The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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Critically evaluate the toilet scene of Belinda in The Rape of the Lock.

The toilet scene, at the end of the first canto of The Rape of the Lock, describes Belinda's dressing table as a kind of temple and the process of getting made-up as akin to a warrior putting on his armor in preparation for battle.

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Belinda's toilet scene occurs at the end of canto 1, running from lines 121 to 148 and starting with

And now, unveiled, the Toilet stands displayed,

Each Silver vase in mystic Order laid

and ending at:

And Betty's prais'd for Labours not her own.

The Rape of the Lock is a mock-epic, parodying the Iliad in order to make fun of a real feud that erupted in eighteenth-century England over Lord Petrie taking a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair. The poem not only mocks the quarrel as ridiculous, it mocks the eighteenth-century upper classes in general as weak and effete in comparison to the strength and heroism of the ancient Greeks.

In this passage, Belinda awakens and is made beautiful for her day. With attention to Belinda's "beauty" as putting on "all its Arms," the passage draws a direct parallel with the Iliad's warriors, such Achilles or Patroclus, arming themselves for battle. However, here, hair styling replaces armor and "pins" substitute for swords. In inflating such fluffery as "Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux" to the level of a warrior's armor, the poem means to show how ridiculously inflated Belinda's petty life and concerns are. Also, while the soldiers in the Iliad would seriously attend to religious rites before battle and could rely on the gods being close at hand, Belinda's Bible is nothing more than another frivolous prop.

But while Pope wants to heap ridicule on Arabella for her vanity and effete life of dressing up and playing cards, a modern critic is likely to have more sympathy with her. As Mary Wollstonecraft would point out some years later in her Vindication of the Rights of Women, women who are inadequately educated and taught to value their looks above all else can hardly be blamed for having a narrow view of the world and paying close attention to their toilet.

Further, modern society takes seriously violations of woman's bodily space. The taking of hair without her permission—hair we see so carefully prepared here, showing that it matters to her—is a symbol of larger male entitlement to a woman's body that opens the door to other violations. We can see, too, in this scene Pope using the woman as "other" to denigrate female culture and exalt male culture (the years of bloodshed, violence, and suffering of the Iliad) as superior to domestic concerns. It is not surprising that we might push back on these misogynist constructions of gender and on the implicit assertion of male violence as superior to female aesthetic concerns.

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A critical evaluation of the stanza where Belinda puts on her makeup (or “the toilet scene”) should probably do more than summarize the set of lines. A critical evaluation should delve further and thoughtfully analyze possible meanings and issues that the stanza brings up.

A critical evaluation could bring up feminism and the way in which Alexander Pope’s lines might be interpreted as both pro-feminism and antifeminism.

If read as a mockery of the undue importance that society places on makeup and artificial beauty, then perhaps one could make the argument that Pope anticipates later feminist critiques of the makeup and beauty industries.

However, if the toilet scene is read as making fun of Belinda herself, then the final stanza of canto 1 could be read as antifeminist. The argument would be that Pope is mocking the woman instead of the societal standards and pressures that put a woman in position to care so much about her looks.

In addition to gender issues, a critical evaluation of the stanza’s tone could be in order. The attitude is almost like that of a fairytale. The inanimate objects of Belinda’s beauty routine come to life and help her get ready as if she is a magical princess. The tortoise and the elephantine “unite.” The powders, puffs, and so on rise up and “awaken” her gracefulness. In a way, the tone is tied to a kind of childish wonder.

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The scene of Belinda at her dressing table, which ends canto 1, is a good example of Pope's mock heroic verse. The beginning of the poem establishes Belinda as a kind of "hero" in the mold of Achilles or Hector. Belinda is guided by supernatural forces (the sylphs, and in particular, one named Ariel) who warn her that something bad will happen to her this day. It's not clear what this event will be, but there is the sense that it has to do with the love letter she receives on waking (the "billet-doux" in line 118).

This is the context in which she approaches her dressing table, which is described both as a kind of altar and armory. In keeping with the mock heroic tone, Belinda's morning beauty ritual is both a religious rite and preparation for battle. The cosmetics on her table are arranged in a "mystic order," Belinda's face in the mirror is "a heav'nly Image," and her toilet is described as "the sacred Rites of Pride." At the same time, the implements she uses to apply these cosmetics are compared to weapons; getting made-up is like getting ready for battle ("Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms"). This is all work the sylphs do for her, even though it might seem like her maid, Betty, is doing all the work.

The scene here sets up the satire that follows. By comparing Belinda to a classical hero and attributing her beauty to the care of supernatural beings, Pope is describing a low subject (the flirtations of a lady) using the trappings of epic poetry.

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At the end of Canto One of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Belinda is described as getting herself ready to go out on an excursion with her friends. The text provides very specific details regarding what Belinda is doing.

The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,
Transform'd to Combs, the speckled and the white.
Here Files of Pins extend their shining Rows,
Puffs, Powders, Patches, Bibles, Billet-doux.
Now awful Beauty puts on all its Arms;
The Fair each moment rises in her Charms,
Repairs her Smiles, awakens ev'ry Grace,
And calls forth all the Wonders of her Face;
Sees by Degrees a purer Blush arise,
And keener Lightnings quicken in her Eyes.
The busy Sylphs surround their darling Care;
These set the Head, and those divide the Hair,
Some fold the Sleeve, while others plait the Gown;
And Betty's prais'd for Labours not her own.

Evaluating this excerpt of the text requires one to recognize a woman's vanity. Here, Belinda is doing everything she possibly can to insure that her beauty is illuminated. Her use of powder shows that her face contains flaws which she feels compelled to cover. Her use of the Bibles show that she is using prayer to pray that what she does will "work" in order to enhance her beauty.

Belinda is not alone though. She has servants around her whom help her to get ready. This shows her wealth. Normal woman of this time would not have had servants to help them get ready.

Therefore, the toilet scene is used to show the vanity associated with women. The end of the cantos functions very well in detailing the lengths one will go to in order to insure that they are beautiful.

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