Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Rape of the Lock was written by Pope to chide gently the Fermor family when Lord Petre cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair on a certain fateful day and such dire results followed. Pope started something that resulted in a piece of literature that has remained to this day a leading example of the mock epic satire. John Caryll, a good friend to Pope, asked him to write a little poem about the affair in order to help heal the wounds of the two families. The poem became a trivial story of the stolen lock of hair as a vehicle for making some thoroughly mature and sophisticated comments on society and humankind. Pope draws on his own experience in the classics in combining epic literary conventions with his own wit and sense of values. The entire poem is written in five cantos, making use of the popular rhymed iambic pentameter verse, along with balance, antithesis, bathos, and paranomasia.
The story is relatively simple. In canto 1, the reader finds Belinda (representing Miss Fermor) asleep but awakened about noon by her lapdog Shock. Before she awakens, she dreams about Ariel, a Rosicrucian sylph, who whispers praises in her ear and warns her to beware of jealousy, pride, and especially men. When she does awaken, she finds a love letter on her bed and, after reading it, quickly forgets all the advice that Ariel has given her. She has been invited to sail up the Thames with friends to Hampton Court palace and have fun and games with her host. She devotes much time to her cosmetics and hair in preparation for the trip.
Lord Petre, a suitor, is seen admiring a lock of her hair and vowing that he would have it by any means. The modern reader must remember that, until the 1920’s, few women of character would cut their hair, an act symbolizing the loss of virtue, even chastity. The reader next sees the crew sailing up the Thames, with everyone but Ariel apparently pleased with the state of affairs. Worried, Ariel summons his helper sylphs and reminds them of their duty in helping to protect Belinda, one especially to guard her fan, one her watch, another her lock, and Ariel himself her dog. A host of sylphs are assigned to guard her petticoat, a literal device of armor in older times, protecting the female’s sexual chastity....
(The entire section is 927 words.)
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