by Sarika Rao
Alexander Pope wrote his five-canto poem The Rape of the Lock at the onset of the Enlightenment, a period of time when both empires and minds expanded. Material goods arrived from the New World and the Orient, a term used to describe anywhere east of the Mediterranean. With this growth, more and more people had access to wealth and material goods, and a new consumer culture blossomed. This newfound ‘consumer culture’ inspires Pope. He compares and satirizes Belinda’s femininity as a weapon only when associated with her consumption and consumables, making it seem a performance rather than an actual threat. Pope satirizes the fact that women are not threatening whatever weapon they use; they are weak with or without their consumables. Everything is an imitation and nothing is wholly natural.
Pope compares Belinda’s toilette, a decidedly feminine ritual, to the process of going to war and by doing so trivializes its importance. When Belinda gets ready for her day, she is personified as “awful Beauty put[ting] on all its arms” and she “calls forth all the wonders of her face” like a general summoning troops to battle (I.139, 142). The word “wonders” describes her physical beauty but it also refers back to the many consumables at her toilette. Her vanity contains an enigmatic arrangement of “silver vase[s]” where “the various offerings of the world appear” (I.122, 130). Offerings await Belinda like “unnumbered treasures” she can admire and adorn, including “India’s glowing gems” along with “all the perfumes of Arabia” (129, 133-134). Belinda cannot enter the battlefield of love without these weapons, and so relies on them to help her appear more beautiful. Although female beauty is a metaphorical weapon, Pope’s comparison of female and male ritual satirizes the former.
In the Cave of Spleen, some of Belinda’s natural feminine “weapons” are bottled and bagged imagery that refers backs to her toilette or a hero descending to the Underworld (Hernandez 571). Umbriel the Gnome wants Spleen to “touch Belinda with chagrin” after the Baron has cut the lock, so she will become destitute with melancholy (IV.77). Spleen grants his wish, collecting in a “wondrous bag” the “force of female lungs,/ Sighs, sobs, and passions, and the war of tongues” (81, 83-84). Additionally she fills a vial “with fainting fears,/ Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears” (85-86). All of these items are female weapons of choice, but they are not unadulterated. Belinda relies on consumables even within her own body. She cannot escape her need for artificial powers, rendering her useless on her own.
During the final confrontation, Belinda uses two weapons to battle the Baron, both of which are consumables, signifying her inability as a woman to escape her reliance on them. Initially, she throws snuff at him, causing him to sneeze (V.80-85). Even when using a bit of creativity Belinda must rely on an object symbolizing the material world. Then she draws a “deadly bodkin” wielding it like a sword, but it is a meek imitation of the masculine art of fencing (88). When threatening the Baron with the hairpin, Belinda seems even more feminine and vulnerable. The scene is very comical because Pope deliberately gives a small, phallic object for Belinda to use as a weapon; but her reliance on a female consumable only proves how inadequate it is, and how consumed she is with her own hair.
Although her hair seems to contrast with the material goods, Pope describes Belinda’s precious lock as both a consumable for the Baron and as a weapon with the ability to destroy “mankind” (II.19). As her most feminine feature, the lock seems innocent when compared to the “puffs, powders, patches” that make up the “rites of Pride” (I.138, 128). However, she knowingly drapes two locks around her “smooth ivory neck” beckoning men and women alike to admire the “shining ringlets” (II.22). Everything Belinda uses to her advantage, her cosmetics, tears, and locks, she puts on for show; nothing is natural. She wields them as weapons with equal intensity, because she knows the effect they have on the male population. They are all associated with consumption, and therefore Belinda herself “transforms…into a [desired] consumable” (Hernandez 580). Pope undermines the female attempt to enter a masculine world of power.
The remaining weapons in Belinda’s arsenal are her eyes. This seems natural enough, but Belinda still relies on cosmetic powers to win back her lock. When she first prepares herself at the toilette, she puts on her face with the assurance that she can use her feminine appeal like a weapon, a force to reckon with. Armed with cosmetic powers, “keener lightnings quicken in her eyes” primed for flirtatious endeavors (I.144). She achieves this heightened appeal with the help of Belladonna drops (Tillotson 157). When she finally leaves her house, she continues using her eyes as weapons of assessment and power, letting them “strike…and shine on all alike” like the sun (II.13-14). Belinda knows her eyes exude a certain masculine authority; she does not falter in the face of conflict when battling men at ombre. However, this authority feels somewhat artificial, another performance like her tears, because her eyes eventually betray her most feminine emotions.
When the Baron cuts her lock, her eyes reveal genuine female vulnerability. Pope still mentions lightning, but instead of being a masculine weapon her eyes convey messages of shock and rage, her true emotions. After the Baron cuts her hair, the lightning flashes from her eyes “and screams of horror rend the affrighted skies” Belinda finally loses something precious (III.155-156). Something she wielded with pomp and strength quite literally becomes her Achilles heel. No longer an armored heroine, the Baron’s rape reduces Belinda to a sobbing pile “half drowned in tears”, imagery evocative of Spleen’s jars and vials (IV.144). Without her weapons of artifice, she loses her ability to fight, and instead becomes the damsel in distress. Her true feminine vulnerability reveals itself and only Umbriel’s intercession can inspire her strength of rage to recover the lost lock.
At the epic final confrontation, she meets the Baron “with more than usual lightning in her eyes” a newfound killing rage overtaking her feminine passivity (V.75-78). The Baron does not quietly give up possession of her hair, instead remaining defiant to the end, leaving Belinda with two choices: to leave empty-handed or continue fighting. She continues the fight, embracing her anger with cries of “Restore the Lock!” (103). Unfortunately, for all her effort, Belinda’s hair remains elusive to the very end, transforming into a “sudden Star” and “mounted to the Lunar Sphere” (V.127, 113).
Pope effectively satirizes the 18th century desire to possess objects of luxury and beauty, and the poem acts as a particular critique of women’s obsession and reliance on them. Belinda never breaks free from her dependence on material goods and consumables during her “vain” attempt to retrieve the stolen tresses (V.110). In the end, women remain weak and helpless creatures; their weapons of femininity never natural and always ineffective.
Tillotson, Geoffrey, ed. The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. Tillotson. New York: Routledge, 1962. Print.
Hernandez, Alex Eric. “Commodity and Religion in Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 48.3 (2008): 569-584. ProQuest. Web. 22 April 2009.
Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems. Ed. Geoffrey Tillotson. New York: Routledge, 1962. 144-212. Print.