The Rape of the Lock Summary
by Alexander Pope

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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.

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Rape of the Lock was written by Pope to chide gently the Fermor family when Lord Petre (referred to in the poem as "Baron") cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair on a certain fateful day and such dire results followed. Pope started something that resulted in a piece of literature that has remained to this day a leading example of the mock epic satire. John Caryll, a good friend to Pope, asked him to write a little poem about the affair in order to help heal the wounds of the two families. The poem became a trivial story of the stolen lock of hair as a vehicle for making some thoroughly mature and sophisticated comments on society and humankind. Pope draws on his own experience in the classics in combining epic literary conventions with his own wit and sense of values. The entire poem is written in five cantos, making use of the popular rhymed iambic pentameter verse, along with balance, antithesis, bathos, and paranomasia.

The story is relatively simple. In canto 1, the reader finds Belinda (representing Miss Fermor) asleep but awakened about noon by her lapdog Shock. Before she awakens, she dreams about Ariel, a Rosicrucian sylph, who whispers praises in her ear and warns her to beware of jealousy, pride, and especially men. When she does awaken, she finds a love letter on her bed and, after reading it, quickly forgets all the advice that Ariel has given her. She has been invited to sail up the Thames with friends to Hampton Court palace and have fun and games with her host. She devotes much time to her cosmetics and hair in preparation for the trip.

The Baron, a suitor, is seen admiring a lock of her hair and vowing that he would have it by any means. The modern reader must remember that, until the 1920’s, few women of character would cut their hair, an act symbolizing the loss of virtue, even chastity. The reader next sees the crew sailing up the Thames, with everyone but Ariel apparently pleased with the state of affairs. Worried, Ariel summons his helper sylphs and reminds them of their duty in helping to protect Belinda, one especially to guard her fan, one her watch, another her lock, and Ariel himself her dog. A host of sylphs are assigned to guard her petticoat, a literal device of armor in older times, protecting the female’s sexual chastity.

After the cruise on the Thames, canto 3 sees Belinda, the Baron and the rest of the party arriving at the palace. There Belinda decides to play a Spanish card game called Ombre with two of her suitors. During the game, coffee, recently introduced into England by Queen Anne in order to help with the alcohol problem, is served, and fumes from the hot liquid open the rational mind of the Baron, providing him with new stratagems. With the help of a female crony named Clarissa, he manages to cut off the lock of Belinda’s hair during the card game. At this rape, Belinda cries out in horror, and the Baron cries out in triumph. Ariel weeps bitterly because he was not able to prevent the deed.

In canto 4, a bad sylph named Umbriel takes advantage of the chaos and chooses to increase the woes by flying down to the Cave of Spleen to get more woes to dump onto Belinda. With his trusty key, “Spleenwort,” in his hand, he enters and secures from the queen of Spleen...

(The entire section is 931 words.)