The epigram of Martial prefixed to the poem implies that The Rape of the Lock was written to heal the rancor of a lady named Mrs. Arabella Fermor. Yet to praise a lady for her charms or to console her over the loss of a lock of hair in the simplest terms was not Pope’s sole object or business. A drab monody or a politic laudatory piece could not fit his ironic mentality. This poet whose soul capital was well and good sense were ever ready to laugh at the upper-class society particularly the woman of fashion with cards, parties toilets, lapdogs, and the other artificial vanities and this particular frivolous incident of cutting hair only provided Pope with fresh impulses to give vent to his mockery. Pope had ironically set Belinda and the whole of her type of fashionable 18th-century society in the pillory.
The full satirical effect of this poem is achieved at the expense of Belinda and the gay of the fashionable world. It exposes all values and idiosyncrasies especially trifling and artificial ones. The background of the poem is the confusion of values of the society, its criticism, and its ethical judgment. Belinda, the forefront is presented with a graceful and lively character. In the background, using epic proportions, Pope magnified the society stifles and its real triviality. So Pope’s approach to Belinda and women, in general, was twofold. It was laudatory to Belinda on a personal level, her type, and social manner and was condemnatory to Belinda at the general level plus her class and society with its manners and trivialities.
On a personal level, we find Belinda portrayed by Pope as a beautiful aristocratic lady. Early in the poem, she is compared to the sun (also at the beginning of Canto II). The brightness of her eyes surpasses the brightness of the sun. The poet invests her almost with the character of divinity. If she has any fault they would be hidden by her graceful care and her sweetness which is free from pride. If she suffers from any female errors, the beauty of her face would make us ignore them. She has a carefree disposition and frivolous manner. At one point the praise of her attraction may be a mere mark for Pope’s satiric attack on her personality as a coquette. Yet at another, it is praise which no irony can fully undermine. Pope’s mild humor and the real beauty of honor, Arabella Fermor in his mind would no doubt for this reason Pope entertained mercy and sympathy.
But except being a beauty, the faults of Belinda are many. The poet fully reveals to us her petty pleasure-seeking nature. This Belinda is not an individual but representative of her type and class. She suffers from all the vanities, laziness, follies, and lack of moral scruple of the aristocratic ladies of the time. In this level, her manner and characteristics are dignified to an inflated degree. She is treated as an object of mockery, ridicule, and even condemnation because of her shallowness, superficiality, and the lack of any intellectual interest or moral elevation in her life. The lazy woman sleeps till the hour of twelve in the day. This is because up to the deed of the night in the day she joins and enjoys heedlessly the fashionable parties, plays cards, games, and the like. Her dog licks her and she gets up. From all her prophesied purity Belinda is proud to be secretly in live with the Baron though a thousand spirits of the air rush to her to guard her.
That is why just waking her first thought is about the love letters which have been addressed to her and about self-decoration. Next, she gets ready for her toilet and her days begin at noon. She takes the help of “Cosmetic power” and her maidservant Betty assists her in the sacred ceremony of the toilet. She is beautifully dressed with ornaments like pins, puffs, powders, patches, and Bibles. This shows her superficial nature and lack of moral awareness. Her rendezvous is the Hampton Court where the fashionable girls and men of upper-class society gather. But Belinda is in the limelight attracts the attention and lives of the more. Toilet gossip, ombre card, coffee drinking occupy much of Belinda’s time in the day. She does not seem to have any intellectual interest. After the cutting of her lock, we find another side of her. She grows furious; reputation was to her more important than chastity.
Spiritual shallowness and incapacity for moral awareness are great in her. She has transformed all spiritual exercises and emblems into a coquette’s self-display and self-adoration. The cross is used as an ornament. She is thus as coquette injured innocent sweet charmer society belle rival of the sun of the murderer of millions. Not only are these the facts with Belinda but also with all the fashionable women of the day.
The gentlemen of the smart set are as frivolous as the ladies. Lord Petre and his fellows are the representatives of the fashionable society of the time. They are all idle empty-minded folk and seen to have nothing else to do but making love to or flirting with ladies. The battle between the ladies and gentlemen shows the emptiness and futility of their lives. They visit clubs and coffee houses and there they indulge in empty scandalous talks. In The Rape of the Lock, the ladies and gentlemen meet in the Hampton Court“To taste awhile the pleasure of a court”. In various talks, the instructive hours they passed that gave the ball or paid the visit last one speaks the glory of the British queen and one describes a charming Indian screen.
After indulging in this kind of ‘instructive talk’ for some time the lords and ladies play cards and the poet describes the game in detail because card games seemed to occupy an important place in the daily activities of fashionable ladies and gentlemen of the period. Sir Plume is another fashionable gentleman who excelling all others in his vanities and utter emptiness.
“Sir Plume, of amber snuff-box justly vain
And the nice conduct of a clouded cane”.
Pope’s satire on these fashionable women, men and vainglorious society is caster the form of the convincing plot in which various characters make themselves appear ridiculous by their thought, speech, and action. The invocation we get at the beginning of the poem presents the perversity and meanness of society. In this society flirtation and vanity have taken the place of true affection of love. Pope’s using the supernatural machinery in the poem secures the poem much of its satire effect. Since spirits (sylphs, gnomes, nymph, and salamander) were once enclosed in women’s beauteous mold, their motives and mentality to some extent represent different aspects of the goddess-like protected heroine or the women of different temperaments. The Sylphs indicate very charm which Belinda and her world pass.
However, love, to this society is not of importance. Belinda is seen more concerned with her lock lap dog brocade and jewelry than anything. For her, inner dignity and chastity are like fine porcelain, something brittle useless and easily broken. Belinda’s world has little positive values and this negative side is picturesquely caricatured through the activities of the goddess of the cave of spleen. Pope shows that human virtues are distorted and neglected.