The Rape of the Lock

by Alexander Pope

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What does Alexander Pope's satire "The Rape of Lock" demonstrate about gender politics in eighteenth-century Britain?

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Women don't come across particularly well in "The Rape of the Lock." The main female character, Belinda, is a vain, shallow individual, a social butterfly whose meaningless existence revolves around looking pretty and being admired.

Then again, the men in the poem aren't exactly portrayed in a flattering light, either. It's their objectification of women, as symbolized by the titular lock of hair that causes all the trouble. If they didn't attach so much importance to female beauty then Belinda wouldn't feel the need to be adored and so there wouldn't be such an almighty kerfuffle once the Baron cuts off a lock of her hair. Female vanity may have set the whole farce in motion, but such vanity is a response to the demands of male society and the impossible ideals of female beauty that men have constructed.

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Although the story of the Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope is a satire, and, in accord with the conventions of the mock epic, prone to comic exaggeration, it does portray in a fairly accurate manner the gender relationships common among the upper classes of the period. First, it shows that real power was possessed mainly by men and the women acted with "soft power" if any at all. The world of women is focused on trivia -- rather than  real battles over important matters, the realm of women is that of physical ornament designed to seduce men. Women are in a sense objectified and conflicts over women and concerning women are played out against a background of patriarchy.

In many ways, the pattern of the poem echoes the Iliad, which Pope was translating and the rape (or seizing) of Helen, writ small:

What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,


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