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The Rape Of The Lock | Feminist Analysis

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1561 words Published: 17th May 2017

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In Canto III of Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” Pope describes Belinda’s overseeing of a battle of not-so-epic proportions: “Belinda now, whom thirst of fame invites, / Burns to encounter two advent’rous Knights, / At Ombre singly to decide their doom; / And swells her breast with conquests yet to come” (III. 25-8). Pope has given Belinda the authority to command the troop, to dictate the actions of a battle between subjects of a deck of playing cards. If we read this passage as an instance of womanly power and control, we cannot overlook the actual lack of importance of what is occurring. While Pope does not assume that all women are foolish and incapable of performing tasks, his overall view of women presents itself in “The Rape of the Lock” as negative. Pope’s understanding of the role of women was greatly influenced by societal perceptions that women were inferior tools of men. While it is clear that “The Rape of the Lock” is meant to be a mock-epic, it is not completely clear if Pope intended to reflect a submissive view of women based on society’s views. Regardless, Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock” explores the power of women by using Belinda as mock hero who can do nothing by herself; she constantly depends on others to perform tasks. By portraying Belinda as a powerful woman as the leader in a mock battle, Pope effectively exaggerates any sense of true power that Belinda possesses. Ultimately, Pope, the man/poet, exerts his final act of power over Belinda, the woman, by immortalizing not Belinda but his very own work.

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While the eighteenth century was not necessarily a period of prominent conflicting societal views of women and their roles, there was discussion over whether or not women were naturally submissive or just bred to behave as tools of men. In “Rights of Women,” feminist Mary Wollstonecraft felt that women had weak minds and bodies and blamed this condition on a false sense of education. She believed it was through culture, not biology, that women became submissive tools and that women’s conduct and manners would improve if they were educated to reason. Jean Jacques Rousseau, on the other hand, believed that it was vital to educate women according to the needs of men. In his book Emile, Rousseau outlines ways to make sure women are confined to a private, domesticate world and how to create an orderly domestic and familial life (Caine 89). Rousseau believed women should be educated directly in respect to their relations with men. They would learn skills such as how to please men, how to be useful to men, how to win men’s love and esteem, and how to make life sweet and agreeable to men (104). Rousseau also believed that women should be passive and weak. Clearly, conflicting discussions on the roles and expectations of women existed, and Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” does little to clarify the matter.

While on one level sympathetic toward the lack of women’s opportunities in a patriarchal society, “Rape” also perpetuates portraying women as commodities. Pope is aware of the culturally limited parameters placed around women and is, in one sense, sympathetic. He is aware that “she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid” (V. 28). While men are not treated especially well in the poem, such as the “barren”-minded Baron or the idiotic Sir Plume, women in the text seem to remain the object of both ridicule and criticism.

Belinda’s heroic action has no depth. “When Belinda wins ombre, her entire persona agency has become transferred to and embodied in a playing card. Belinda has simply won a card game. She has not literally conquered a far-away land. Her power only goes as far as the cards, meaningless paper objects that are the true survivors of the old heroic virtues. Belinda’s true strength or valor is greatly diminished.

If Belinda’s commitment to religion is ornamental and attracts primarily sexual attention, then we should assume that the very idea of Belinda’s chastity and innocence is ornamental and superficial. Pope gives us the locks of hair as small but commanding engines of sexual power. Belinda takes the time to curl her hair so that it is appealing to men. Pope describes, “This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind, / Nourish’d two Locks, which graceful hung behind / In equal Curls… / With shining Ringlets the smooth Iv’ry Neck” (Black II. 19-24). Taking the time to fix her hair is not a crime, nor is it one that is punishable by rape. By putting so much emphasis on hair, however, Belinda has taken the emphasis off of her actual chastity and faith. “‘Rape’ comes from the Latin verb ‘to seize’ and does not etymologically imply sexual possession; but in terms of sexual politics, the Baron clearly conceives that if Belinda has turned her sexuality into an object, she can be possessed” (Baines 68). If Belinda’s Bible, cross necklace, and hair are mere objects, so too is her chastity.

By looking at Belinda’s chastity as an object, we also must consider Pope’s implication that we should look at Belinda herself as object. As mentioned, women were seen as tools of men. In canto 2, the ‘beauteous Mold’ is transformed into a ‘painted Vessel’- it is left up to us either to look at Belinda as the gorgeous battleship decked out in Beauty’s arm, or to take the broader interpretation, the idea of woman as a contained, empty but beautiful. Belinda’s greatest power arises from the fact that she is not really aware of what she is leading the Baron to do or of what disaster may befall her. She is not guided by her own decisions. Instead, the sylphs tend to her, both physically and mentally. “This erring mortals Levity may call; / Oh blind to truth! the Sylphs contrive it all” (Black I.104-5). Belinda cannot contrive her own ideas or perform her own tasks because she is constantly aided by the sylphs. Without an opportunity to perform her own acts, Belinda is seemingly suppressed. Pope does not inherently discuss this suppression as a societal one, but the sylphs guard women, while men are on their own. In this society, men do not need to rely on imaginary creatures. By putting Belinda in the care of such creatures, Pope implicitly points out a woman’s inherent dependence on something or someone else.

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By the poem’s end, Belinda’s lock has been removed, against her will, by a man who assumes control over her. While we can sympathize with Belinda for her loss, we cannot overlook Pope’s true intentions in the poem. During the eighteenth century, middle- and lower-class women were becoming more literate in the households, but men were still the scholarly masters of Pope’s time. Pope is the ultimate authority of his own work. Unlike Belinda, who needs the sylphs to help her achieve her tasks, Pope succeeds because of his own pen. The real hero, the real remembered character, will be Pope, the author.

Pope ends the poem by implying that Belinda and her lock will live forever. Inexplicably, according to Belinda or the Baron’s way of reasoning, the lock is gone to become a comet or a shooting star. Pope writes, “A sudden Star, it shot thro’ liquid Air…” (Black V.127). Although the lock is gone, Belinda will have fame. People will remember her. Pope’s final words are: “When those fair suns shall set, as set they must… / This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to fame / And ‘midst the stars inscribe Belinda’s name” (V.147, 149-50). Even though Pope writes that Belinda’s name will always be remembered, we cannot forget his previous statement when describing Belinda’s locks: “But since, alas! frail Beauty must decay, / Curl’d or uncurl’d, since Locks will turn to grey; / Since painted, or not painted, all shall fade” (V.25-7). The idea of Belinda could very well be consecrated to fame, but the lock will be lost in space or the realm of another time. The symbol of chastity, innocence, and womanhood is surpassed by Pope’s actual textual work. By juxtaposing the mortal nature of Belinda’s lock with the immortal aspect of his poem, Pope asserts, for the last time, man’s power over a woman.

In “The Rape of the Lock,” Pope has given Belinda the authority to showcase instances of command and authority. This is interesting because during Pope’s literary era, women were considered mere tools of men and lacked any sense of power. Any time Pope presents Belinda as a powerful figure, that authority is quickly undermined and questioned by what she actually controls. Belinda is constantly assisted by wispy sylphs and can effectively do nothing on her own; such a presentation leads the reader to question if Pope agrees with the societal perception that women were inferior to men. Although Belinda will have fame, and people will remember her, it is ultimately Pope the man/poet who exerts the final act of male dominance by immortalizing not Belinda but his own poem.


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