How does "The Rape of the Lock" reflect 18th century society?        

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In one sense, the answer to this question is fairly straightforward: Pope's The Rape of the Lock(1714), which he subtitled "An Heroi-Comical Poem in Five Canto 's"—that is, a mock epic—was written at the request of his friend John Caryll to defuse what had become a serious dispute between...

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In one sense, the answer to this question is fairly straightforward: Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1714), which he subtitled "An Heroi-Comical Poem in Five Canto's"—that is, a mock epic—was written at the request of his friend John Caryll to defuse what had become a serious dispute between two upper-class families caused by the cutting of a lock of a young woman's hair by a minor aristocrat who might or might not have been interested in marrying her. The fight between the families was complicated by their religion. Because they were Catholics in a predominantly Protestant country, and Pope was also Catholic, there were concerns that this frivolous dispute would cast another shadow on Catholics, especially because the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715 was brewing in Scotland to dethrone the Protestant king, George III. Pope, who is considered one of the greatest satirists of the eighteenth century—biting satire his specialty—could not forego the chance to not only defuse the dispute between the Fermors and Lord Petre but also to hold a mirror up to what he viewed as the frivolousness of the upper classes.

Pope begins the mock-epic with an epic's traditional opening:

What dire Offence from am’rous Causes springs,
What mighty Contests rise from trivial Things,
I sing — This Verse to C——, 3 Muse! is due;
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the Subject, but not so the Praise,
If She inspire, and He approve my Lays.

As with all epics, the poem begins in medias res, in the middle of things, but unlike conventional epics, Pope immediately characterizes the subject as "trivial Things" rather than, for example, what we read at the beginning of Virgil's Aeneid—"I sing of arms and of a man." In addition to labeling the subject trivial, Pope confirms that "Slight is the Subject," leaving no doubt as to his purpose, which is to help quell the fight between two families and to point out the greater follies of a society that thinks a lock of hair is worth going to war over (figuratively speaking).

Pope elevates the cause of this dispute to epic status when he describes Arabella Fermor's hair:

This Nymph, to the Destruction of Mankind,
Nourish’d two Locks, which graceful hung behind
In equal Curls, and well conspir’d to deck
With shining Ringlets her smooth Iv’ry Neck.
Love in these Labyrinths his Slaves detains,
And mighty Hearts are held in slender Chains.

Whereas in Homer's Iliad the epic's subject is what follows the "wrath of Achilles," we have the cause of another epic battle: locks of hair. Pope's readers, most of whom would have been very familiar with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, both of which were translated into English by Pope shortly after the composition of this mock-epic, were undoubtedly pleasantly surprised by Pope's use of the epic genre to depict such a frivolous waste of time and effort as the Fermor-Petre dispute, which shows the upper classes to be consumed by self-indulgence.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of upper-class shallowness comes with Pope's description of Arabella Fermor's immediate reaction to Lord Petre's act of "rape":

Then flash’d the living Lightnings from her Eyes,
And Screams of Horror rend th’ affrighted Skies.
Not louder Shrieks to pitying Heav’n are cast,
When Husbands or when Lap-dogs breath their last,
Or when rich China Vessels, fal’n from high,
In glittring Dust and painted Fragments lie!

Miss Fermor's cries of outrage are equal to the shrieks of women losing husbands or lap-dogs, a juxtaposition that is both funny and damning at the same time. To say that the upper class depicted here lack perspective is an understatement, and the comparison is a masterful stroke on Pope's part because it places the upper-class worldview on display as not just out of touch with reality but oblivious to the proper concern of mankind, which, according to Pope, is man.

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"The Rape of the Lock" presents us with a rather unflattering portrait of upper-class English society. The social elite are given to us by Pope as shallow, superficial, and hopelessly vain, obsessed with their appearances and wasting their copious free time on the pursuit of mindless trivia. In short, this is a society where surface is everything, and substance nothing.

In such an environment, virtue is almost non-existent. What matters is the appearance of it. We see this feature of upper-class English life starkly illustrated by the contents of Belinda's dressing table, on which a Bible is ostentatiously displayed alongside her beauty creams, powders, and hairbrushes. The Good Book, like everything else in Belinda's life, is there for show. She herself worships at the altar of beauty, especially her own, and men and women in her social milieu are fellow acolytes, elevating physical attractiveness above all human qualities. This explains why Belinda is driven to such paroxysms of rage by the theft of her lock of hair and why the rest of society becomes embroiled in an epic conflict to get it back.

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Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock" exemplifies both the aesthetic and cultural attitudes of its period. On an aesthetic level, it is a satire, one of the genres in which the period excelled. It uses the heroic couplet with great skill and demonstrates the sort of balance, symmetry, and restraint admired by critics of the period.

As a satire, it is normative, taking a conservative stance and mocking behaviors that violated established social norms. In particular, it reinforces gender norms among the upper classes of the period, emphasizing chastity as a feminine virtue while also acknowledging the need for flirtation and courtship to achieve the feminine goal of making an appropriate marriage.

As the upper classes were expected to be moral and political leaders of the society, it also mocks their vices and frivolity, suggesting that these were inappropriate to a class that was expected to take seats in the House of Lords and occupy important roles in government and the military.

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"The Rape of the Lock" offers a window into upper-class society in the early 18th century. At this time, England was rising as an empire and on the brink of becoming a world power. Wealth from various colonies, especially colonial outposts in India, flooded into the country, most of it to be captured by the upper classes. 

In this poem, we see a very wealthy upper class enjoying leisure and trivial pursuits. They go to balls, visit each other, gossip, drink tea, and play cards. The poem mocks  them for their idleness and their tendency to exaggerate issues that don't matter into "epics" or "dramas" of grand proportions. Today, we might call them "drama queens" or say they make mountains out of a molehill. 

As Pope writes, the rich focus on the following:

Who gave the ball, or paid the visit last;
One speaks the glory of the British Queen,
And one describes a charming Indian screen;
A third interprets motions, looks, and eyes;
At every word a reputation dies.

The "Indian screen" represents the many coveted objects from India coming into England, expanding a mercantile or trade-based culture. Tea drinking represents wealth, as the tea imported from China was very expensive in the early 18th century (the cost would fall over the course of the century), and thus a status symbol. "At every word a reputation dies" suggests that upper-class people engaged in petty and destructive gossip rather than building a strong community.

The poem reflects anxieties that the British upper class lacked the courage, virtues and abilities of the men and women in the Greek and Roman world. By framing the poem as a Classical (Greco-Roman) mock epic, Pope highlights how trivial and misguided upper class pursuits had become in comparison to the real probems the Greeks and Romans faced. If a war were to come, could the British upper classes lead armies effectively? Could a group focused on card playing, gossip, flirtations, and balls manage the growth of England into a world power? At this time, England looked to Rome with great admiration as a model of how to run an empire: the poem calls out to people to note what is lacking in the English and to become more serious.

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