What does "The Rape of the Lock" reveal about the 17th century?

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poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Rape of the Lock" was actually written in the 18th century (in March of 1714, to be more specific) by Alexander Pope. In the form of a mock heroic epic, this poem dramatizes a minor theft within an aristocratic family: the Baron, who lusts after Belinda cuts off a lock of the woman's hair without her consent, creating an enormous melodrama. This crime gets escalated to the status of the gods, with comparisons of the theft being made to the kidnapping of Helen of Troy and the other silly events of the day (a card game, Belinda waking up in the morning, coffee drinking) all being described in theatrically and mythologically large ways. 

So while Pope riffed off of 17th century literature (namely, taking his parodied "sylphs" from Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars' novel Comte de Gabalis), he was actually providing commentary about the 18th century and the shallowness and wastefulness of the newly formed English aristocratic class. By depicting the protagonists' vanity with such grossly overblown attention to detail, Pope makes it clear that he is criticizing the rich, their obsession with triviality, and their ignorance of the world outside their carefully curated and sheltered lives.

Pope points out that many of the relationships and interactions that occur within this realm of wealth are merely formalities or matters of convenience--the result of superficiality. The events of the poem were actually based on a real-life incident in which a certain Lord Petre, an acquaintance of Pope, cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's hair, creating a huge rift between their respective families. The penning of the poem was meant to create a sense of reconciliation between the two, but ending up becoming one of the best known examples of satirical verse from this time period. 

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The Rape of the Lock

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