Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Character of Belinda in "The Rape of the Lock"

There are several aspects of the personality of Belinda as portrayed by Pope in The Rape of the Lock. It will be wrong to regard her purely as a goddess, or as a pretty spoiled child, or as a flirt. She is a combination of all three, and yet much more than such a combination. We see her in many different lights. We see her as a coquette, an injured innocent, a sweet charmer, a society belle, a rival of the sun, and a murderer of millions. She has, indeed, a Cleopatra-like variety.

The primary quality of Belinda is spiritual shallowness, an incapacity for moral awareness. Ariel acquaints us with her flirtatious character when, exhorting his fellow-spirits to remain vigilant, he says that it is not known whether the beautiful Belinda will allow her chastity to be violated, or some delicate China-jar will break; whether she will stain her honour or her new brocade; whether she will lose her heart, or necklace, at a ball. The first possibility in each of these pairs of calamities shows that Belinda is not likely to exercise sufficient caution in protecting her maidenly purity. These lines show how easily a lady like Belinda might lose her chastity in a world of philanderers and how irreparably. Besides, to Belinda a masked ball is as important as a religious prayer, and she takes her prayer with the light-heartedness with which goes to a masked ball. She has transformed all spiritual exercises and emblems into a coquette's self-display and self-adoration. All of it is done with a frivolous heedlessness. For instance, she wears a sparkling cross which is a religious symbol but which is put by her to the uses of ornamentation. For all her professed purity, Belinda is found to be secretly in love with the Baron. And herein consists what may be called her "fall". When the sylphs warn her of the approaching scissors and the danger to her hair, she seems to be indifferent to the warning. A thousand spirits of the air rush to her to guard her lock. A thousand wings, by turns, blow back her hair. Thrice the sylphs twitch the diamond in her ear; thrice she looks back; and thrice the foe draws near. Her behaviour leads Ariel to make the surprising discovery that, in spite of all her pretence, she is amorously inclined toward a gallant:
Sudden he viewed, in spite of all her art,
An earthly lover lurking at her heart.
Earlier the poet has pointed out that Belinda's petticoat is not impenetrable: "Oft have we .known that seven-fold fence to fail". When the Baron has clipped her lock, Belinda's reaction is described in detail:
Then flashed the living lightning from her eyes, And screams of horror rend the affrighted skies.
We now see Belinda as a true Fury. Her rage, resentment, and despair are forcefully described by the poet. While lamenting the loss of her lock, she deplores the fact that she was attracted by the pleasures of court-life. It would have been better, she says, if she had stayed and said her prayers at home instead of roaming with youthful lords. She recalls the omens which she witnessed in the morning but which she ignored. Thrice from her trembling hand the patch-box fell; the China vessels shook without a wind; Poll sat mute, and Shock was most unkind ! All this is, of course, an example of comic pathos because not only is the cause of Belinda's lament a trivial one, but the very lament is hypocritical. She would not have felt so hurt if, instead of the curl which lent such glory to her head, some other hair had been stolen by the Baron. Belinda's shallowness and the superficiality of her mind could not have been more effectively or skilfully exposed than in this lament.
The faults of Belinda are many. As has been indicated above, she is flirtatiously inclined. But she also behaves like a spoilt child. At the outset we learn that she is a lazy woman who continues to sleep till the hour of twelve in the day and who, on waking up, at that hour, falls asleep again, to be awakened ultimately by  the licking, tongue of her pet dog, When she does finally rise from bed, she goes through a love-letter which is waiting for her and which makes her forget the vision that she has seen. Soon she gets busy with her toilet. The poet makes fun of her for praying to the "cosmetic powers" and for having discrepant items jumbled together on her dressing-table—puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux. She regards her toilet as a religious ceremony to be scrupulously gone through. She begins her toilet with a prayer to the "cosmetic powers". Apart from her laziness and her excessive preoccupation with her toilet (including the pains that she takes to curl her hair), she has a thirst for fame which leads her to engage herself in an encounter with two adventurous knights at the game of ombre. Having won a victory at ombre, she feels jubilant and her exultant shouting fills the sky. She undoubtedly possesses a superb skill in playing the game of ombre, but the manner in which she gloats over her victory shows not only her vanity and superficiality but a childish temperament. The poet appropriately points out the rhallowness of human beings in becoming too quickly depressed and too quickly joyous. Belinda does not realise that this day of victory would soon be converted into a day of disgrace for her, though the disgrace would be as trivial as the victory.
Belinda's tantrums, when a lock of her hair has been clipped, also show her as a spoiled child. A trivial incident fills her with an uncontrollable rage. She utters "louder shrieks" than those uttered by women who have lost their husbands or their lap dogs. She is weighed down by worry and anxiety. She experiences greater resentment and anger over the "rape" of her hair than youthful kings who are captured alive in battle, scornful old maids who have lost their charms, passionate lovers, who have been deprived of the pleasures of love, and even aged ladies whose desire to be kissed has been frustrated. Later, when Umbriel pours over Belinda the contents of the bag which he has brought from the Cave of Spleen, Belinda begins to burn with an inhuman wrath. .When ,,Umbriel. riel breaks the .phial, Belinda feels. grief-stricken he sorrowful head sinks on her breast, and she begins to heave sighs. She now recalls with deep distress the kind of life she has lived.
Belinda's character as a goddess is unmistakable. She is referred to habitually in terms which suggest inviolate chastity, flawless beauty, and even divinity. She is the nymph, the maid, the fair, the virgin, the goddess, the rival of the sun's beams. The establishment of Belinda's divinity falls into three major classifications: the general deification of the sex to which she belongs; the special treatment accorded to her, such as the head-sylph's attendance on her, together with the superhuman value placed on her lock; and finally, the insistence throughout the poem that she is a kind of sun-goddess.
Sylphs who are careless in attending on Belinda are threatened with hellish punishments. When she is very angry, lightning flashes from her eyes, and by the use of cosmetics she can make these lightnings keener. Not only is her lock sacred, but as the symbol of her chastity it is called an "inestimable prize". When it is lost, she burns with more than mortal indignation, Furthermore, Belinda and the objects associated with her can work miracles. Jews and infidels would willingly kiss the Cross which she wears. She has the effect of sunshine on the world as a whole: "Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay."
Pope's attitude to Belinda is very mixed and complicated: mocking and yet tender, admiring and yet critical. The paradoxical nature of Pope's attitude is intimately related to the paradox of Belinda's situation. If Belinda is to find her role of woman, she must lose the role of a virgin, and the more graceful her acceptance of loss the greater the victory she achieves through it. Because Pope is dealing with this paradox, his attitude must be mixed and complicated.
It is necessary for Pope to stress Belinda's divinity. At the same time he does not let us forget Belinda's mortality. He qualifies her goddess-ship by emphasizing human qualities. The scene at Belinda's dressing-table, where she is both mortal priestess and the goddess worshipped in the mirror, is an example of this device. The very frailty and transience of blushes and chastity emphasize this goddess's humanity.
There is no doubt that Belinda undergoes a "fall", at least in the eyes of Ariel. Yet this fall is only a fall from the narcissistic self-love and arid-virginity which the sylphs, in one of their aspects, both represent and seek to preserve. And so in one sense it is merely a fall into a more natural human condition and best regarded, perhaps, as a kind of fortunate fall: Belinda simply falls in love, and thus a situation is created whereby she can escape from the meaningless virginity and honour represented by the sylphs.

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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you're forgetting the fact that as a woman in her society, being beautiful is her only source of power. At this time period, Pope recognizes that she is not allowed to compete with men in a power struggle using wit or skill, but it has to boil down to her looks. Through the language used and the idea that this is a mock epic, Pope is highlighting the flaws in their society - they are surrounded by the ideas of gods and goddesses and tales of epic heroes but when it comes to their society they really are quite backwards.

NeoEnglish System said...

You are right but this essay is certainly based on one opinion. There are always more opinions and viewpoints when we are discussing a piece of literature. I welcome those opinions. That's why I have created this blog.
Thanks

GOUTAM SUTRADHAR said...

THERE ARE VERY FEW QUESTION FROM 'SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. THESE ARE NOT ENOUGH, WE NEED MORE...

loott1 said...

It is a great honor in reading one of the most aritisitc yet satirical work of an english writer the character of belinda is both fascinating and charming but she represents the so called English Lady at the time when this was written it is very well said that all the glories are not testified

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Anonymous said...

Brilliant parody of epical elements. The character of Balinda is a good representation of women of the aristocratic class in seventeenth century, England.

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