Thumb subdu’d. (Canto V. 75-80)
However, reading the poem from a feministic viewpoint, it is seen that how gender ideologies abuse the power, intelligence and beauty of women while supporting man’s violence. The symbolism of the “lock” can be viewed as a type of gender criticism that defies the patriarchy. In Ellen Pollak’s essay, “Reading The Rape of the Lock: Pope and the Paradox of Female Power”, Pollak mentions that the lock of the hair is a phallic symbol and therefore it is cut off to reduce Belinda to femininity.
The cutting of the hair is used by the patriarchy to exhibit their power and domination over Belinda, who is in direct opposition with the Baron. Belinda refuses to be controlled by the patriarchy, and therefore is a threat to their reign. In the drawing room of the Palace, the men are all stunned by her beauty, however enamored they are by her; Belinda does not reciprocate their affections and ignores the patriarchy which leads to cutting her hair that shows losing both her beauty and power.
But ev’ ry Eye was fix’d on her alone.
On her white Breast a sparkling Cross she wore,
Which jews might kiss, and Infidels adore.
Her lively Looks a sprightly Mind disclose,
Quick as her Eyes, and as unfix’d as those:
Favours to none, to all she Smiles extends,
Oft she rejects, but never once offends. (Canto II. 6-12)
The power and beauty that she shows in ignoring the young men infuriates them, so they must take away her beauty to ruin her feminity and her confidance. If Belinda was not this mush pretty or if she was married and possessed by a man then this attack would never happen. This attack only is committed because she tries to live outside the rules and standards of the patriarchy.
The seriousness of this problem and the importance of the hair to a woman can be seen here and in Pope’s other poem “Epistle to a Lady”. There he writes “Most women have no character at all. Matter too soft for a lasting mark to bear, and best distinguish’d by black, brown and fair,” (2-4). This proves the importance of hair for the woman of that time and depicts that there is nothing else for a woman to be proud of. In “The Rape of the Lock” Belinda’s hair is her weapon against men and the symbol of her superiority over them which is easily taken from her to make her again inferior and powerless towards men.
The central tension in The Rape of the Lock lies in the relationship between the literal and the symbolic. The action hinges on the connection of Belinda’s hair to her actual, physical virginity, a crucial dimension of the poem that critics have often referenced but whose significance is commonly ignored. The style in which Belinda wears her hair, mostly piled up but with two long curls on each side of her neck, was a customary fashion for young marriageable-that is, virgin-women. The locks are thus a material signifier of virginity, something whose material existence is otherwise difficult to determine. The cutting of the lock is, then, a symbolic rape, and the poem investigates the power and relevance of such a symbolic act (Harol 121).
There is a relation between the lock of the hair and Belinda’s virginity. In Singh’s essay entitled, “Pope’s Belinda: A Feminist reading” Belinda’s hair and her virginity are linked together. There, it is mentioned that Belinda prefers to lose her virginity rather than losing her hair, because her hair is unique and the symbol of her power and her femininity. Raping the lock proves Baron’s manhood so he is determined to acquire the lock of the hair by violence or any other means he must employ:
Th’Adventurous Baron the bright Locks admir’d,
He saw, he wish’d, and to the Prize aspir’d:
Resolv’d to win, he meditates the way,
By Force to ravish, or by Fraud betray;
For when Success a Lover’s Toil attends,
Few ask, if Fraud or Force attain’d his Ends (Canto II. 29-34).
It seems that Belinda is aware of the impending violence against her, so when she is getting dressed to go to the party it seems that she is preparing herself for a battle field.
The busy Sylphs surround their darling Care;
These set the Head, and those divide the Hair,
Some fold the Sleeve, while others plait the Gown;(Canto I. 145-147)
The illustration of Belinda’s preparing for the battle can be compared to Virgil’s depiction of the great Achilles going to the war. The fact that she is going to the battle and her weapon is her beauty products and cosmetics proves making fun of women’s lack of power. The only strength Belinda possesses is her beauty that can be easily taken by a masculine power.
Belinda’s moral character is also questioned in Canto I, “puffs, powder, patches, bibles, billet-doux”; it implies that she confuses the trivial things such as powder puffs with religion and the bible. The disordered state of her dressing table shows her lack of intelligence and her confused values. As Singh states “The line puffs, powders, patches, bible a d billet-doux’ is usually interpreted to mean that the confusion of objects on her dressing table is an embodiment of the confusion of that exists in her own values” (Singh 479). This notion proves that women are so neglected and underestimated that time that they are not even eligible enough to worship God or to be on high religious levels as men.
There is another female character that is in direct contrast with the protagonist. The fact that Pope uses a woman “Clarissa” as a patriarchal weapon is devious. Her name “Clarissa”, meaning clarity, gives more validity to her words, so that it would be difficult not to care about her warnings of vanity. Here a woman is chosen to deceive another woman of her own sex which shows the dominance of men over women. Clarissa is so brainwashed by patriarchal power that she is even able to betray and deceive another woman. Belinda’s loss or defeat as a woman is not important at all for her because she is just looking for the appreciation of the patriarch and she is totally manipulated by the dominant masculine power over herself unlike Belinda who is a threat for the patriarch.
In an article that discusses the importance of Clarissa’s presence, Pope uses Clarissa as the antagonist to Thalestris. Contradicting the radical ambition to power possessed by Thalestris, Clarissa respects and follows the expected traditional role of a woman in that she is graceful and abides by the laws and rules that have been chiefly set before her (Crider 81). However, she also moderately recommends to the reader that beyond their expected role, women must acknowledge and take control of their knowledge and skills before they attempt to gain the power:
Say, why are Beauties prais’d and honour’d most,
The wise Man’s Passion, and the vain Man’s Toast?
Why deck’d with all that Land and Sea afford,
Why Angels call’d, and Angel-like ador’d?
Why round our Coaches crowd the white-glov’d Beaus,
Why bows the Side-box from its inmost Rows?
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! (Canto V. 9-18)
The card game can also be defined as gender ideology; since Belinda needs the King of Hearts, an icon of male sexuality and patriarchy, to win the game while Baron requires the Queen of Spades. This relation between Baron and the Queen of Spades is analogous to using Clarissa help Baron attack Belinda. The Queen of Spades helps Baron just like Clarissa who helped the patriarchy and offered the scissors to Baron to commit the Rape (Singh 478).
As mentioned above, the traces of women’s power and their struggle to be more powerful can be seen obviously. However, this superlative power that women are in search of, in turn, seems as trivial and unimportant as what the main subject of the poem is to the reader. It is accepted by the male dominant power of the time that women are gaining some more power but they also find it so ridiculous and improbable to occur that make it easily a device to tease. Here the power of a woman is reduced to her hair and beauty that can be taken away by cutting the hair. No matter how trivial it may seem in a satirical sense, almost three hundred years later, it seems as though women are still struggling for equal power.
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