What are the major themes in Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock"?themes in poem the rape of the lock

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Pope's "The Rape of the Lock," generally considered to be the finest mock-heroic poem in English literature, was written as a favor to Pope's friend, John Caryll, to help smooth over a dispute between two upper-class young people and their families.  The genesis of the dispute was the cutting of a lock of Arabella's hair by Robert, Lord Petre, and Pope's answer was this poem, two of whose major themes is the battle of the sexes and the confusion of important values.

Pope parodies the heroic poem better than anyone has done since by including such staples as  surrounding Arabella with mythological beings who help her dress and one that actually interposes herself between the scissors and hair and is cut in two, a heroic sacrifice.  In addition, there is single combat (between Arabella and Lord Petre) on the Ombre (card game) table; intervention by the gods; and what's known as apotheosis of the lock, that is, glorification by placing it in the heavens.  The battle of the sexes, of course, is supposed to be an elaborate and controlled game--the woman entices, the males closes in, and the woman backs away, and the cycle repeats itself.  Lord Petre, however, in cutting Arabella's hair, has encroached upon her person, a move that would be considered wrong under any circumstances because physicality is not supposed to be part of the courtship process.

A more important theme is the confusion of what is trivial with what really matters in the world.  For example, when Lord Petre cuts the hair, Arabella's response includes "living Lightning from her Eyes,/And Screams of Horror rend th' affrighted Skies."  Her reaction, completely consistent in a heroic poem, is in this context well over the top.  Pope makes a fairly devastating comment on this society in the next line where he writes, "Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav'n are cast,/When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breathe their last."  Pope's verse here is a fairly damning verdict on the shallowness of this society--when there is no difference between the grief experienced at the death of a husband or a lap-dog, we are looking at a society in which priorities have been flipped on their side.

Pope's use of the mock-heroic allows him to conflate the sublime (the heroic form) with the ridiculous (the rape of the lock) and gently remind the readers of what is actually important in life.


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