Is Pope’s presentation of Belinda in The Rape of the Lock complimentary or condescending?
Pope's friend John Carlyle asked him to defuse a war of words between the families of Arabella Fermor, Belinda in the poem, and Lord Petre, the Baron in the poem, after Lord Petre snipped off a lock of Miss Fermor's hair. Both families, as well as Pope, were part of the Catholic minority in upper-class British society, and one of Pope's goals was likely to stop this fight over such a ludicrous event because the families were embarrassing the larger Catholic minority. Pope himself described the origin of the mock-epic to his friend Joseph Spence:
The stealing of Miss Belle Fermor's hair was taken too seriously, and caused an estrangement between the two families, though they have long lived in great friendship before. . . . [I wrote the poem] to make a jest of it, and laugh them together again. . . .which was well received and had its effect in the two families.
According to Spence, "Arabella 'took it so well as to give about copies of it.'"
This great mock-epic was originally meant to circulate privately among a small group of friends and family in manuscript form only, and it was only when an unauthorised version was about to be published that Pope authorised the publication. Both main participants--Fermor and Lord Petre--received advance publication copies before the actual publication.
No doubt Fermor and Lord Petre were somewhat embarrassed by the publication of the poem, which, after all, showed them engaged in a ridiculous controversy. The conventions of the mock-epic required that Pope exaggerate the characters and actions to the point of slapstick comedy, and Fermor and Lord Petre no doubt would have preferred the poem to remain unpublished.
Because Pope did not intend for the poem to become public--and was merely trying to help defuse a ludicrous fight that cast these Catholic families in a bad light--it is likely that the poem is not so much a criticism of Fermor and Lord Petre as on the foolishness of the families' reactions.
It is clear that the presentation of Belinda in this hilarious mock epic is far more condescending than complimentary. Remember that Pope wrote this poem after an actual incident of a "rape of the lock" between a man and a woman in society, and his main aim was to try to tell them that they were making a massive scandal out of something that was only very negligible. This explains the use of the mock epic in terms of the poem's form: the poem is written in the style of Homer or Virgil, yet the subject of the poem is not the Trojan war or some epic adventure. It is only a lock of hair that is taken from a woman without asking. Note how in Canto 4, straight after the lock has been taken, Belinda and her anger is presented:
Not youthful kings in battle seized alive,
Not scornful virgins who their charms survive,
Not ardent lovers robbed of all their bliss,
Not ancient ladies when refused a kiss...
E'er felt such rage, resentment and despair.
Pope is clearly exaggerating Belinda's response to the rape of the lock in order to present her as being ridiculous in the measure of her anger and feelings. This hyperbole is achieved through the comparison of Belinda to the various individuals listed above, and then the assurance that Belinda's "rage, resentment and despair" is much more than any that these other individuals felt. It is therefore difficult to see anything that is complimentary about the presentation of Belinda.