The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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Tell me about the game of Ombre in The Rape of the Lock.  

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The game of Ombre is played in Canto III of The Rape of the Lock. This card game, which is similar to bridge, was played with three players in the 17th century, although it began in the 16th century as a game for four. In this game, a man, l'Hombre, plays against two rivals using a forty-card deck with players bidding to choose the trump suit; the objective is to win more tricks than the other players, with losers paying out money to their opponents. 

In this particular scene, Belinda plays against two men, and although she begins with strength, she is nearly beaten by her rivals, only recovering at the last minute. Despite this being a fairly disinteresting pastime, Pope chooses to depict the scene in lengthy detail, as if the game is a heroic act of war; in doing so, he offers a humorous critique of the superficiality of the upper class and how seriously they take their ridiculous pursuits. 

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In Canto III of the Rape of the Lock, Belinda challenges the Baron to Ombre, a popular card game among wealthy people at that time. Ombre, meaning man (hombre in Spanish) is an ancestor to our modern game of Bridge and was usually played with three people. The second link below leads to a powerpoint with a detailed explanation of how the game is played and some commentary of The Rape of the Lock.

In the poem, the card game becomes another example of the mock-heroic. Pope uses his poem to make fun of the way privileged people of his era had given up pursuing goals that took genuine courage, resolution and energy. Instead, they wasted their time on trivial pursuits. The idea that a card game takes up 82 lines of this Canto, from 18-100, indicates how much time people in this world spent on recreation.  

Pope likens Belinda and the Baron's face off in a card game to two armies meeting in a field of battle. But in this case, the armies are merely decks of cards, though Pope personifies them into behaving like real kings, queens and generals. That Belinda and Baron invest so much competitive spirit into a mere card game critiques the way the upper classes use their gifts.

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