The Rape of the Lock Summary
"The Rape of the Lock" is a satirical poem by Alexander Pope about a wealthy girl who loses a lock of hair.
Belinda has a dream warning her to beware of men and vanity. She promptly forgets this advice.
- At Hampton Court, one of Belinda's suitors, the Baron, declares that he wants a lock of her hair. During a card game, he cuts off a lock of her hair without her consent.
- Belinda tries to get the lock back. Later, the Baron sneezes after having too much snuff, and the lock flies off into the sky.
Last Updated on September 28, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 856
"The Rape of the Lock" by Alexander Pope is playful, satirical work set in the extravagant world of 18th-century English high society. At its core, the poem revolves around a seemingly inconsequential event: the theft of a lock of hair. This theft becomes the catalyst for a grandiose and comical narrative.
This poem is based on actual events. In 1711, a quarrel between two prominent English families, the Fermors and the Petres, erupted over Lord Petre's theft of a lock of hair belonging to Arabella Fermor. In 1712, Pope, an acquaintance of both families, wrote the poem as a humorous and satirical attempt to reconcile the parties involved. By transforming the real-life event into a mock-heroic epic, Pope sought to amuse his friends and comment on the superficiality and excesses of his society.
"The Rape of the Lock" begins just as any work of Homer might, invoking the muse. The poet goes on to describe the morning scene in a wealthy household. Belinda awakens late after a dream in which her guardian Sylph, Ariel, warns her to "beware of Man!" Belinda quickly forgets the warning upon receiving a love letter. As she dresses, the Sylphs, invisible spirits devoted to protecting her, assist her in preparing for the day.
In the second canto, Belinda embarks on a boat trip with a glamorous party of aristocrats to Hampton Court Palace. She captivates everyone with her charm. Of special note are two locks of hair that capture everyone's attention.
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 the smooth iv'ry neck.
Love in these labyrinths his slaves detains,
And mighty hearts are held in slender chains.
With hairy springes we the birds betray,
Slight lines of hair surprise the finny prey,
Fair tresses man's imperial race ensnare,
And beauty draws us with a single hair. (Canto 2, Lines 19-28)
Among the guests is the Baron, determined to steal one of her locks. As the boat sails on, Ariel remembers the bad omen from earlier. He gathers Sylphs to protect Belinda's belongings, assigning specific guardians to her jewelry, lapdog, and "mazy ringlets of her hair." With fifty Sylphs on guard, they uneasily await the unfolding events.
In the third canto, the boat docks at the palace, and after some pleasant conversation, Belinda joins a card game with the Baron. Pope portrays the game as a pitched battle: "particolour'd troops, a shining train,/Draw forth to combat on the velvet plain." Belinda starts well but faces trouble when the Baron gains the upper hand. She manages to barely recover in the end.
As they are served coffee, the curling steam from their cups reminds the Baron of his plan to steal Belinda's lock of hair. He attempts it three times, with the Sylphs trying to stop him. Sensing Belinda's hidden desire for male attention, Ariel stops protecting her. The Baron eventually succeeds in cutting the lock. Belinda screams, and the Baron rejoices in his victory.
The events of Canto IV deal with Belinda's intense grief over this violation. The Sylphs abandon her in their failure. Umbriel, the gnome, arrives with a bag and vial of sorrowful emotions so that Belinda can wallow in "Soft sorrows, melting griefs, and flowing tears."
Belinda's friend Thalestris encourages her to seek revenge. Thalestris convinces Sir Plume to demand the Baron's return of the lock of hair. Sir Plume's speech is unconvincing, and the Baron refuses. Umbriel releases more sorrow upon Belinda, causing her to further...
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grieve and pity her single remaining curl.
In the fifth and final canto, the Baron remains unmoved by the tears and insults of the ladies. Clarissa delivers a speech questioning why a society that values women's beauty doesn't also value their intelligence and personalities. Beauty fades, but other qualities are more lasting.
But since, alas! frail beauty must decay,
Curl'd or uncurl'd, since Locks will turn to grey (Canto V, Lines 25-26)
Belinda, Thalestris, and others attack the Baron. Chaos ensues as Belinda and the Baron engage in combat. She subdues the Baron and demands the lock back. However, it has been lost in the mayhem of the fight. The poet suggests it has become a star in the sky, now forever admired and envied.
One of the most striking features of "The Rape of the Lock" is its mock-heroic style. Pope, like many of his well-read contemporaries, had an interest in the epic heroic works of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as this was the age of Neoclassicism when the artistic styles of antiquity were coming back into fashion. Taking inspiration from Homer and Virgil, Pope adapts the language and conventions of epic poetry to describe the trivial events surrounding his story.
However, whereas classical epics take themselves quite seriously, Pope's work is meant to parody these works while lampooning the upper crust of English society. To do this, Pope transforms his characters into larger-than-life figures, with epic battles waged by vapid aristocrats. This contrast between the heroic and the trivial highlights the absurdity of the characters' reactions and underscores the emptiness of their concerns.