A Clairon Against Triviality:Alexander Pope’s "The Rape of the Lock"
The critique of a particular society’s culture and its universal convictions are integral to a comprehensive evaluation of its customs. Writers use the literary genre of satire to enunciate any given issue to elicit some response, which is generally didactic in nature. Alexander Pope critiques his particular culture through the means of a variation of satire called the “Mock” Epic in his five canto poem The Rape of the Lock. Beyond the incredibly entertaining elements of this fascinating poetry, there are a multitude of justifications for the notion that the accusations of severe vanity put forth by Pope prove to be reign true modernly.
Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is divided into five separate cantos that collectively chronicle the life and fate of the beautiful Belinda. The poem is constructed in the “Mock” epic form that utilizes a specific technique to convey its message. The original heroic epic has the typical elements that characterize legends. In general, the subject matter of the heroic epic centers around a hero that is charged with some task subject to interaction with divine beings. Such a construction of worldly events coupled with the influence of supernatural beings is seen in classical literature like the Iliad and Beowulf. The hero’s of both pieces are embodiments of romanticized attributes and characterizations like strength and humility; this gives its readers a sense of how to develop their personalities and more importantly, their convictions. In retrospect, the “Mock” epic that Pope utilizes in The Rape of the Lock inverts the associated qualities of the heroic epic, being that the issues of the plot are minuscule and follow the lives of ordinary people, in contrast to that of legendary heroes. This is an especially useful technique that Pope uses to emphasize the triviality of the character’s daily dilemmas.
Vanity is the primary topic of Pope’s critique of society and peoples concerns in his The Rape of the Lock. The pervasive influence of vanity on people is so extensive that it becomes the chief concern of people’s lives, so much to the point that it is equivalent to a religion. This delineation is made clear in a segment of canto one where Pope describes Belinda’s preparation chamber. She has all of the necessary items to create the figure that people in her social circles admire, being the most beautiful of all, befitting her name. Pope writes, “Here [a vanity] files of pins extend their shining rows, Puffs, powders, patches, Bibles, billet-doux” (Pope, line 137). Pope provides the reader with seamless cannon on the appropriate items for Belinda to possess for acceptance in her social class. It is disturbing that the Bible would be mentioned in the same rank as cosmetic products, thus elevating them to biblical stature. It speaks to the need for a woman to keep appearances perfect. She has to have the perfect skin, and simply for appearances, keep the faith. It reduces religion to an outward expression of vanity.
The reference to the Bible in the same catalog of cosmetics deserves a deeper analysis to uncover why Pope’s The Rape of the Lock should be seriously considered as a viable critique of society. To suggest that cosmetics are in the same echelon of the bible is to suggest the society has lost touch with what the basic ideas that the cannon conveys in its teachings. The biblical scriptures to anything but promote vanity. In fact, most religious texts warn of the danger of vanity. Pope makes it clear as day for his reader that society has assumed a corrupt state that is in dire need of change. This assumption can be made because of Pope’s use of the “Mock” epic to belittle religion, or more clearly, display the belittling of religion by his vain characters. This gross abuse of religion is reinforced by Belinda’s wish that she stayed home and prayed instead of going to a social gathering, “Oh, had I stayed, and said my prayers at home” (Pope, line 160)! This provides a clear understanding that there are consequences to being religious only nominally.
The reason Pope’s The Rape of the Lock should be taken as a serious critique of society is because it still has, and possibly, always will have real-time application. The issues of vanity are rampant in modern American society, as in most others of the industrialized world. Everything that people aspire to be today, because of mass marketing through modern mediums like television and social media, is a direct result of and encourages vanity. The issues with vanity beyond the implications of morality are the severe problems it produces.
Vanity can cause people to do things that are not in their best interest personally. For instance, a young girl who suffers from a “Belinda complex” may be likely to subject herself to unhealthy augmentations of her appearance to fit in her particular social environment. More specifically, if she were expected to weight less that she does, she may become vulnerable to psychological turmoil that can produce diseases like anorexia or bulimia. Vanity can also promote discrimination. If a particular group of people believe that they are superior to any other group it can have dire consequences as seen repeatedly throughout history. It happened in Nazi Germany, in the United States with the Jim Crow laws, in Rwanda, and the list could absolutely go on.
Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a piece that will continue to reign true to humanity, that being any culture and any time, so long as vanity is a part of the human condition. The Rape of the Lock capitalizes on human nature to illuminate a flaw that is so egregious that it is crucial that attention is given to the negative side, because the ramifications can be catastrophic.
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