Among the satirists of English literature, Alexander Pope occupies a great place. He belonged to the school of a juvenile. Pope had less of the mellow wisdom of Horace’s maturity and more of the filthy temper of his youth. Pope is famous for his satires and is rightly considered the representative of his age. The Rape of the Lock bears witness to the satirical vein in his mind.
A satire is exposure to human weaknesses, follies, foibles, and absurdities. The Rape of the Lock is a satire on the life of the aristocratic ladies of the eighteenth century. We see here the elegance and the emptiness, the meanness, and the vanity, the jealousies, idleness, frivolities, vanities, shallowness, hypocrisy, false ideas of honor, excessive interest in toilet and self-embellishment, etc of the age which was given to the seeking of physical pleasure leaving behind the high ideals of life.
At the very outset of the poem, the poet laughs at little men engaging in tasks so bold and at gentle ladies who are capable of such ‘mighty rage’. The vanities of the ladies such as their love of gilded chariots, their ambition to get married to peers, and dukes or men of the higher social position are indicated in the opening canto. Even after death, the ladies retain their temperaments and transform into four kinds of supernatural creatures. Early in their youth, these ladies learned to roll their eyes and to blush in a coquettish manner. The weakness of these ladies for entertainment and for masked balls is too ridiculed. The poet makes fun of love letters which these ladies received from their fans and lovers.
The world of Belinda was a target of the poet’s attack. The satirical book is formed to delight at once and lash the age. It is an assault on a social pre-occupied with superficialities Belinda, the central character of the poem is described to the “cosmetic powers”. The Bible was among her cosmetics and this demonstrates how the people of the age were insincere in their pursuit of religion. Belinda is depicted in Canto I, as a warrior getting ready for the battle, the battle to entrap men by her graces and charms.
Ariel, the leader of the sylphs engaged to protect the chastity of the beautiful Belinda, is not sure of Belinda’s purity of thought. There was a hidden desire to come in touch with amorous gentlemen. He says,
“Whether the nymph shall break Diana’s law,
Or some frail China jar receive a flew,
Or whether Heav’n was doom’d that shock”
These lines show the moral bankruptcy of the ladies of that time, as far as this fashionable world was concerned, the loss of virtue was nothing important but the little things like the snipping of a curl might be disastrous.
During the time of Pope, the ladies kept domestic pets such as dogs and parrots. Belinda had her shock and Poll. She set many stores by these pets. Their domestic pets were as important as their husbands. The poet has admirably satirized them in the poem.
“Not louder shrieks to pitying heaven are cast
When husbands or when lap-dogs breathe their last”
The eighteenth-century society lacked moral values. The poet has lashed at the lack of morality in both men and women. The ladies were very serious to maintain a good reputation. The sake of maintaining a good reputation, they could sacrifice everything, even chastity virtue might be last, but not a good name.
“Honour forbid! at whose unrivalled shrine
Ease, pleasure, virtue, all our sex resign.”
Belinda expresses the same attitude when she declares that she would not have felt so offended if the Baron had spared that particular lock and stolen any other hair from her head.
“Oh! hadst thou, cruel been content to seize,
Hairs less in sight, or any hairs but these!”
These lines bring out how Belinda is aware of her physical beauty but not of her chastity. Belinda is the representative of the aristocratic society and through her character, we get a clear picture of the eighteenth-century society.
Pope does not spare the men of his society. He has brought them out to pay their dues. These are beautiful passages in which men were castigated. In one such passage, Pope describes how the Barons worship the ladies. The Baron is described as building an altar of twelve vast French romances with three garters, half a pair of gloves, and all the trophies of his former loves. He sets fire to it with his sighs and with tender love letters.
The conversation that the ladies had at the court did not spare his eyes. Such a conversation was always empty of substance. The talk generally centered round dance parties, court visits, and the scandalous behaviors of some members of the court. The parses in the conversation were felt filled by snuff-talking, fan swinging, singing, laughing, ogling, and all that. Even the judges and jurymen are ridiculed for hurrying to get back home to satisfy their hunger. The poet says:
“The hungry judged soon the sentences sign,
And wretches hang that jury-men may dine.”
Card-parties were common; Ombre was the favorite game. Belinda and two knights played this game in which she longed to show her powers. Other aspects of contemporary life were also dealt with in a ridiculous manner. ‘The poem in effect’ says Sin Leslie Stephen, is a satire upon feminine frivolity. It continues the strain of mocking against hoops and patches and their wearers which supplied Addison and his colleagues with the materials of so many spectators. Actually, Pope looked at all the walks of the then life for his consideration and mocked at them whenever he found an inconsistency in the society. As a result, The Rape of the Lock has become a faithful mirror of the eighteenth century.