At noon, when the sun is accustomed to awaken both lap dogs and lovers, Belinda is still asleep. She dreams that the sprite Ariel appears to whisper praises of her beauty in her ear. He says that he has been sent to protect her because something dreadful—what, he does not know—is about to befall her. He also warns her to beware of jealousy, pride, and, above all, men.
After Ariel vanishes, Shock, Belinda’s lapdog, thinking that his mistress has slept long enough, awakens her with the lapping of his tongue. Rousing herself, Belinda spies a letter on her bed. After she reads it, she promptly forgets everything that Ariel told her, including the warning to beware of men.
Belinda, aided by her maid, Betty, begins her daily routine of grooming and dressing. Preening before her mirror, she is guilty of the pride against which Ariel cautioned her in her dream.
The sun, journeying across the sky, witnesses its brilliant rival, Belinda, boating on the Thames with her friends and suitors. All eyes are upon Belinda, and like a true coquette she smiles at her swains, but she favors no one more than another. Lord Petre, one of Belinda’s suitors, admires a lock of her hair and vows that he will have it by fair means or foul. So set is he on getting the lock that, before the sun rose that morning, he built an altar to Love and threw on it all the trophies received from former sweethearts, meanwhile asking Love to give him soon the prize he wants and to let him keep it for a long time. Love, however, grants him only half his prayer.
Everyone except Ariel seems happy during the cruise on the Thames. The sprite summons his aides and reminds them that their duty is to watch over the fair Belinda, one sylph to guard her fan, another her watch, a third her favorite lock. Ariel himself is to guard Belinda’s lapdog, Shock. Fifty sylphs are dispatched to watch over the maiden’s petticoat, in order to protect her chastity. Any negligent sylphs, Ariel warns, will be punished severely.
After her cruise on the Thames, Belinda, accompanied by Lord Petre and the rest of the party, visits one of the palaces near London. There Belinda decides to play ombre, a Spanish card game, with two of her suitors, including Lord Petre. As she plays, invisible sylphs sit on her important cards to protect them.
Coffee is served after the game, and sylphs guard Belinda’s dress to keep it from becoming spotted. The fumes from the coffee sharpen Lord Petre’s wits to the point where he thinks of new stratagems for stealing Belinda’s lock. One of his cronies hands him a pair of scissors. The sylphs, aware of Belinda’s danger, attempt to warn her before Lord Petre can act, but as the maiden bends her head over her coffee cup, he clips the lock. Even Ariel is unable to warn Belinda in time.
At the rape of her lock, Belinda shrieks in horror. Lord Petre cries out in triumph. He praises the steel used in the scissors, comparing it with the metal of Greek swords that overcame the Trojans. Belinda’s fury is as tempestuous as the rage of scornful virgins who have lost their charms. Ariel weeps bitterly and flies away.
Umbriel, a melancholy gnome, takes advantage of the human confusion and despair to fly down to the center of the earth to find the gloomy cave of Spleen, the queen of all bad tempers and the source of every detestable quality in human beings, including ill nature and affectation. Umbriel asks the queen to touch Belinda with chagrin, for he knows that if she is gloomy, melancholy and bad temper will spread to half the world. Spleen decides to grant Umbriel’s request; she collects in a bag horrible noises such as those uttered by female lungs and tongues, and in a vial she puts tears, sorrows, and griefs. She gives both containers to Umbriel.
When the gnome returns to Belinda’s world, he finds the young woman disheveled and dejected. Pouring the contents of the magic bag over her, Umbriel causes Belinda’s wrath to be magnified many times. One of her friends, Thalestris, fans the flames of the maiden’s anger by telling her that her honor is at stake and that behind her back her friends are talking about the rape of her lock. Thalestris then goes to her brother, Sir Plume, and demands that he confront Lord Petre and secure the return of the precious lock. Sir Plume considers the whole episode much magnified from little, but he does as his sister has asked. When he demands Belinda’s lock, Lord Petre refuses to give up his prize.
Next Umbriel breaks the vial containing human sorrows, and Belinda is almost drowned in tears. She regrets the day that she ever entered society and also the day she learned to play ombre. She longs for simple country life. Suddenly she remembers, too late, that Ariel had warned her of impending evil.
In spite of Thalestris’s pleas, Lord Petre is adamant about keeping the lock. Clarissa, another of Belinda’s circle, wonders at the vanity of women and at the foolishness of men who fawn over them. Clarissa feels that both men and women need good sense, but in making her feelings known she exposes the tricks and deceits of women, causing Belinda to frown. Calling Clarissa a prude, Thalestris gathers her forces to battle with Belinda’s enemies, including Clarissa and Lord Petre. Umbriel is delighted by this Homeric struggle of the teacups. Belinda pounces on Lord Petre, who is subdued when a pinch of snuff causes him to sneeze violently. She demands the lock, but it cannot be found. Some think that it has gone to the moon, where also go love letters and other tokens of tender passions. The muse of poetry sees the lock ascend to heaven and become a star.