The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope
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How does The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope reflect the society of its time?

The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope is a satire, a work of literature that uses exaggeration to mock human nature and society. The poem "The Rape of the Lock" by Alexander Pope satirizes English society during the 18th century. In it, he makes fun of people's fascination with hair, fashion, and reputation in order to make his point about how ridiculous humans can be.

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Although The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope is a satire and at times exaggerates for comic effect, it also gives its readers insight into many elements of the culture of its period. It should be noted, though, that it deals with a small subculture of the aristocracy, particularly...

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Although The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope is a satire and at times exaggerates for comic effect, it also gives its readers insight into many elements of the culture of its period. It should be noted, though, that it deals with a small subculture of the aristocracy, particularly those who spend their time at court. It does not portray the rural gentry, tradespeople, merchants, peasants, and urban and rural poor who formed the majority of the population in the period.

The first element portrayed in some detail is gender relationships. Chastity is valued for females, while men strive to seduce women, and in an obvious double standard are not condemned for lack of chastity. Men are expected to overtly pursue women for purposes of sex and marriage and women to accept or reject their advances. Chastity before marriage is a key element in making a woman an acceptable prospective wife and young women must be careful to maintain a reputation for chastity.

Women (and men, to a lesser degree) in the aristocracy are show as extremely concerned with their appearance, wearing ornate and expensive clothing, and in the case of women, spending hours every day on personal grooming. It is a society devoted to what Veblen calls "conspicuous consumption," overt use of material possessions as displays of wealth and status.

The aristocratic society with its habits of leisure and conspicuous consumption relies on economic inequality, in which the wealthy can afford to have numerous servants to make their extravagant lifestyles and devotion to frivolous activities possible.

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Alexander Pope's famous poem The Rape of the Lock is not only a wonderful satire, but also a valuable illustration of the upper class society of Pope's day (remember that Pope published the final form of the poem in 1717, making it an illustration of 18th century English society). By poking fun at the foibles of upper crust English social life, Pope also provides insight into and a reflection of this society.

Take, for instance, Belinda's extensive preparation in Canto 1. In this section, Pope describes Belinda's process of putting on makeup and preparing for the day as if he were describing some elaborate ceremony of great importance. As an example, check out this brief excerpt:

The inferior priestess, at her altar's side,

Trembling begins the sacred rites of Pride.

Unnumbered treasures ope at once, and here

The various offerings of the world appear;

From each she nicely culls with curious toil,

And decks the goddess with the glittering spoil. (127-132)  

In this passage, we see that Belinda's beauty accessories are likened to treasures stored in an altar, while Belinda herself becomes a goddess decked "with the glittering spoil." From this outrageous description, we get a glimpse into the extreme materialism of elite English society, while also getting insight into the inordinate value placed upon appearance. As such, in this passage Pope pokes fun at the vain, materialistic nature of upper class English culture.

Additionally, Pope reflects the triviality of wealthy English society by describing a card game in epic fashion in Canto 3. For a clearer example of this idea, take a look at this excerpt:

Behold, four Kings in majesty revered,

With hoary whiskers and a forky beard;

And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a flower,

The expressive emblem of their softer power;

Four Knaves in garbs succinct, a trusty band,

Caps on their heads, and halberts in their hand;

And parti-colored troops, a shining train,

Draw forth to combat on the velvet plain. (37-44)

This epic passage is actually describing cards arrayed for a simple card game. However, this passage is also rendered in a tone suitable for epic poetry, and so Pope makes fun of the seriousness with which his characters approach their card game. In doing so, Pope also displays the trivial concerns of the English upper classes, as the importance they give to their card game seems out of touch with reality.

These examples are just a sample of the ways in which Pope reflects and makes fun of the society of his day. Now that you have some examples under your belt, it should be easy to identify all the ways Pope reflects society in The Rape of the Lock.

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