The Rape of the Lock has rightly been described as a representation of the petty pleasure-seeking life of a fashionable beauty. The poem is a satire on beautiful aristocratic women of the eighteenth century whose lives centred round petty interests and the quest of shallow pleasures. The principal target of attack is Belinda, a fashionable beautiful lady of the upper classes of the eighteenth-century English society. There can be no doubt about the beauty of this lady. Early in the poem, she is compared to the sun. The sun-comparison appears again at the beginning of Canto II.She wears a sparkling cross which even Jews and infidels would like to kiss. If she has any faults," they would be hidden by her graceful ease and her sweetness of temper. Her care-free disposition is expressed thus: "Belinda smiled, and all the world was gay." She nourishes two locks of hair which greatly enhance the already irresistible charm of this lady. Indeed, the poet invests her almost with the character of a divinity. At one point the praise of her attractions may be a mere mask for Pope's satiric attack on her personality as a coquette; at another it is praise which no irony can fully undermine. Nor can there be any doubt that she belongs to the fashionable world.
But, although Belinda is a woman of superb beauty and charm, the poet fully reveals to us her petty, pleasure-seeking nature. She suffers from all the vanities, follies, and lack of moral scruple of the aristocratic ladies of the time. Although she deserves our homage and adoration by virtue of her physical charms, she is treated as an object of mockery, ridicule, and even condemnation because of her s^.llnwness, superficiality, and the lack of any intellectual interests or moral elevation in her life. 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 wakened subsequently by the licking tongue of her pet dog, Shock. When she does ultimately get up from bed, she goes ithrough a love-letter which is waiting for her and which makes her forget the dream that she has seen. Next, she gets ready for her toilet. Thus we see that her day begins at , and -that too when she is awakened by her lap-dog's Sicking her face. And her first thoughts on waking up are about the love-letter which has been addressed to her and about self-decoration. Keeping pets, encouraging and receiving love-letters, and self-embellishment were some of the principal interests of Belinda and the whole class of the society to which she belonged.
Wearing a white robe, the beautiful Belinda now addresses a prayer to the '.'cosmetic powers". Then she looks at her heavenly reflection in the mirror, and naturally feels pleased by her beauty. By her side stands Betty to assist her in the sacred ceremony of toilet. Numerous caskets are opened and they reveal their precious contents brought from different countries of the world. From each casket, Betty skilfully selects some bright and precious article to decorate Belinda. From one casket she takes out the brilliant pearls and diamonds of India, while from another she chooses the perfumes of Arabia. Speckled combs made of tortoise-shell and milk-white combs of ivory lie on the dressing table, along with shining pins, puffs, powders, patches, bibles, and billet-doux. The beauty of Belinda is greatly enhanced by cosmetics and by ornaments. Her smiles become more winning. The lightnings in her eyes become keener. This description fully exposes Belinda's vanity and her love of fashion. But, of course, these were the characteristics of all aristocratic ladies of the eighteenth century. Nor have aristocratic women shed these characteristics in our times.
Belinda's emergence from her house is compared to the rising of the sun. The poet then describes her journey over the river Thames, in the company of beautiful ladies and well-dressed young gentlemen. The eyes of everyone are fixed on her because of her superior charm. She gives her smiles to everybody but shows no special favour to anyone. Men who look at her are captured by her locks of hair with their bright ringlets which embellish her ivory-white neck. The adventurous Baron, Lord Petre, is prepared to use force or fraud to rob her of these locks. The whole of this description shows Belinda as the leading light of the fashionable world and as a woman whose chief desire is to win admiration. The manner in which Ariel describes the nature of the calamity which might befall Belinda also shows her superficial nature and her lack of moral scruple. It is not known, says Ariel, whether she will allow her chastity to be violated, or some delicate China-jar will crack; whether she will stain her honour, or her new brocade; whether she will forget her prayers, or miss a masked ball; whether she will lose her heart or her necklace; or whether Heaven has decreed that Shock must fall.
The coach carrying Belinda and her party takes them to Hampton Court. To this palace the gallant young men and the beautiful young ladies come to enjoy the pleasures of the royal court. Their conversation covers a wide range of trivialities, much of it attacking the moral character of various persons: "At every word a reputation dies." They talk about who arranged the dance party or who paid the last visit to the Queen. One speaks about the beauty of a Japanese screen, and another interprets motions, locks and eyes. The brief intervals in the conversation are filled up with a gentleman's taking snuff, or a lady's fluttering her fan, or amorous staring. We form a rather low opinion about this high society of which Belinda is an integral part. We next become acquainted with Belinda's thirst for fame which leads her to engage herself in an encounter with two adventurous Knights at the game of ombre. Her breast expands with the pleasure of an anticipated victory in this contest. Having won, she feels jubilant and her exultant shouting fills the sky. She undoubtedly shows a splendid skill in playing the game of ombre, but the manner in which she gloats over her victory shows not only her vanity but superficiality of mind. After the game of ombre, Belinda participates in the ceremony of coffee-drinking. Toilet, gossip, ombre, and coffee drinking— these occupy much of Belinda's time in the day. She does not seem to have any intellectual interests whatever.
For all her professed purity, Belinda is found to be secretly in love with the Baron. When Ariel finds "an earthly lover lurking at her heart", he feels amazed and retires from the scene with a sigh. Ariel realises that he can no longer protect her, because Spirits like him can protect only maidens who have pure minds and who have no room in their hearts for earthly lovers. The Baron then cuts off a lock of Belinda's hair. And now we see another side of Belinda's personality. She grows furious. Lightning seems to flash from her eyes, and her screams of horror rend the skies. When a woman loses her husband or her lap-dog, she does not utter such loud cries as Belinda utters on this occasion. Belinda's rage and despair are forcefully described by the poet. While lamenting the loss of her lock, she deplores the fact that she was so attracted by the pleasures of the 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 and which she ignored. Thrice from her trembling hand the patch-box fell; the China-vessels shook without wind; Poll sat mute, and Shock was most unkind. Not only is the cause of Belinda's lament trivial, 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, the superficiality of her mind, and her vanity could not have been more effectively or skilfully exposed than in this part of the poem.
The primary quality of Belinda is spiritual shallowness, an incapacity for moral awareness. She has transformed all spiritual exercises and emblems into a coquette's self-display and self-adoration. Even the Cross, which is a religious symbol, is used as an ornament. And she does all this with a frivolous heedlessness. Thus we are made to see her in many different lights—as coquette, injured innocent, sweet charmer, society belle, rival of the sun, and murderer of millions. This Cleopatra-like variety indicates simultaneously her charm and a vacuous lack of character. The part or rather parts, which Belinda plays in the poem, are at once contemptible, ridiculous, endearing, precarious, poignant, and petty. It is difficult even to believe that, in spite of all her attractions, she is a true lady. If she were, she would not act as she does over the clipping of her lock or exercise her spleen to such a vigorous degree. She lacks the knowledge of the common fate of coquettes like herself. Even so, her reaction to the rape is, from the point of view of her society, perfectly natural. The Baron's act is a rude breach of the rules of courtship. Yet the main point is the fact that, after the rape and her angry reaction to it. she is faced now with the necessity of making a much more serious and deliberate decision. Her immediate response, whatever its justification, had been marked by prudery, hypocrisy, and affectation. To specify the alternatives before her, Pope offers to her the two points of view represented in the speeches of Thalestris and Clarissa.
• There is much more in the poem than a satire on the love of pleasure and fashion of a lady. The young gallants of the time have not been ignored. One of the most amusing passages in the poem is the one in which the Baron is described as building an altar of twelve vast French romances with three garters, half a dozen pair of gloves, and all the trophies of his former loves, and setting fire to it-with his amorous sighs and with tender love letters. The Baron's worship of Love is comparable to Belinda's prayer to the cosmetic powers. The poet ridicules Sir Plume's pride in his amber snuff-box and his spotted cane, besides laughing at his "unthinking face" and his habit of excessive but ineffective swearing. The poet also pokes fun at Dapperwit and at Sir Fopling: "One died in metaphor and one in song."
Nor should we forget the mock-epic machinery employed by Pope. It is true that this machinery has been employed as a help in the exposure of the vanities and absurdities of Belinda and other ladies, but the machinery also serves a poetic purpose. The machinery, largely constitutes what has been called "filigree work". The appearance, nature, tasks and occupations of the sylphs are described in highly fanciful and pleasing language.
In spite of the accessory elements pointed out above, the fact remains that the poem is chiefly and largely the picture of the life of a petty-minded, pleasure seeking fashionable beauty.