Alexander Pope’s Evident Misogyny in The Rape of the Lock
During the height of satirical workmanship, Alexander Pope writes in response to an actual situation that occurred to the detriment of Mrs. Arabella Fermor. (Longman, 2471) In this situation, a lock of Arabella’s hair is stolen from her at the hands of one of her admirers. In Alexander Pope’s mock-epic, The Rape of the Lock, we see that he seeks to mock, not only this specific incident of Arabella’s, but largely the concept of women’s vanity in its entirety. Because he is so skilled at the craft of satire, Pope has the innate ability to call out a seriously ill conceived social construct and inspire his readers to call it out amongst their own lives; instead, he decides to attack the frivolity of women, specifically, how long women take to get ready to appear in public. Granted, vanity, whether by women or men, deserves some mockery, however Pope’s The Rape of the Lock serves as clear evidence to his misogyny by way of insulting Arabella herself and the characters of Belinda and Clarrissa; through his misogynic view, his work also manages to poke fun at the oppositional relationship between the sexes, naturally to the detriment of femininity.
Firstly, Alexander Pope’s misogyny is shown in his treatment toward Arabella in his letter toward her at the beginning of The Rape of the Lock. In attempting to explain to her, he insults her intelligence by saying “I know how disagreeable it is to make use of hard words before a lady; but ‘tis so much the concern of a poet to have his works understood, particularly by your sex, that you must give me leave to explain two of three difficult terms.” (Longman, 2471) Not only are the patriarchal stereotypes of women at play, but Pope makes the condescending claim that she, as a woman, would not understand his meaning unless he explains his intentions. He explains his intentions, but not accurately and thereby further insulting her intelligence by saying near the end of his letter that this poem is completely fictitious and the only likeness Arabella has to Belinda is their beauty and the tragic and revered loss of a lock of their hair. (Longman, 2471) I am hopeful that Mrs. Arabella had the good sense to understand the seething condescension within Pope’s words.
Furthermore, Pope condescends women in general through the characters of Belinda and Clarissa. He does so by condemning Belinda’s careful guard of her maidenhood and beauty with a sarcasm that nearly oozes through the page. At the beginning of this work, the narrator speaks to Belinda in her sleep. He reminds her that angels visit virgins and that she is important only because she is innocent and fragile. He also says to her that maids and children are told secrets that no one else knows. (Longman, 2473) In this way, Pope mocks the lie of vanity and feminine virtue through his narrator. The Rape of the Lock also seeks to satirize the efforts of women to fight the real problem of female vanity. During Clarissa’s speech, she declares that beauty should not be the highest aim sought after by women. Instead, Clarissa says that “good sense” ought to “preserve what beauty gains” (Longman, 2488) While Pope does a service to the reader by including her as the messenger of the moral of the story, she is ignored by all of her peers. (Longman, 2488) In this way, Pope shows that even on the rare occasion that a woman speaks sense, she is utterly ineffective to the society as a whole. But I would argue that it is his very misogynistic mindset that allows the words of “Clarissa’s” of his time to fall on deaf ears. This could play on the notion that Marilyn Francus mentioned in her article The Monstrous Mother: Reproductive Anxiety in Swift and Pope. Her notion is that women are a threat to men of this era due to their incredible beauty and reproductive abilities.(Francus, 830) Francus argues that both Pope and fellow writer, Jonathan Swift, are writing out of the fear of the power women inherently have. It is evident through his mockery of Clarissa as a powerful woman that Pope wants to diminish the notion of female power and good sense because of what Francus calls “reproductive feminization of literature”. (Francus, 830)
Finally, The Rape of the Lock exhibits misogyny through the mockery of the male-female relationship. Throughout the story, Belinda is an object of desire or conquest and the Baron is the pursuer. This is obviously reflective of male-female relationships at the time. However, Pope seeks to satirize this notion by calling the loss of a lock of hair “rape”. The offense of the whole story should be on both the Baron for his aggression and Belinda for her vanity, but instead lies, to the detriment of femininity, on Belinda. Pope places all the blame upon her. However, this complicates the concept of the male-female relationship. The circular reasoning of Pope’s critique of the vanity of women is as follows; beautiful women attract men, women put efforts into their looks, women become over-indulgent in their appearance, men mock women. This seems counter-productive. Marilyn Francus thought similarly, she said in regards to the view of women at the time, “The negative inscription of the female reflects both the tendency to revise in favor of the male and the oppositional relationship between the sexes; what constitutes strength in the female weakens the male.” (Francus, 830) Now, Francus’ article is focused on the literature aspect of revision, but this concept applies to beauty as well. Belinda attempts to be beautiful to attract men, as it is her chief end, so naturally, when someone diminishes that beauty, she gets upset. (Longman, 2489) Pope somehow has the audacity to exclusively mock Belinda and leave the Baron’s over-eagerness alone.
Therefore, it is evident that Alexander Pope’s mock-epic, The Rape of the Lock, mocks the concept of women’s vanity in its entirety. Obviously vanity, deserves some mockery, however Pope’s The Rape of the Lock clearly shows his misogyny via insulting Mrs. Arabella and the characters of Belinda and Clarrissa; through his misogynic view, Pope also manages to poke fun at the oppositional relationship between the sexes, naturally to the detriment of femininity.
Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature, volume 1C, fourth ed. New York: Longman 1999. 2470-2490. Print.
Francus, Marilyn. “The Monstrous Mother: Reproductive Anxiety In Swift And Pope.” Elh 61.4 (1994): 829-851. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 Sept. 2014.
Alli, 2014. http://popetherapeofthelock.blogspot.com/. Web. 29 September 2014.